A.T. Coates

PhD Candidate in American Religion, Duke University.

Month: October 2012

Charles Colson, Born Again (1976, 2008)

Charles Colson’s Born Again presents a paradigmatic “faith story” of 1970s evangelicalism—with a few twists. Here we get the inveterate sinner, the man whose hubris gave him success and rewards in “the world.” But he always felt empty. When Colson ought to have been on top of the world, the night in 1972 when he won President Richard Nixon a second term by the biggest margin in history, Colson felt hollow. Worldly success was nothing. In fact, it was downright sinful. The Nixon White House, in which Colson thrived, encouraged a cutthroat, take-no-prisoners machismo culture that led ultimately to the disgraces of Watergate and the first resignation of an American president. For now, it all seemed like guts and glory. Colson, “Nixon’s hatchet man,” knew how to get things done: he could destroy political enemies, stand loyally behind his commander in chief in the bloodiest political knife fights, and punish those who dared question the tactics of the administration. But all along the way, Colson felt like something wasn’t satisfying.  As the noose of Watergate began to tighten, a friend’s faithful Christian witness showed Colson a better way. God’s presence became real. He asked Jesus to “Take me.” Suddenly, the world made sense. He wasn’t alone. God was faithful and would see him through anything. After admitting to a crime for which he hadn’t even been charged, Colson went to prison. The great man of the world had been made to pay for his crimes. Even in prison, God was working. Colson entered fellowship with other prisoners, fought off the powers of darkness, brought dramatic bodily healing, and clung to a faith that sustained him through many dangerous nights. His very last night in the pen, he received a vision of thousands of men and women coming to Christ in prison. It was a sign from God, a call to a new ministry.

For me, this book operated on two levels. On the one hand, Born Again presents a thoroughly engrossing political memoir of a turbulent period in American history. Colson is a talented writer with a knack for narrative. The book flows seamlessly from high-level policy decisions made over cocktails with Kissinger and Nixon to the frantic pettiness of arranging a last-minute theater visit for the president. I spent far too much time imbibing the minutiae of the Nixon White House and of 1970s prison life. Colson crafts his story masterfully and the book reads like a novel. On the other hand, the symmetry, the conversational and situational details, the characters, indeed everything about this book serves a different purpose than merely telling a good story. This is a faith story. A conversion narrative in the tradition of Wesley’s “strangely warmed” heart. If you know what you’re hearing, evangelical terms and concepts reverberate throughout this book. Early in the book, Colson was seeking. He finds Jesus. He receives a vision of his ministry that serves as his call. When he’s casually being witnessed to in a Christian friend’s home, he isn’t even offered a drop of his customary scotch. If you’re not paying attention, or don’t know what you’re hearing, it’s easy to miss the fact that this book serves one goal: it’s trying to convert you. As a window into the inner working of the Nixon White House or the embodied practices of 70s evangelicalism, this book proves invaluable.

 

Paul Boyer, “When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture” (1992)

Paul Boyer, When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture (1992)

It’s hard to imagine myself back to the time when someone needed to write this book. But when it first appeared, Boyer’s When Time Shall Be No More mapped academic terra incognita. In 1992, neither Google nor Amazon existed and relatively few people had heard of the internet, some retailers did not accept credit cards, the Wall had just come down, and Left Behind hadn’t even been published yet. Into that context, Boyer’s book appeared, insisting that many Americans believed Jesus would return during their lifetimes. He argued that a) the belief that the world was rapidly approaching its end—particularly premillennialism—formed a major current in American Christian history and b) prophecy beliefs were alive and well during the postwar and Cold War eras, shaping public opinion on matters like economic policy and foreign affairs. Boyer offers careful readings of a massive body of material—and peppers his history with funny, fascinating tidbits. For example, he explains how a Canadian $1000 bill from 1954 got pulled from circulation after some citizens observed a smiling devil in Queen Elizabeth’s hair. This, of course, meant that the country had aligned itself with the antichrist to conduct trade during the Last Days (283). Though occasionally sarcastic, at its best this book offers sensitive explanations for the “grassroots appeal” of dispensational premillennialism’s esoteric eschatological schemes. “Meschech” kind of sounds like “Moscow,” and Moscow is directly north of Jerusalem on a map, so it’s easy to see why Americans might have interpreted Russia as the northern invader of Israel named “Gog” mentioned in Ezekiel 38 (see 155-156).

Though a little stale in its theoretical outlook, most of this book seemed surprisingly fresh 20 years after its publication. Boyer himself suggests that readers skip the first 112 snooze-inducing pages, which offer a sweeping overview of the apocalyptic genre, apocalyptic beliefs throughout premodern Christian history, and the emergence of premillennialism in America. The real meat of this book comes in its analyses of popular texts since 1945. The five chapters of part II point to themes we still grapple with as scholars of conservative Christianity: one big one being the ambiguous status of Judaism. As Boyer notes, dispensationalists were willing to grant Jews “a glorious past and future,” but they did not know how to fit the present into their eschatological schemes (219). At least abstractly, conservative Christianity afforded Israel and essentialized “Judaism” important roles in the past and in the End Times. But dispensationalists simply didn’t know what to do with living, unconverted Jews. Remarks Boyer, “at the heart of dispensationalism lies the assumption that Jews are essentially and eternally different” (220). Being trained by two experts in Christian Zionism—Yaakov Ariel and Shalom Goldman—has probably overdetermined my interest in this subject, but I think we still have a long way to go in unpacking conservative Christianity’s interest in Israel and its ideas about Judaism’s “biblical authenticity.” I still can’t figure out why so many evangelicals love Seder suppers and Marc Chagall’s paintings, but still insist that Jews need to convert to Christianity. But I digress.

A person could still assign chapters of When Time Shall Be No More for an undergrad course on Christianity post-1945. As I hinted above, this book has grown only a little musty with time. It completely disregards images, occasionally makes snide judgments about the quality of the material it examines, and—worst of all—focuses unrelentingly on prophecy beliefs. But it still holds tremendous value for scholars of postwar conservative Christianity… and it offers a wealth of primary sources for the future dissertation writer.

Matthew Avery Sutton, “Was FDR the Antichrist? The Birth of Fundamentalist Antiliberalism in a Global Age.”

Matthew Avery Sutton, “Was FDR the Antichrist? The Birth of Fundamentalist Antiliberalism in a Global Age,” Journal of American History 98.4 (March 2012): 1052-1074.

Matt Sutton’s recent article “Was FDR the Anti-Christ?” breaks important ground in the study of conservative Christian antiliberalism. Though they agreed that FDR probably wasn’t the anti-Christ himself, many fundamentalists interpreted his New Deal policies in apocalyptic terms. With the Bolshevik revolution, the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the rise of the reconstituted Roman Empire under Mussolini, and the return of the Jewish people to Israel (after the British capture of Jerusalem in 1917), fundamentalists knew the Last Days were near at hand. Says Sutton, “Premillennialism served as the filter through which the faithful understood American politics” (1061). They saw the expanding powers of the US federal government under FDR as a sure sign that the anti-Christ was about to appear on earth. If Roosevelt wasn’t personally the antichrist, he surely wanted to usher in the kind of world where the antichrist would feel at home. Fundamentalists would not stand for it.

Sutton draws two arguments out of fundamentalist responses to FDR. First, he concludes that fundamentalist antistatism did not emerge in the NAE of 1942 nor the Moral Majority of 1979, but instead “developed among fundamentalists during the 1930s, parallel to and corresponding with the birth of modern liberalism” (1053). Second, he suggests that international politics and global events importantly shaped fundamentalist theology and politics in America. No navel-gazing isolationists, fundamentalists understood their faith in global terms and looked to international events for evidence that the rapture was coming soon. Premillennialist political critiques at home arose as fundamentalists carefully scanned the globe for signs of the times.

Sutton’s argument about fundamentalist interest in international affairs corrects a glaring oversight in the field. Sometimes, we scholars lose sight of the fact that fundamentalists were referring to real events, real places, and real people when they talked about “wars and rumors of wars,” Gog, Magog, and the Beast. With his characteristic artistry, Sutton beautifully depicts an encounter between two fundamentalist missionaries and Mussolini that illustrates this point: “by the time the Nortons had finished with Mussolini, he apparently believed—and maybe even hoped—that he was the long-awaited world dictator, the antichrist, prophesied in the book of Daniel” (1059). The story reads as a kind of humorous aside in the article, but it stands on the tip of an iceberg. The very fact that American fundamentalists could have detailed knowledge of Mussolini’s activities, travel to visit him, and read reports of such encounters soon after they happened speaks volumes about the cultural world in which fundamentalism thrived. As Sutton’s title suggests, this was indeed a global age, one in which industrial presses churned out international headlines around the clock, Lindbergh flew an airplane to France, and people’s home radios plucked world news right out of the air.

This article left me wanting more. I felt especially unsatisfied by the one-paragraph treatment of the late 1920s. From about 1925-1932, fundamentalist premillennialists went from supporting “big government” initiatives like prohibition and anti-evolution to vehemently opposing FDR. This essay simply skims over these crucial years, attributing the premillennial critique of the New Deal to a renewed interest in eschatology prompted by the nation’s economic collapse. In his book on this topic, I hope Sutton will spend more time in these crucial years—I think there’s an interesting story to tell there.

John Lardas Modern, “Secularism in Antebellum America”

Steam engines. Conversions. Inmates. Tracts. Networks. Vibrations. A white whale. Modern’s exciting book on antebellum secularism wends through Moby-Dick, evangelical print culture, spiritualism, phrenology, anthropology, prison reform, and concludes with a brief discussion of “fucking machines.” Secularism in Antebellum America examines the conditions under which certain ideas about “true religion” emerged in America. In keeping with recent developments, this book does not treat secularism as religion’s opposite. Modern primarily uses the term “secularism” to describe a social context, a discourse that connected a diverse array of “religious” activities in the antebellum period. He uses the term to denote “that which conditioned not only particular understandings of the religious but also the environment in which these understandings became matters of common sense” (7). In this book, secularism is the soil from which particular ideas about religion sprouted, “supplying both the ground and ingredients of the freedoms enacted in the name of true religion” (9). Secularism acts as a “connective tissue” of shared metaphysics, epistemology, and politics that produced good democratic citizens and subjects who thought of themselves as capable of making free religious choices (282). Secularism describes “those formations—social, conceptual, and technical—that enabled a broad Protestant majority, circa 1851, to convince themselves that they were religious” (45). In brief, a specter called secularism haunted religion in antebellum America. Like a ghostly presence, Modern writes, secularism “exceeds our capacity to name it” (10). Secularism united the American Tract Society’s colporteurs with mediums conducting séances, statements about the marvels of steam power with phrenological maps, the disestablished churches of the new republic with the crew of the Pequod. Avoiding systematic argumentation, Modern impressionistically renders a shade.

Half Foucauldian discourse analysis, half Derridean hauntology, and half revisionist religious history (trust me, those numbers add up for this book), Secularism in Antebellum America brings a fresh perspective to a burned-over region in the historiographical record. Contrary to a prevailing narrative about the flowering of “democratized” religious diversity during this period, Modern argues that secularism lurked in everyone’s garden. Secularism offered the attitudes toward technology, structures of affect, and constructions of the subject under which evangelicalism—like spiritualism and phrenology—could emerge. At the same time, secularism itself took shape through evangelical faith in the steam press, the “feedback” of colporteur reports about the population, and the cultivation of particular kinds of reading/voting/converting subjects.

For the disaffected children of the American religious history curriculum, Modern’s book reads like a manifesto. As a title in my doctoral exam list, this book offers a welcome counterpoint to a generation of Geertz-influenced religious historians who trumpeted the agency of religious actors from every hilltop. When people in antebellum America thought they made free religious choices as autonomous agents, Modern contends, secularism had always already conditioned the range of choices, the choosers qua choosers, the choosers’ ideas about what choice meant, the technologies through which choice was thought to operate, etc. Modern’s blistering critique of Mark Noll in the chapter on evangelical secularism stood out in particular. In Noll’s America’s God, Modern charges,

“The play of ideas happens independently from the bodies and contexts those ideas inhabit, that is, from the conditions that mediate those ideas. Noll’s argument, then, is a reception history of evangelical ideals with no critical discussion of reception; a chronicle of the desire for epistemological and political immediacy with no sustained attention to how this desire was mediated; and finally, a rendition of the antebellum public sphere that leaves unquestioned the historical conditions of its possibility.” (73-74)

Amen, amen, my heart feels strangely warmed. Modern’s book invites scholars of evangelical media to move beyond models that focus solely on the self-understandings of religious actors, that scrutinize the winks and feigned-winks and parodied feigned winks of religious media. It encourages imaginative engagement with the kinds of social worlds evangelical media generated and operated within. It begs that we think about the subjective, discursive, affective possibilities new media created and the historical conditions under which particular mediations of religion became possible.

Like most books worth reading, this one has its flaws. Michael Warner recently wrote a beautiful and thorough critique for The Immanent Frame. With the surgically precise analytical rigor folks like me can only hope to possess someday, Warner dissects Modern’s spectral “secularism.” He identifies three kinds of secularism that blur together in Modern’s analysis: 1) secularism as the underlying social/cultural/political conditions that structure religion in modernity identified by Charles Taylor, which he prefers to call “secularity;” 2) secularism as a localized political position, such as the states’ varied interpretations of the disestablishment clause; 3) secularism as an ethical orientation to the world. By failing to distinguish carefully between these, he suggests, Modern’s book creates two major problems. First, it ignores the ways that antagonism and conflict shaped the religious landscape during the antebellum period, instead focusing on shared metaphysics. Second, it folds many—sometimes competing—varieties of secular projects into background secularity, doing particular injustice to the kinds of secularism that are “localizable as projects of governance, ethics, or struggle.” Worse still, says Warner, Modern insists that the secular idea of “disenchantment” was the biggest enchantment of all, but leaves this claim frozen in paradox. Treated as a Derridean ghost, secularism escapes critique and historicization. Warner writes, “When the object of critique is generalized and removed from the space of antagonism, critique itself seems powerless against it; or rather, critique projects from its own powerlessness a problem that cannot be addressed, and before which one can only stand in a vaguely radical appreciation of the tragic.” Stalking ghosts is fun, but it abstracts the object of study to a place beyond critique.

Despite its problems, this is an important book. I suspect that Warner’s forthcoming title will produce a more compelling argument about the contours of secularism in antebellum America, since his work is analytically rigorous and perfectly legible in ways Modern’s text occasionally is not. But I did not read Secularism in Antebellum America just to learn about secularism in antebellum America. This book does something else. Along with the recent work of young scholars like Jason Bivins, Kelly Baker, and Katie Lofton, Modern’s project pries open the fissures in a dominant disciplinary paradigm. It changes the kinds of conversations we can have–will have–in the field of American religious history.

Historical newspapers on google?

No book review today, possibly not even this week. I’m deep into fellowship application season. But I stumbled onto a goldmine today that I thought I should share. Apparently, Google has quietly amassed an ENORMOUS database of historical newspapers. http://news.google.com/newspapers We’re talking hundreds of titles in dozens of cities spanning most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. While there are many glaring omissions (e.g. NY Times, Washington Post… practically anything that’s still publishing), it has lots of material from defunct small-town papers, old city papers, and especially French Canadian papers. Sometimes, it only has one month of a paper. In other cases, it has decades of print runs. I could see this being an especially useful resource for first- and second-year undergrads writing their first history paper. Like I say, I stumbled into this so I’m happy to hear feedback or reviews from others. I was actually looking for a book called “Pathways of the Holy Land,” when Google brought up this page from the 1875 Crawfordsville Star: http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=2247&dat=18750720&id=tpAnAAAAIBAJ&sjid=YwQGAAAAIBAJ&pg=1055,6848775

 

Susan F. Harding, The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics

Susan F. Harding. The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics. Princeton, 2000.

Susan Harding’s masterful study locates language at the epicenter of the “born-again Christianity” that shook America’s political landscape in the 1980s. Pioneered by people like Jerry Falwell, this language consisted of powerful Bible-based narratives with which people made sense of their lives and transformed their culture. Falwell’s language morphed fundamentalism from a separatist movement into one with major presence in public life. Drawing on her extensive fieldwork among fundamental Baptists in Lynchburg, Virginia during the 1980s, Harding attempts to hear Jerry Falwell as his fellow Christians heard him, to understand the stories that mattered most to Bible-believing Christians of the “new Christian right,” to examine the kinds of worlds born-again discourse brought into being. In so doing, she takes aim at the popular misunderstanding of fundamentalists as supernaturalistic survivals of a premodern era, disenfranchised dupes incapable of dealing with modern reality. By her reckoning, born-again Christianity became politically powerful because it told stories many modern Americans found compelling. It offered complex narrative resources for engaging the modern world.

As an anthropological account of fundamentalist language, this book succeeds spectacularly. It would enrich any course on evangelicalism, the religious right, fundamentalism, or anthropology of religion. Harding opens with a careful explanation of her scholarly terms: fundamentalism (with a lower-case “f”) refers to a self-declared group of Christians committed to criticizing modern society and separating themselves culturally from it. Capital “F” Fundamentalism refers to Bible-believing Protestants globally: invented by Modernists, this denotes a supernaturalistic Christianity that supposedly refuses to come to grips with modern history, science, feminism, etc. Most of Falwell’s people called themselves Bible-believing Christians, evangelicals, conservative Christians, or—far more commonly—just plain old Christians. Evangelicalism separated from fundamentalism in the 1940s and 50s, but Falwell negotiated their rapprochement in the 1970s and 80s and gave birth to “conservative Christianity.” But the book offers much more than a precise set of scholarly terms. Its first chapter has become a classic in anthropology because it attends to the subtle ways that fundamentalist language shaped Harding herself during her research. In fundamentalist circles, you are either saved or lost—the language casts you as one or the other. Having come from a marathon session of “being witnessed to,” the lost anthropologist gets into a car accident and immediately thinks, “What is God trying to tell me?” She explains, “It was my voice but not my language. I had been inhabited by the fundamental Baptist tongue I was investigating” (33). Harding in the car is Archimedes in the bathtub. In her eureka moment, she discovers that conversion happens linguistically: “it involves joining a particular narrative tradition to which you willingly submit your past, present, and future as a speaker” (59). Harding takes it one step further. Since conversion happens linguistically, the critical anthropologist occupies a position of “narrative belief” (xii). The anthropologist cannot tell her own Christian story, but she believes her informants’ stories in all their details and knows why the story sounds like it does.

The Book of Jerry Falwell works at its best when examining the subject positions and discursive effects of born-again Christian language. Harding pays especially careful attention to the ways fundamentalist language works with gender. Falwell’s jokes, his baritone voice, his aggressive tone, his stories, his jeremiads, his rebukes of contemporary sexuality and especially (male) homosexuality, addressed men and expected women to “overhear.” Harding calls fundamentalism, especially the Moral Majority, a “men’s movement” because it implicitly privileged men, criticized men, and called men to repentance for their (usually sexual) sins (176-177). But she does not stop there. Although fundamentalist language spoke mostly from men to men, Harding calls Falwell a “flexible absolutist” (155). This runs counter to caricatures of Falwell as a simplistic antifeminist. Through the late 1970s and into the 80s, Harding argues, Falwell proved remarkably flexible with the kinds of behaviors and family structures that earned the distinction of being “absolute,” divinely ordained values. While he insisted that God appointed men as “heads” of their marriages, he came to consider companionate marriage the norm—quite a different set of “family values” than the fundamentalists of the 1940s had preached. Falwell insisted that women should submit to their husbands, but he softened his position on women working outside the home. Falwell was by no means a feminist, but he was aware of feminism and he did not respond to its effects in his community monolithically. Harding explores Falwell’s flexibility and other crevices of fundamentalist language with verve: its themes, its performativity, its multivocality, its ruptures, its hybridity, even its self-parodies.

For an anthropology of fundamentalist language, this book sings. As a historian of material culture, it raises two varieties of quibbles for me. First, the historical. The book frequently makes historical claims without sufficient justification. For example, Harding argues that Clarence Darrow’s nitpicking cross-examination of William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes Trial represented his attempt to out-literalize Bryan—supposedly, an old fundamentalist preacher’s way of defeating a theological adversary (73). The great agnostic Darrow played the fundamentalist language game better than the Great Commoner Bryan. Interesting idea, but Harding does not cite a source when she declares this is an “old” trick Darrow executes well. I cannot find any such argument in Larson’s definitive Summer for the Gods (1997). Here, I suspect that Harding reads the literalist one-upmanship of Falwell and his fellow preachers onto Darrow and Bryan. It’s a fascinating argument, but the historian in me chafes at the thought of doing this. Show me the source. Give me a footnote. If it’s a new argument, demonstrate its freshness by contrasting it to the stale. Shout new ideas proudly in your notes. Convince me by perching your claim atop a mountain of carefully read primary sources.

Next, materiality. This book oddly deemphasizes material and visual culture. For fundamentalists, Harding flatly declares, “spiritual realities are not communicated through sensuous, nonlinguistic means” (37). The demons in Jack Chick’s tracts beg to differ. So do the dinosaurs at the Creation Museum. Elsewhere, Harding skims over the vivid images (e.g.: babies in cages) of Schaeffer’s influential anti-abortion movies Whatever Happened to the Human Race?, but then lengthily exegetes narrative positions in Falwell’s book If I Should Die before I Wake… What could have become a voice in the wilderness priming us for Jason Bivins’s Religion of Fear instead becomes a narratological soup full of shaky typologies (Isaac is to Jesus as teen mom is to Falwell). I’m quibbling for a reason: scholars frequently dismiss fundamentalist visual and material culture as kitschy, propagandistic, or secondary to the textual-linguistic main event. Harding’s book does not completely ignore these sensory aspects of fundamentalist culture, but they always play second fiddle to language. For this reason, the book offers a powerful check to my scholarly instincts, a hill I have to climb to make my argument. Any of my future work in fundamentalist visual and material culture has to grapple with Harding’s thesis about the significance of language for this community. Period.

Christine Heyrman, Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt

Christine Heyrman. Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt. UNC Press, 1997.

Review by A.T. Coates.

Heyrman’s Southern Cross traces how a once radically countercultural evangelicalism learned to sip mint juleps on the verandahs of the South. Focusing on the period from about 1740-1840, she examines the subtle shifts of doctrine, discursive emphasis, and self-presentation that bear witness to evangelicalism’s Southernization. As an import to the South, she argues, evangelicalism had to learn to speak with a drawl before white Southerners would speak the language of Canaan. With supple prose and thoroughly researched arguments, the book isolates key areas of change along evangelicalism’s path to cultural respectability in Dixie.

Each of Heyrman’s five chapters identifies a major point of friction between early evangelicals and white Southern culture. The bulk of each chapter makes the familiar strange: Heyrman practically revels in rich vignettes of the white South’s skeptical stance toward evangelicalism. In the last quarter of each chapter, she shows how evangelicals adapted their religion to quell these raised eyebrows. Her first chapter can serve as an example. Chapter 1 puts its hands on the devil. Early evangelicals frequently saw the devil, spoke to the devil, grappled with the devil—even “treed” him like a hound dog on a raccoon (55-56). The very same Southern culture that produced Thomas Jefferson, Heyrman insists, engaged materially with the supernatural. In order to draw in those Jeffersonian types, evangelical clergy dematerialized the devil, making him a spiritual threat instead of a physical one. More and more, they also associated the “dark forces” of magic and demons with the darker skinned members of their congregations. In brief, evangelical ministers tried to have it both ways: they sought to keep their status as experts in supernatural matters, but tried to rein in popular expressions that were too material, too sensational, too unappealing for elite Southern whites. The rest of the book’s chapters follow a similar path: 2) the challenges of a young itinerancy in a society ruled by age and personal connections; 3) “family values,” how evangelicals undercut traditional ties of kinship with their familial language, authority structure and anti-slavery beliefs; 4) how evangelicals managed the “problem” of women spiritual adepts by encouraging private and less assertive forms of religious expertise; 5) how ministers convinced others that they too were men of “honor” by fiercely defending their reputations against all comers—and by insisting that black preachers remain subordinate to their white temporal and spiritual masters.

Heyrman stuffs the book with beautiful vignettes that help to make evangelicalism strange again. For this reason above all, the book would prove useful as an introductory text on evangelicalism. Heyrman reminds students that there was a time when baptism of adults by immersion was weird—not doctrinally weird, but weird in terms of the touching it demanded between adults and the physical posture of submission it demanded from men (see 20-21). Camp meetings didn’t just combine the worst aspects of sleeping outdoors and committee meetings, but offered spiritual edification and raucous entertainment for saints-in-the-making and rowdy drunks. At its best, this book offers engrossing glimpses of how evangelicalism once ran against the grain of everyday Southern life but adapted quickly to its new environment. The book would also prove useful in an introductory course as a companion volume to Hatch’s Democratization of American Christianity. Where Hatch sees evangelicalism gaining cultural momentum at the margins of society, Heyrman sees exactly the opposite: her evangelicalism gains cultural traction by courting those at the center of power.

Although Heyrman never cites him, this book seems heavily invested in the model of religion proposed by Clifford Geertz—a theory regnant in religious history at the time of its publication. Despite its richly textured vignettes, Southern Cross mainly scrutinizes the inner worlds and motivations of early evangelicals. This book tracks how an alien “religious system” changed through its “contact” with Southern culture. For Heyrman, religious change happened on the level of linguistic emphases in diaries, minute shifts in doctrine, and changes of attitude. Though the book evokes rich material worlds in its descriptions of practices and events, Southern Cross is ultimately a story about symbols, moods, and motivations. More troubling still, the book seems to suggest that evangelicalism’s early material “wildness” got sloughed off on the road to respectability—and stayed off. By the end of the book, Southern evangelicalism looks like little more than a set of theological principles controlled by white clergymen in linen suits. I think those of us in the guild of religious history who think seriously about evangelicalism do better to retain a sense of its strangeness, to remain engaged with its sometimes unruly practices and often surprising materiality.

 

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