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


I got this book several years ago. At the time I thought it sounded fascinating (and it is), but for whatever reason I never got around to it till now. But I’m actually glad I waited. Southern Cross makes so much more impact, and is so much more timely, in today’s post-Trump evangelical landscape. It’s depressingly familiar, and yet dated. 1997, when Southern Cross was published, was a different world. Even as late as 2015, this book would have been informative, but would mostly have read as historical. Post-2016, it’s an indictment.

But how can a book about the late 18th and early 19th century South possibly be so relevant to current evangelicalism? Heyrman didn’t intend it to be. In fact she strikes a guardedly optimistic tone in the epilogue. Ah, 1997: the age of innocence. I’ll expand on this point later. For now, let’s just say evangelicals are committing their oldest sins in the newest ways. But first, Heyrman’s historical analysis.

This will sound totally foreign to a modern American, but at the time of the Revolution, the South was not majority evangelical. (“Evangelical” in Southern Cross refers mainly to Baptists and Methodists. Technically it also includes Presbyterians, but since they didn’t expand much outside Scots-Irish immigrant groups, they rarely come up.) Rather most people in the South were either Anglican, or did not attend any church at all. Even worse, most of them, across class lines and for a variety of reasons, were suspicious of evangelicals. So Heyrman asks: how did evangelicals manage to transform the South into the “Bible Belt” that we know today?

Partly, they got lucky. The Revolution disestablished the Church of England in the colonies and leveled the playing field. Evangelicals were also able to take advantage of westward expansion in what was then the frontier – Kentucky, Tennessee, the western Carolinas, etc. But circumstances can’t wholly explain their eventual runaway success.

What does explain it is compromise – compromise with particular characteristics of Southern culture that evangelicals were perceived to threaten. A few of these decisions were sensible. For example, faced with potential converts afraid they would be physically assaulted by Satan himself if they went any further, evangelicals eventually downplayed the idea that Satan could take physical form. Most, however, read more like capitulation to familiar failings. And in general, they return to the same overriding theme: the right of older white men to dominate women, children (and the young in general) and blacks.

Evangelicals didn’t start out this way. Early on, blacks and whites mingled more freely; slaveholding was viewed more negatively; women and blacks had more opportunities to hold some kind of authority in churches (even if it was informal “spiritual” authority). At least in the Methodist church, an itinerant clergy made up of bachelors was viewed as ideal. And since Methodism was still closely tied to England at the time, many early Methodists refused to take sides in the Revolution.

You can probably see why suspicion of evangelicals was common. Southern culture valued patriarchy, lineage and kinship ties, white supremacy, military prowess, and masculinity capable of violence. It didn’t help that simultaneously, widespread westward migration was separating extended families, often by hundreds of miles. Evangelicals realized all this too. And so, little by little, they chipped away at their ideals and fell in line.

To be fair, some of southerners’ concerns were reasonable. Evangelical living standards were basically overly strict – think the familiar litany of no drinking, no dancing, no card-playing – not only by modern standards but by the standards of other Christians at the time. Anglicans, for example, generally didn’t have a problem with their daughters going to balls. Committing to evangelicalism thus cut people off from commonly accepted social activities. Interestingly, however, these legalistic rules survived the change in standards. In fact they were widespread well into the 20th century, and you can still find them in some churches even today. Ultimately, then, in a contest between traditional leisure and traditional gender and racial hierarchies, leisure lost out.

I’ll also say that Methodist itinerants don’t come off well in Southern Cross. The general impression is of a bunch of zealous, woefully inexperienced and often arrogant 20-something men who were given way too much authority way too quickly. Southerners at the time noticed this too, and responded accordingly. Thus why Methodists eventually shifted to a more typical pattern of settled, married clergy. TL;DR: Methodists have really chilled out over the past two hundred years. (Unfortunately, the evangelical habit of swooning over flashy rising stars who can make pretty speeches persisted – once the younger stars figured out how to be properly deferent to the important old men. See megachurch culture today.)

Other than these examples, however, most problems came from good old fashioned prejudice. Evangelicals were ultimately unable to truly challenge that prejudice. And if they had challenged it, it’s probably not going too far to say that they wouldn’t have the kind of power and influence in America that they do today.

Some examples will help flesh out this point. Take, for instance, how evangelicals became the (alleged) bastion of “family values.”

Early evangelicals preached all sorts of things tailor made to upend traditional Southern notions of family. If one member of a family converted, it often made things tense with non-evangelical family members (and evangelicals were okay with that). Private family matters could be exposed to the wider community via church discipline. Wives could convert before their husbands – or worse, without reference to their husbands at all. Women commanded the attention of congregations with long, emotional public prayers. They occasionally even held equal governing rights with the men (though evangelicals stopped short of endorsing women preachers). Slaveholding was frowned upon, and those who did have slaves were encouraged to free them.

If all that sounds like a great way to have no friends in the antebellum South, that’s because it was. Every single one of these was seen as a disruption of the family – family peace, family privacy, the rights of husbands and fathers. Freeing slaves especially was seen as robbing your own children of their rightful inheritance. And so if evangelicals wanted more converts and more influence, some of these things had to go.

And they did. Evangelicals backed off slaveholding. Church discipline fell off, removing the stigma of meddling in family matters. Then-current notions of domesticity were adopted – in Heyrman’s words, “the home as a church – an Edenic sanctuary tended by wives and mothers in which the seeds of religious and moral sensibility were incubated in children and the flowering of recititude forced among husbands and fathers” – which played to Southerners’ pre-existing views of family. To assuage male insecurities, women were encouraged to hold off baptism if their husbands disapproved.

And speaking of male insecurities, the concessions evangelicals made to Southern notions of masculinity are fascinating. Early evangelicals had trouble converting the menfolk. Part of the reason was that evangelical clergy were seen as effeminate sissies. Not only did they not participate in masculine pastimes like drinking and gambling, they also refrained from violence – for instance, responding to insults by turning the other cheek rather than defending their honor physically. Per usual in a church that valued intense conversion experiences, they expected traditionally reticent Southern men to discuss their deepest thoughts and feelings in public. And many evangelical clergy were young single men, seen as ranking below older married patriarchs.

In response to this perception, evangelical clergy “manned up,” both in life and in print. Preachers’ memoirs began to include stories of physical confrontations with angry unbelievers (many of which are fairly silly and probably more exaggeration than fact). They played up their descent from Revolutionary veterans, became aggressively patriotic, and incorporated militaristic elements, like marches and uniformed guards, into camp meetings. Spiritual warfare was glorified with similar military language. Since they were not allowed to duel like respectable Southern gentlemen, they staged the next best substitute: public theological debates with other preachers.

To be fair, the transformation was not total. Evangelicals still maintained their opposition to things like drinking, gambling and swearing, which were traditionally male pursuits. At the same time, however, these eventually became the only misbehaviors regularly charged against white men. Other equally common sins – for instance adultery, or beating slaves – went unaddressed. So why the difference? Drinking and gambling happen in public; adultery and slave-beating happen in private – in a man’s own home. Which, not coincidentally, was considered to be his castle – see the previous section on assuaging male insecurities and kowtowing to their authority. Certainly something like adultery would have been considered sinful. But mostly, as long as you were a convincingly evangelical man in public, the church would (or could) do little about it.

And this, I believe, is a good point to leave Heyrman’s historical analysis for my own commentary on the immediate relevance of this book in 2018. Be warned: I will probably get angry.

Any number of things in Heyrman’s description of “how the South was won” should sound familiar to observers of American evangelicals. Glorification of the military? Check. Transparent nationalism? Check: see Franklin Graham, and the Trump campaign’s runaway success among evangelicals. Enabling racism? Check: see Roy Moore, and again, the Trump campaign. An obsession with women’s need to submit and center their lives around their husbands and families? Check: see the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and they’re not even close to the worst offenders. Contempt for men who aren’t macho enough? Check: see Mark Driscoll, and Owen Strachan and his “man fails.” Unwillingness to challenge the sins men commit behind closed doors, up to and including turning a blind eye to child molestation scandals and pussy grabbing? Double freaking check.

All these themes have different emphases today, of course. Discussions of masculinity are colored more by fears of being (or even looking) gay, and women’s issues are framed as a reaction to feminism. But the essential traits that evangelicalism absorbed in the years between the Revolution and the Civil War are still there.

Southern Cross has a fascinating epilogue, in which Heyrman visits a modern evangelical church and compares it to her historical evangelical subjects. Only quotes will do here.

Perhaps the most direct approach to appreciating the power of this southern heritage is to look in on one community of the faithful – a suburban Baptist church located between Philadelphia and Baltimore that pretty much typifies today’s evangelical mainstream. Every Sunday morning two worship services draw big audiences composed largely of middle-class families; whites predominate, but there is a sprinkling of African Americans and Asian-Americans. The lay people contribute handsomely to the maintenance of an impressive church edifice and to the construction of an ever-expanding number of smaller buildings for offices and classrooms. They also support a pastor and three other full-time ministers, all male, white, middle-aged, and married, whose sermons start from the assumption that the Bible is the revealed word of God and end by urging sinners to accept Jesus Christ as their savior. Aside from unbelief, the sins most commonly condemned from the pulpit are adultery, drunkenness, and neglect of family and church. Preachers also routinely allude to the evils of abortion and homosexuality, but forbear elaborating their objections to such practices. What prompts such reticence is both the desire to shield young children in the congregation and to avoid offending those adults who hold differing views on these controversial matters or who oppose any mixing of religion and politics.

Interjection: you can tell already this is from 1997. Evangelicals didn’t have to “elaborate their objections” to homosexuality in 1997, because public opinion was on their side. All of Heyrman’s other reasons for non-elaboration were scrapped immediately once evangelicals began to lose ground. Because of this loss and others, mixing religion and politics has become standard practice. In fact you could argue, contra Heyrman, that it was already standard practice in 1997, just not nearly as overt, because the pressure to win the culture war was less acute.

No mention is made of a Christian’s responsibility to seek social justice for the less fortunate, except on those rare Sundays when local African-American clergymen are invited to deliver the sermon. Even on these occasions, black preachers raise the issue of racism mainly to reassure whites in the congregation that all has been forgiven and forgotten in the name of their common Christianity, at which the collective sense of relief is almost palpable…

Yet more signs of what was to come. Family, church activities, sexual sin, and “faith” (here meaning purely intellectual assent to a set of doctrines) are emphasized over community service or awareness of others’ needs. And white parishioners must never, ever be made uncomfortable by non-whites for any meaningful length of time. Twenty years later, these streams have converged and given us current evangelical opposition to honest discussions of race and social justice. They are also a YUGE part of the reason Donald Trump was so successful among evangelicals.

Attainment of the highest positions of spiritual leadership requires not only being mature – nearly middle-aged – but also being male and married with children. Women, no matter how gifted or devout, are barred from entering the clergy; neither are they permitted to preach, to pray, or to read from the Bible during Sunday worship, nor even to serve as ushers. Yet laywomen do enjoy some public presence in the church – spheres of activity in which their participation is not only accepted but applauded.

Here, too, the heat has turned up since 1997. Feminism and egalitarianism have become more high-profile; nothing remotely like #MeToo would have been possible in 1997 (and not just because we didn’t have Twitter). In response, evangelical complementarians have become progressively louder, more overtly sexist, and resorted to mucking around in the Trinity in a desperate bid to find a trump card against egalitarians. Evangelicalism has also been rocked by recurring sex scandals, most of which stem from both clergy arrogance and gendered power issues.

Speaking of which, I’m uncertain about this next bit.

At one level, Promise Keepers is only the latest in a long series of evangelical efforts since the early nineteenth century to position their churches as mainstays of patriarchal authority. But in fact, this group has a considerably broader cultural agenda and one that, oddly enough, harkens back to the goals of the first southern evangelicals. Indeed, it aims at nothing less than restoring to the churches a role in regulating the behavior of men within their own households: the purpose of the round of prayer breakfasts and other private meetings run by individual chapters is to monitor and guide men’s conduct toward their wives and children. Even more ambitiously, the national organization strives to remodel the ideal of masculinity itself. According to its teachings, not only do real men assume an authoritative religious presence in the home, but they also express their tender feelings freely – most freely, it would appear, toward their fellow Promise Keepers. Tens of thousands have been openly weeping and embracing at mass rallies throughout the United States, duly assured that such displays will in no way endanger their manliness.

I wasn’t old enough in 1997 to remember many specifics about Promise Keepers. But if Heyrman saw here the seeds of a more open-minded masculinity, she was dead wrong. If it ever did exist, it was swamped by evangelical homophobia. In my experience with evangelicals, if a man weeps openly outside of the narrow confines of a rally or highly emotional Sunday worship time, it might be tolerated, but it’s not celebrated. (Though the pastor will get away it if his sermon is particularly intense.) What is celebrated are pastors like Mark Driscoll, who talk about how men want to have sex with their wives at least once a day, and claim that non-evangelical clergy who use vestments are “wearing dresses.” (To be fair, Driscoll’s graphic sermon in which he claimed Song of Songs commanded women to give their husbands blow jobs was a bridge too far for many people. But that was years ago, so who knows? Maybe today Driscoll could run for president…)

The policing of men’s family lives ultimately had its limits as well. For just one example, evangelical leaders and authors are notoriously awful at handling domestic violence. There are a sickening number of stories of abused wives going to the church for help, and getting nothing but victim blaming in return. Why? Partly because of normal human tribalism. But also because evangelicals’ focus on wifely submission hampers their ability to keep abused women safe.

So sorry to be such a downer, Heyrman. Your book was awesome. But I hope you didn’t expect too much of evangelicals…because really, they’re just up to their same old tricks in a different century.

Note to commenters: I grew up in close contact with evangelicals and evangelical churches, so I know what I’m talking about. You will not change my view of Donald Trump, or of what 2016 meant for the evangelical church, by arguing in the comments. So please just don’t.


I forgot I had planned to add music to this post.  The obvious choice is, of course, Sacred Harp.  Sacred Harp is a kind of shape-note singing, which dates from the timeframe of Heyrman’s study (the late 18th and early 19th century).  It was originally an import from New England, but eventually died out there.  It remained popular in the South, however.  It’s actually experienced a bit of a renaissance, and there are now Sacred Harp “conventions” across the US and in Europe.  Many familiar hymn tunes come from Sacred Harp tradition, such as New Britain (Amazing Grace) and Wondrous Love (What Wondrous Love Is This).

This song, The Last Words of Copernicus, is far less famous than those two, but one of my favorites anyway.  It is a “fuguing tune,” a kind of folk polyphony where the parts enter one at a time after a four-part introduction.  This recording was made in the field by Alan Lomax in 1959.  And a fun factoid:  Bruce Springsteen used a sample of this recording in his song Death to My Hometown.


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