Prostestantism's Progess

Once upon a time, Southern Protestants attended to urban concerns.

BY: Samuel S. Hill


"The Gospel Working Up: Progress and the Pulpit in Nineteenth-Century Virginia"

By Beth Barton Schweiger

Oxford University Press, 267 pp.

The religious life of the South has puzzled Americans from other regions, and sometimes it has embarrassed its own people. The Christian life, Southerners have often been told, consists of a personal conversion experience and the pursuit of private individualized piety. Historians have been fond of recording this plain message from the mouths of preachers. It was central to the pastors' sermons, and it was much of what members of the congregations heard. Both insiders and outsiders wondered how the message could be so limited. Is that all there is to the life of faith?

Beth Barton Schweiger's excellent study of "institutional religion" in 19th-century Virginia paints a larger picture. Examining many sermons, tracts, letters, newspaper articles, and church materials produced by Baptists and Methodists, she shows how deeply religion affected Virginia and the South at large. Exulting in the power of the churches' influence, Baptist minister James B. Taylor crafted words in 1854 that provide a motto for institutional religion in Virginia during his momentous century. He "loved to see how the Gospel worked up--improving men's circumstances and in every respect elevating their condition as well as their character."

While the Civil War, its prelude, horrible course, and aftermath, dominates that century for most of us, organized religion--steadily more organized, in fact--stands as another important social and cultural force, one that created and adjusted to the epochal conditions in the Confederacy's quintessential, if hardly typical, Southern state.

To be sure, Virginians heard about, and sought to act upon, the conversion of all to faith and the cultivation of a strong personal sense of God in their lives. But for growing numbers of Virginians, this hearing and acting occurred within the institutional church. For ministers and many laypersons, being a Methodist or a Baptist provided a "network" of information, support, and opportunity. In their minds, this was progress. It reflected a remarkable shift from largely local settings of limited interactions.

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