"The Gospel Working Up: Progress and the Pulpit in Nineteenth-CenturyVirginia"
By Beth Barton Schweiger
Oxford University Press, 267pp. The religious life of the South has puzzled Americans from otherregions, and sometimes it has embarrassed its own people. The Christianlife, Southerners have often been told, consists of a personalconversion experience and the pursuit of private individualized piety. Historians have been fond of recording this plain message from themouths of preachers. It was central to the pastors' sermons, and it wasmuch of what members of the congregations heard. Both insiders andoutsiders wondered how the message could be so limited. Is that allthere is to the life of faith? Beth Barton Schweiger's excellent study of "institutional religion" in19th-century Virginia paints a larger picture. Examining many sermons,tracts, letters, newspaper articles, and church materials produced byBaptists and Methodists, she shows how deeply religion affectedVirginia and the South at large. Exulting in the power of thechurches' influence, Baptist minister James B. Taylor crafted words in1854 that provide a motto for institutional religion in Virginia duringhis momentous century. He "loved to see how the Gospel workedup--improving men's circumstances and in every respect elevating theircondition 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 moreorganized, in fact--stands as another important social and culturalforce, one that created and adjusted to the epochal conditions in theConfederacy's quintessential, if hardly typical, Southern state.
To be sure, Virginians heard about, and sought to act upon, theconversion of all to faith and the cultivation of a strong personalsense of God in their lives. But for growing numbers of Virginians, thishearing and acting occurred within the institutional church. Forministers 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 localsettings of limited interactions. "Progress" overtook earlier local, individual, and "coarse" formsand visions. By aligning themselves with an emergent denominationalframework, 19th-century Virginia Protestants perceived that they couldchange their world. That new world featured opportunity, progress,innovation, and efficiency in the interest of education, refinement, andbenevolent services. They aspired to supplanting the old-fashioned withthe up-to-date. The gospel works up; when properly implemented, itadvances civilization. Over the course of the century, the scope of thechurches' vision expanded from mostly how to save people to somethingfar more grand: Does society reflect the values of Christianity? A major development in this quest was a fresh attitude toward theprofessional ministry. Schweiger suggests that the ministerial vocationitself stood as a metaphor for opportunity. Until the war era anyway,choosing the cloth afforded young men an open door to education, travel,respect, and stimulating colleagues.
Many country preachers remained,of course, though some of them were drawn to the modern manners. Butthe real action vibrated in the city churches. The energetic andtasteful craved a calling to pulpits in fine church buildings with goodmusic, where members displayed refined tastes, attractive salaries wereoffered, and standing in the community resulted. Denominationalcolleges and academies proliferated. The awarding of honorary doctor ofdivinity degrees became widespread. Progressive city churches soughtmen of taste and accomplishment. Although Schweiger does not say so, these new possibilities andaspirations dulled as well as sharpened the spiritual vision ofVirginia's Baptists and Methodists in the 19th century. Withregard to aspirations, the churches caught the tide of modernbureaucratization, developing a strong denominational life,professionalizing the ministerial profession, and helping fashion theemerging urban culture. But in doing so, they were prone tocompromising some of their historic prophetic mission in the interest ofbeing at home in the modern world. In reporting how the churches worked, Schweiger has balanced therelation between the private and the institutional concerns of thesepeople, in the process corrected earlier studies, and she has succeededin emphasizing how elemental religious life is not only for religiouspeople and institutions but also for the dynamic of the cultural lifeof a society. That is an award-winning mix.