By Beth Barton Schweiger
The religious life of the southern region has puzzled Americans from
other sections and sometimes it has embarrassed its own people. The
Christian life, southern people 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 was to the life of faith?
Beth Barton Schweiger's excellent study of institutional religion in
19th-century Virginia paints a larger picture. She examines many
sermons, tracts, letters, newspaper articles, and church materials
produced by Baptists and Methodists, principally ordained clergymen, and
she gives them relevance, as if they were current. 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 nineteenth 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.
Schweiger has fulfilled her intention of reporting how the churches
worked. She 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
The Gospel Working Up: Progress and the Pulpit in Nineteenth-Century Virginia