The Gospel Working Up: Progress and the Pulpit in Nineteenth-Century Virginia
By Beth Barton Schweiger
Oxford UniversityPress The religious life of the southern region has puzzled Americans fromother sections and sometimes it has embarrassed its own people. TheChristian life, southern people have often been told, consists of apersonal conversion experience and the pursuit of private individualizedpiety. Historians have been fond of recording this plain message fromthe mouths of preachers. It was central to the pastors' sermons, and itwas much of what members of the congregations heard. Both insidersand outsiders wondered how the message could be so limited. Is that allthere was to the life of faith? Beth Barton Schweiger's excellent study of institutional religion in19th-century Virginia paints a larger picture. She examines manysermons, tracts, letters, newspaper articles, and church materialsproduced by Baptists and Methodists, principally ordained clergymen, andshe gives them relevance, as if they were current. She shows how deeplyreligion affected Virginia, and the South at large. Exulting in thepower of the churches' influence, Baptist minister James B. Taylorcrafted words in 1854 that provide a motto for institutional religion inVirginia during his momentous century. He "loved to see how the Gospelworked up--improving men's circumstances and in every respect elevatingtheir 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 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" forms andvisions. 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 weredrawn to the modern manners. But the real action vibrated in the citychurches. The energetic and tasteful craved a calling to pulpits infine church buildings with good music, where members displayed refinedtastes, attractive salaries were offered, and standing in the communityresulted. Denominational colleges and academies proliferated. Theawarding 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 andaspirations dulled as well as sharpened the spiritual vision ofVirginia's Baptists and Methodists in the nineteenth 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. Schweiger has fulfilled her intention of reporting how the churchesworked. She has balanced the relation between the private and theinstitutional concerns of these people, in the process corrected earlierstudies, and she has succeeded in emphasizing how elemental religiouslife is not only for religious people and institutions, but also for thedynamic of the cultural life of a society.
That is an award-winningmix.