"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. "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.
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