"The Gospel Working Up: Progress and the Pulpit in Nineteenth-Century
Virginia" By Beth Barton Schweiger Oxford University Press, 267
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.
"Progress" overtook earlier local, individual, and "coarse" forms
and visions. By aligning themselves with an emergent denominational
framework, 19th-century Virginia Protestants perceived that they could
change their world. That new world featured opportunity, progress,
innovation, and efficiency in the interest of education, refinement, and
benevolent services. They aspired to supplanting the old-fashioned with
the up-to-date. The gospel works up; when properly implemented, it
advances civilization. Over the course of the century, the scope of the
churches' vision expanded from mostly how to save people to something
far more grand: Does society reflect the values of Christianity?
A major development in this quest was a fresh attitude toward the
professional ministry. Schweiger suggests that the ministerial vocation
itself 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. But
the real action vibrated in the city churches. The energetic and
tasteful craved a calling to pulpits in fine church buildings with good
music, where members displayed refined tastes, attractive salaries were
offered, and standing in the community resulted. Denominational
colleges and academies proliferated. The awarding of honorary doctor of
divinity degrees became widespread. Progressive city churches sought
men of taste and accomplishment.
Although Schweiger does not say so, these new possibilities and
aspirations dulled as well as sharpened the spiritual vision of
Virginia's Baptists and Methodists in the 19th century. With
regard to aspirations, the churches caught the tide of modern
bureaucratization, developing a strong denominational life,
professionalizing the ministerial profession, and helping fashion the
emerging urban culture. But in doing so, they were prone to
compromising some of their historic prophetic mission in the interest of
being at home in the modern world.
In reporting how the churches worked, Schweiger has balanced the
relation between the private and the institutional concerns of these
people, in the process corrected earlier studies, and she has succeeded
in emphasizing how elemental religious life is not only for religious
people and institutions but also for the dynamic of the cultural life
of a society. That is an award-winning mix.