07 April 2011

Southerners Are Backward Polluters?

Now this is an interesting take. Many traditionalists, like me, have argued that at least part of the cause of the WBTS was the self-righteous attitude of Northern abolitionists who saw many Southerners as immoral, backward, evil slaveholders. These transcendentalists wished to create their version of utopia by yielding their terrible swift sword and splashing around in blood. Hallelujah.

Neo-Confederate hogwash you say? Not according to more recent scholarship:

This sweeping, provocative history of America from the 1830s through Reconstruction has two grand themes. One is the importance of evangelical Protestantism, particularly in the North and within the Republican Party, in changing slavery from a political problem to an intractable moral issue that could only be settled by bloodshed. The second is the Civil War's transformation of America into a modern industrial nation with a powerful government and a commercial, scientific outlook, even as the postwar South stagnated in racism and backward-looking religiosity. UNC-Charlotte historian Goldfield (Still Fighting the Civil War) courts controversy by shifting more responsibility for the conflict to an activist North and away from intransigent slaveholders, whom he likens to Indians, Mexicans, and other targets viewed by white evangelical Northerners as "polluting" the spreading western frontier. (All emphasis mine.)
The comment above is taken from a brief Amazon review of *America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation -- by David Goldfield which was posted at the History News Network. Note that "evangelical Protestantism, particularly in the North" is "important" while "religiosity" in the South is "backward-looking." What really intrigues me, however, is how the reviewer claims that Goldfield puts more responsibility for the WBTS on the North and their activism, as well as what 21st century Americans would view as bigotry.

*(I've not read Professor Goldfield's book and the reviewer could be off on his analysis - but it's piqued my interest enough for me to take my Books-A-Million Christmas gift card out and use it to purchase this book - more later.)

*Update: One Amazon reviewer makes this observation: "Goldfield proposes that the death and destruction of the Civil War might have been avoided while the result would have been the same: the end of slavery." I, along with others, have made that same argument many times before - which resulted in an uptick in twisted knickers syndrome among the activist historians.


Michael Lynch said...

I haven't read the book either, but I think one of the reasons some historians consider antebellum southern evangelicalism to be backward-looking is because it developed a little bit differently than did evangelical religion in the North. Southern evangelists often found that they had to temper their rhetoric to accommodate the salve-holding class, so by the mid-1800's southern religion was less corrosive to both slavery and patriarchy than the more reform-driven evangelicalism of the North, where evangelical leaders were more vocal in their opposition to slavery and their support of women's rights. Christine Heyrman explains this process in her book Southern Cross, which is an excellent examination of the impact that slavery and patriarchy had on evangelicalism in the South.

Now, there's a book by John Quist which compares evangelical reform movements in both a northern and a southern state, and he argues that southern evangelicals were just as reform-minded as those in the North. But interestingly enough, one of the main differences was that southern reformers were much less active with regard to slavery and women's rights, which paradoxically sort of supports Heyrman's argument that southern reform was, in fact, stymied by the master class.

Anyway, maybe Goldfield is drawing on some of that literature. Looks like an interesting book.


Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Hello Michael - good to hear from you.

"it developed a little bit differently than did evangelical religion in the North."

"Different" is *different* from "backward." Setting slavery aside for the moment, the patriarchy which you mention was simply an embracing by Southern evangelicals of the admonitions in Paul's epistles. Now, one can argue the pros/cons/legitimacy of those admonitions, but I think the dominant Calvinism in the South (still somewhat prevalent in many churches, including mine) was the foundation of that particular aspect of patriarchy - woman as "keeper of the home". I don't want to take the time to get too far off track, but there have been a number of recent studies showing that an increasing number of women actually prefer this role - at least to some extent, i.e., they want children, they'd prefer to be able to stay at home and raise their children, etc., etc.

Let me go out on a limb and take that a step further and make a personal application. My wife embraces woman as the "mother and homemaker" - by choice. Mother of 6, homeschooled 4, *grandmother of 14 (soon to be 15). That does not make her "backward" any more than embracing what many see as a Scriptural reality and sincerely held religious belief.

What some view as "backward", others see as preferable and view those who look down on such beliefs as elitists.

*Today, my wife owns her own business and is mentoring others.

Chaps said...

One of my favorite books on this topic is:
The Gentlemen Theologians: American Theology in Southern Culture, 1795-1860 by E. Brooks Holifield

Dr. Holifield was one of my teachers at Candler School of Theology, Emory University back in the 70's.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Thanks Chaps. I suppose I need to add one more to my ever-growing wish list.

Kevin said...

Hi Richard,

I am actually reading this book with one of my students who is doing an independent study on religion in the Confederate army in 1864-65. You really should take a look at it. I don't know if I see an imbalance in terms of who gets more blame. The book is a bit more analytical than that and Goldfield spends a great deal of time on Southern perceptions of the North.

Anyway, check it out when you have a moment. There has been a little renaissance of studies on the Civil War and religion, which as you know all too well has been seriously neglected.

Congrats on the book deal.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Thanks Kevin - yes, I'm ordering it today. Goldfield himself describes the book as neither pro-Southern nor pro-Northern. We'll see.

Since the student is studying religion in the Confederate armies, I'm assuming you recommended Bennett's The Great Revival in the Southern Armies? Dated of course, but an excellent source.

Michael Lynch said...

I'm not arguing that southern religion was necessarily better or worse than northern religion, just that some of the reforming tendencies weren't as common in the South.


Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

No disagreement there Michael. Generalizing, it was the difference between old school Calvinism and Unitarian views of Scripture and the Gospel.

Kevin said...

We are reading Goldfield as well as George Rable's new study which I highly recommend. Beyond that the student is studying primary sources both published and archival.

I look forward to a review of the Goldfield book.

The Warrior said...

When you finish the book, let us know if it's worth a read, eh?

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Will do.