The Sacred Mirror

Evangelicalism, Honor, and Identity in the Deep South, 1790-1860

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Robert Elder
  • Chapel Hill, NC: 
    The University of North Carolina Press
    , May
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In his first published book, The Sacred Mirror: Evangelicalism, Honor, and Identity in the Deep South, 1790-1860, Robert Elder examines the influence of honor culture on evangelical religion in the Deep South. He argues that, contrary to conventional views, evangelicalism in the antebellum South shared many of the same tenets of honor culture. According to Elder, Southern evangelical churches followed similar codes of honor, shame, order, and reputation. In other words, far from being hostile or incompatible, honor and evangelicalism complemented each other. Elder carefully explains how Southern evangelicalism and honor culture intersected, and provocatively links this interaction to the origins and progress of modern individual identity in the region.

To support his argument, Elder draws on a variety of disparate secondary literature, from Bertram Wyatt-Brown to Émile Durkheim, Clifford Geertz, Mark Noll, Julian A. Pitt-Rivers, Kwame Anthony Appiah, and many others. More importantly, however, is his use of an impressive array of primary sources, ranging from church records, local church histories, and sermons to diaries, private correspondence, and periodicals. His analysis concentrates primarily on South Carolina and Georgia, and on Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches.

Elder begins by describing how the Deep South slowly transformed into an evangelical society. While many early converts were from the “lower strata of southern society,” that soon changed. But rather than simply mirroring honor culture, evangelical clergy redefined the “concepts that shaped the traditional social relations of their friends and neighbors, filling old wineskins with new wine” (17). That is, evangelicals relocated its source: God, not man, was the ultimate source of honor. For the evangelical, to follow “worldly honor was not only sinful but also irrational.” This is an interesting example of where Enlightenment thought and evangelical theology worked side-by-side. These early evangelical itinerant preachers faced much public derision. They were attacked by mobs and, in some cases, were even publicly whipped (19-20). But their message that true honor belonged to God alone reached many.

According to Elder, the so-called “Nullification Revivals” of the early 1830s—when the Southern states protested against federal tariffs that seemed to benefit only the industrialized north—cemented worldly honor with Christian conceptions of honor, blurring the “lines between the Church and the World” (32). In other words, the revivals helped produce a culture in which religious and political rhetoric became inextricably intertwined.

Elder then focuses on how evangelicals practiced these new conceptions of worldly honor. The practice of “holiness,” for instance, became both a personal and communal matter for Southern churches. Church discipline, which was very much a public ritual, “arose out of older understandings of the social power of shame,” rather than the sense of guilt often associated with evangelical conceptions of sin (45). Such public displays of honor and shame are indicative of the common ground shared between evangelical churches and honor culture. Elder also notes that Southern evangelicals “abandoned part of their earlier concern to remake the sinful world of commerce and trade in the South into their own image and were instead attempting to transform themselves into trustworthy participants in a market-based economy” (60). All of this is evidence that Southern evangelicals—once considered a radical group—were now slowly accommodating themselves to the values of the secular world.

Men of the South, it seems, lived dual lives. As Elder aptly puts it, “for many southern men who joined evangelical churches, the blood of Christ had the power to wash away sins, but it did not remove from them from a world where they had to answer to the demands of honor” (80). When it came to church discipline, white men were frequently brought to church tribunals for acts of violence. Ironically, turning-the-other-cheek was seen as evidence of shamelessness. But the church was different, and its leading example, of course, was Christ, “who allowed himself to be shamed and crucified by his antagonists” (82). And here we find another example of an existing tension between honor culture and Christian teaching. Some churches responded by softening the rigors of public discipline, while others seemed to entirely concede to the demands of honor. “When honor demanded violence,” Elder writes, “men frequently described it as a necessary evil, as unavoidable in one context as it was lamentable in another” (86).

The issue of slavery is a particularly potent example of how Southern evangelicalism gradually accommodated itself to the life of the South. While the early nineteenth-century evangelical movement threatened slavery, in time it inevitably circumscribed the roles and freedoms of black members of society, and ultimately came to terms with slavery altogether, even Christianizing the institution of slavery (115). Indeed, congregational records reveal that early evangelical radicalism diminished by mid-century. Elder emphasizes that slaves were “socially dead,” dehumanized and even animalized—a “brute beast” as Frederick Douglass once observed.

The language of death is apt in that slaves were ritually separated from the moral community of honor. But, as Elder points out, what slaves found so radically different and appealing about evangelical religion was the “rituals of spiritual life that marked members’ entry into the community and unity with Christ” (119). Religious rituals such as baptism or the Lord’s Supper offered slaves powerful “symbols of humanity and spiritual equality.” These were powerful symbols of rebirth, new identity, and inclusion. Some slaves became watchmen, deacons, and even preachers in evangelical churches. But again, tensions persisted between the two worlds. Slaves, for example, needed “permits” from their masters in order to attend church service. While it did not free them, evangelicalism nevertheless “established important limits and counterweights to the social death and dishonor of slavery.” From this apparent contradiction, Elder argues, proslavery Christianity first emerged as an ideology of paternalism. This position “allowed white southern evangelicals to acknowledge slaves’ humanity and individuality while at the same time asserting their dependence and subjugation” (140).

Another area of tension and contradiction in Southern evangelicalism was the clergy itself. “As producers of public speech,” Elder explains, clergymen “were inextricably bound up in the public world of politics, religion, influence, and honor” (141). The Deep South had a love affair with the “cult of oratory,” where words were seen as a means of influencing, molding, and mastering others. The ability to speak, and to speak well, was undeniable. Southern clergymen were, however, “messengers of God,” whose voices were used to “save sinners.” Unlike other modes of public speaking, preaching was “sacred” speech (160).

Records show that evangelical preaching was often celebrated for its ability to pierce the shell of honor society. This was of course seen as a threat by many, as evangelical conversion posed a threat to traditional conceptions of manly honor (171). But of course, the oratorical mastery over the inner selves of their audience was also part-and-parcel of honor society. As Elder puts it, “the evangelical clergy of the nineteenth-century South were not exempt from the concerns that obsessed their fellow citizens” (177). It is in this way that evangelical churches in the Deep South can be seen as a “sacred mirror,” reflecting a reformulated or sacralized vision of honor culture.

In his epilogue, Elder brings us to the twentieth century with the decline and ultimate demise of church discipline in the South. The rise of modern individuality and its new way of seeing and constructing the self was one of the main reasons for this decline. Interestingly enough, Elder provocatively suggests that evangelicalism itself contained the seeds of modern individualism, which he claims was “predicated on an individualistic process of conversion, personal knowledge, and the ability to relate this authentic experience convincingly to others” (204). “Evangelicals,” he concludes, “were never as radical as some may have hoped” (209).

Elder has produced a useful and challenging book. But while it questions conventional interpretations of evangelicalism in the Deep South, it perhaps affirms others. The conventional view has been that the religion of the Great Awakening came into conflict with the honor-based culture of the South and Elder attempts to soften that image of conflict. Yet scholars have long recognized that the evangelical surge that swept through North America and Britain in the eighteenth century began to fade by the middle of the nineteenth century. The “sacred” mirroring of honor culture is, perhaps, additional evidence that the revivals of the preceding generation did not last. While there was clearly a complex interplay between the City of God and the City of Man, it seems that many Southern evangelicals ultimately forfeited the radical message of their forerunners. Elder is to be commended for unearthing a small but nevertheless enlightening sample of this wide and complex process of compromise.

About the Reviewer(s): 

James C. Ungureanu is a doctoral candidate in religious studies at the University of Queensland.

Date of Review: 
July 13, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Robert Elder is assistant professor of history at Valparaiso University.


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