Southern Honor and Evangelical History: An Interview with Robert Elder

Church discipline, however unevenly practiced, was an acknowledgement of an enslaved person’s moral agency, something the Southern legal system didn’t acknowledge

“Nobody had written a full-length study of it, but most recent histories agreed that early evangelicals challenged the South’s honor culture, especially the violence, drinking, and rigid hierarchies or gender, race, and class that were integral to it.”

 

I recently had a chance to interview Robert Elder, assistant professor of history at Valparaiso University, about his excellent new book, The Sacred Mirror: Evangelicalism, Honor, and Identity in the Deep South, 1790-1860 (UNC Press). You can follow Robert on Twitter at @southernphd.

1. How did you get interested in the topic of evangelical Christianity and “honor” in the antebellum South? What did “honor” mean to Southerners?

Honor is a slippery concept, but one way to define an honor culture is one in which individual identity is largely determined by communal opinion. Reputation is incredibly important, but it’s also quite fragile and has to be protected. The duel is probably the best known example of honor culture in the Southern context, but scholars who study honor will tell you that the desire for honor and the avoidance of shame influence pretty much every aspect of life in an honor culture, from child-rearing to business transactions.

I knew when I started graduate school that I wanted to study honor culture, but I hadn’t settled on a topic. I happened to look through a version of the Methodist Doctrines and Disciplines published in 1798 and read the (very detailed!) instructions for publicly excommunicating a member from the church, and I realized that many Southerners during this era would have interpreted excommunication as a public shaming ritual. I became fascinated by how the context of an honor/shame culture might have shaped Southern evangelicalism (mainly Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists).

2. How does your book change the way that historians have typically thought about the relationship between Southern evangelicals and honor?

Nobody had written a full-length study of it, but most recent histories agreed that early evangelicals challenged the South’s honor culture, especially the violence, drinking, and rigid hierarchies or gender, race, and class that were integral to it. But sadly, so the story went, this didn’t last, and beginning in the 1820s evangelicals found ways to make their churches comfortable for Southern white men by abandoning their counter-cultural critiques of honor. In this sense, Southern evangelicals followed the same sad trajectory with honor—from opposition to accommodation—that they followed with slavery.

I argue that this narrative is too simple. Early evangelicals may have critiqued what they called “worldly honor,” but they didn’t discard or reject the idea of honor, or of shame. They simply redefined the community of reference. They drew on biblical texts to argue that “true honor comes from God alone” (John 5:44) and that true (and everlasting) shame belonged only to those who rejected their message.

The public nature of church discipline, which in the Baptist tradition was carried out by the whole congregation, practically assured that concerns about honor and shame would be present in evangelical churches, and when you read the church record books with an awareness of cultural context this point leaps out at you. In fact, Southerners were probably predisposed to the communal, public form of church discipline because of their assumptions about communal authority, which helps to explain why Southern evangelicals practiced church discipline more rigorously (Southern Baptists excommunicated about 2 percent of their members a year during this period) and for longer than their Northern counterparts.

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