Southern Cross

Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt by Christine Leigh Heyrman

In our modern political and social world, it has become natural to associate evangelism and the American South. However, as Christine Leigh Heyrman argues, the development of this connection was neither ‘natural’ nor inevitable. Evangelical Christianity was an import into the South and its conquest of the region began in fits and starts. To capture the souls of southerners, evangelical culture and its spokesmen had to come to terms with the ‘fact on the ground’. Thus the story Heyrman tells, in Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt, is not just how the South became evangelical but how evangelism became Southern.

The religious culture of the American South before the American Revolution was not evangelical. The dominant – and legally established – Christian church was the Church of England and it was – mostly – not an evangelical church. It religious forms were liturgical and it did not center Christian life on the idea of “rebirth” as the central religious experience. Besides the Anglican Church, the South had a tiny minority of deists and an even larger number of “unchurched” men and women of all social class – people who had nominal, fluid, or no religious beliefs and commitments. The ‘First Great Awakening’ introduced the first sizable amount of evangelicals – mostly Presbyterians and Baptists – into this religious landscape. Despite some initial successes – especially with the minority Scotch-Irish population – evangelical did not have massive success until after the Revolution and did not become the dominant religious and cultural force until the second quarter of the nineteenth century.

The reason provided by Heyrman for this initial trouble in the evangelical conquest of the South is that evangelicalism provided a divisive challenge to Southern culture. The mostly young and unmarried iterant preachers, who were the piercing blade of the Methodism and Baptism, presented a challenge to a culture that venerated age, family, and stability. Evangelical success with white women and African-Americans and early evangelical belief in a community of equal believers presented a challenge to a society organized as a hierarchy of white males who exclusively dominated their household dependants – wives, children, and, especially, slaves. The spiritually emotionalism but publicly restrictive culture of evangelicals stood in sharp contrast to a Southern culture that stressed mastery of the emotional self and, yet, loved public frivolity – in the form of dances, brawls, horse races, and cockfights. Perhaps most threatening of all was the anti-slavery message of some early evangelicals – especially Methodists.

Because of this disruptive potential, evangelicals met resistance as they rode their circuits and attempted to save Southern souls. This resistance was especially strong among men of all social classes – especially among middling and elite men. This resistance could be violent but was more likely to be dismissive or derisive.

To overcome this resistance and conquer the South, later evangelicals had to tamper down the divisive potential of early evangelism.  Thus those “who chiefly set the future direction of their churches… decided that the ultimate success of evangelicalism in the South lay in appealing to those who confined the devil to hell, esteemed maturity more than youth, put family before religious fellowship, upheld the superiority of white over back and men over women, and prized their honor above all else.”[1] Thus, perhaps, it is better to say that evangelicalism did not conquer the South but, instead, that the South conquered evangelicalism.

The greatest strength of Southern Cross is the complicated and textured way Heyrman describes evangelical culture and its appeal.  She highlights both its liberating potential and its restrictive qualities; she notes its potential to unite and its ability to tear people apart. Perhaps no example is better than the evangelical affect on marriage and the family. Many evangelical churches required, or at least promoted, “endogamy” (only marrying within one’s religious sect). This could be liberating for some, for it allowed them to ditch undesirable matches made by parents, but also disrupted a society were marriage was still driven, mainly, but economic concerns and not romantic ones – particularly among white elites.[2] Another example of this appeal is how evangelicals promoted unity was their belief that ‘saved’ families would be reunited in the next world, no matter how physically separated family members were in the here and now. This was deeply appealing to families that were being separated by the massive flow of population from the more settled portions of the South to the frontier in the west.[3] However, at the same time, evangelicalism could be deeply divisive in families were some were ‘saved’ and others were not. Deep divisions in the material world often shattered whatever appeal there was for a reunion in the next world.[4]

Heyrman’s argument about the rise and success of evangelicalism in the South stands in as a challenge to the dominant historiographical narrative of the rise of evangelicalism in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. This narrative is most powerfully expressed by Nathan Hatch, who argues that “[a]bstractions and generalities about the Second Great Awakening as a conservative force have obscured the egalitarianism powerfully at work in the new nation.” Hatch argues that itinerant preachers, because they were most often drawn from the lower classes and took “the deepest spiritual impulses” of common people “at face value”, were able to spread a religion revolution to more Americans than ever before. In Hatch’s argument, this new evangelical religion was at once egalitarian, popular, liberating, individualistic, and politically liberal and thus helped democratize America and, at the same time, democratize American Christianity as a whole.[5]

Heyrman’s argument and evidence deeply challenges this narrative, at least in the South. As she aptly notes, in the South, evangelicalism had its greatest successes when its egalitarianism and liberating potential was spent. By the time evangelicalism reigned supreme it had come to terms and reified Southern hierarchies of race, class, and gender. What Heyrman’s argument should do is cause us to question the reigning orthodoxies in the history of the ‘Second Great Awakening’ and reexamine the reship between democracy, evangelical Christianity, and political liberalism.[6]

Southern Cross has two weaknesses. First, I wonder how uniquely Southern the conservative drift of evangelicalism as it attempts to broaden its appeal to a wide swath of a population. For example, historian Susan Juster has shown a similar process among New England Baptists in the aftermath of the First Great Awakening.[7] Thus, perhaps, the phenomenon Heyrman stresses as so “Southern” is part of a broader process or trend. This would provide a further challenge to the dominant historiographical narrative of evangelicalism. Second, despite being a book about the origins of the ‘Bible Belt’, Heyrman is not particularly attentive to slave and African-American Christianity. That is not to say that African-Americans are not present in her book. Far from it. However, Heyrman is primarily interested in the place of African-Americans in white evangelicalism. That is an important story; however because that is the primarily story she tells, one gets only a limited sense of African-American evangelicalism in Southern Cross.

Despite those weaknesses, Southern Cross is a powerfully argued and persuasive book. It is certainly deserving of its Bancroft Prize. The reader gets and excellent sense of rise of evangelicalism in the South and Heyrman provides an important challenge much of the historiography of this period.  Thus Southern Cross is valuable not just to students of Southern history but also of this era, more broadly.

[1] The quote is found on: Christine Leigh Heyrman, Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1997), 253-254.

[2] On “endogamy” see: Ibid, 139-142.

[3] On the appeal of potential of reunion in Heaven, see: Ibid, 126-128.

[4] On the divisive quality of evangelicalism in some families see Heyrman’s telling of the Mead family story in:  Ibid, 117-123.

[5] See: Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven, CT: Yale Univesity Press, 1989); the quotes are on 5,10.

[6] On Heyrman’s positioning herself in this debate see: Heyrman, Southern Cross, 253-256, 322-323n1.

[7] Susan Juster, Disorderly Women: Sexual Politics & Evangelicalism in Revolutionary New England (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996).


Author: Roy Rogers

I am currently a PhD candidate in American History at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York (CUNY). My undergraduate education was at Shepherd University (Political Science & History) and I received an MA in History from George Mason University. As a historian, my research interests include early American history, the early American republic (1780 to 1830), political history, religious history, and gender history. I live in Brooklyn with my girlfriend and our cat.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s