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.