|Vol. 17, No. 27||April 16, 1998|
The book Southern Cross, The Beginnings of the Bible Belt had its beginnings when Jimmy Carter was elected president. Christine Leigh Heyrman, history, became interested in the roots of the Christian evangelical movement, which played an influential role in Carter's election, and she discovered that little academic research had been done on the topic.
The result of her research, Southern Cross, has just won the 1997 Bancroft Prize, awarded by the Columbia University Library annually for 50 years to the best books about American history. The award is generally recognized as the most prestigious honor in the field.
Peter Kolchin, Henry Clay Reed Professor of History, also won the Bancroft Prize in 1988 for his book, Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom.
Heyrman's book covers the period from 1740-1840, when evangelical Protestantism got its foothold in the South. Presbyterians from the mid-Atlantic area, New England Baptists and Methodists from Great Britain converged on the South and its western frontiers, proselytizing among the small planters, tenant farmers and settlers of the region, as well as among women and slaves.
An emotional religion, centered on repentance and rebirth-with Satan a reality and fiery damnation the lot of nonbelievers-the movement had a rocky beginning, arousing suspicion, resentment and, in some cases, violence, Heyrman points out in her book.
Prior to the American Revolution, the Anglican Church was the strongest religious force in the South. The evangelicals, however, viewed the Anglican clergymen as "fox-hunting, whist-playing, Madeira-tippling, money-grubbing wastrels," according to the book. After the Revolution, the influence of the Anglican Church waned as some clergy returned to England, and many of those who remained were not interested in the rigors of the frontier.
The evangelical movement, on the other hand, enlisted young, inspired, firebrand preachers, who carried their message far and wide to all parts of the South. In the beginning, women were among the most ardent converts to evangelicalism, and they took an active, public role in the churches. Many of the early preachers spoke out against slavery and encouraged the slaves to take part in religion. The early churches also publicly condemned its male members for such transgressions as drinking, fighting and gambling.
The result was that they antagonized many of the white men who were the dominant force in Southern society. As the 19th century began, the churches realized this and the evangelicals, by now older ministers with families, began to backpeddle, relegating women to lesser roles, segregating African-American worshipers, tolerating slavery and becoming less harsh with the male members.
Southern Cross is alive with vignettes of the ordinary people involved in the evangelical movemen. The book begins with an exhortation from Mary McDonald, a planter's wife, to her 12-year-old daughter, warning her of the "eternal fiends who would drag her down to outer darkness with torments eternal." Other memorable individuals pepper the pages-from Stith Mead, the son of a wealthy Virginia planter, who had been raised to "dance and duel" and instead became a "God-intoxicated Methodist," to outraged husbands who resented the influence of evangelicalism on their wives and families, to Dorothy Ripley, an Englishwoman, and self-styled independent preacher who was ostracized for traveling alone and speaking against slavery.
The book has received critical kudos. The New York Times reviewer wrote, "Piecing this fascinating tale together was not an easy task. To recover her story, Ms. Heyrman plowed through sources that would deter all but the most intrepid of historians.... Ms. Heyrman has given us a great deal to think about in this wonderfully told and beautifully written story."
Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post wrote, "Though this book will be of principal interest to students of American religion and/or the American South, it has considerable pertinence to a lay readership, especially in Washington, where the so-called religious right is widely misunderstood and at times unfairly vilified." He concluded that the "most important lesson Heyrman teaches is that 'evangelicalism has never been a static, monolithic structure of belief and that its adherents have never been an undifferentiated mass.'"
In the Boston Globe, a reviewer wrote, "The book has much of the beauty of the Psalms and the wisdom of the prophets. Author Christine Leigh Heyrman, a history professor at the University of Delaware, has conducted some diligent research...."
Heyrman is a graduate of Macalester College with a doctorate from Yale University. She also is the author of Commerce and Culture: The Maritime Communities of Colonial Massachusetts, 1690-1750, and Nation of Nations, a survey of Colonial times, now in its third edition.
Other 1998 winners are Walter LaFeber, the Marie Underhill Noll Professor of History at Cornell University, for The Clash: U.S.-Japanese, Relations Throughout History, and Thomas J. Sugrue, associate professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, for his book, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit.
-Sue Swyers Moncure