My scholarship explores the political implications of seemingly apolitical approaches to “sin” in the nineteenth-century American South. My dissertation, “From Sin to Crime: Evangelicals and the Public Moral Order in the Nineteenth-century Upper South,” showed how local church discipline — a voluntary form of moral regulation that persisted much longer in the slaveholding states than elsewhere — conditioned the ideology and politics of white southern evangelicals from early-century revivals to late-century prohibition campaigns. Through extensive examination of church minutes, periodicals and other published sources from ante- and post-bellum Kentucky and Tennessee, this work argued that local church oversight of morality fostered resistance to moral politics among proslavery ideologues and “republican” Protestants, yet also nurtured the moral ambitions of evangelicals who wanted to reform society. In fact church regulation was so central to the white Protestant mission against “sin” that its dramatic decline during the 1880s and 1890s heralded a new era of political engagement born of strategic necessity and accompanied by significant ideological concessions regarding the state’s role in moral affairs. By tracing a paternalistic impulse in southern churches that informed the public politics of “sin,” my project identified local churches as key sites of political formation to elucidate the origins of southern moral politics and challenge accounts of an exceptional, apolitical southern evangelicalism.
I am currently revising my dissertation as a book manuscript titled Forth from Zion: Evangelicals and the Politics of Moral Order in the Nineteenth-century Upper South. Whereas most committed southern Protestants from this era would have immediately recognized “forth from Zion” as an allusion to Isaiah 2:3, “for out of Zion shall go forth the law,” not all of them would have heeded the passage as a call to political arms. The title is therefore meant to convey both the contested nature of southern evangelical ambitions to reform society during the nineteenth century as well as their eventual movement from the private “law” of church courts to the public politics of moral legislation.
That movement came after a long struggle within and between Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian denominations in the upper South. By wielding disciplinary authority that was voluntary and local instead of coercive and centralized, congregations and denominational bodies sought to reconcile two competing impulses in white southern evangelicalism: personal liberty and moral paternalism. Thus even as the region’s reform-minded evangelicals were eager to politicize “sin,” they still endorsed church discipline as part of their moral mission alongside evangelical “republicans” and “apolitical” anti-abolitionists who relied on the disciplinary instruments of their churches to the exclusion of moral politics. Yet the waning of church discipline at the end of the nineteenth century pushed the partisans of local autonomy, personal liberty and religious apoliticism to make peace with the politics of legislating morality. United by the crisis of weakening church authority over “sin,” white evangelicals forged an ambivalent political consensus that moderated their historically anti-statist preferences for local control and their apolitical stance toward public morality. If the South’s white evangelicals failed to neatly reconcile their anti-statist leanings with their new political assertiveness, this history suggests, it was because the institutional structures though which they had always resolved such differences had been eroded by forces they could neither comprehend nor control. This account of white evangelicals’ uneasy political truce therefore unearths the ecclesiastical foundations of southern evangelicalism’s still-unresolved tensions between personal liberty and state regulation of moral matters.
Sources and Method
My research draws from nearly sixty unpublished congregational minute books as well as diaries, letters, newspapers, legislation, treatises, debates and sermons to shed new light on interconnections of southern religion and southern politics. It does so by contextualizing public rhetoric and agitation against “sin” within the disciplinary conflicts and subtle power dynamics of local churches. The historical significance of those conflicts has hidden in plain sight, concealed in the dry notation of church minute books. Yet when mined for common patterns across place and time and linked to public expressions of religious belief and behavior, these local records illuminate how the shifting institutional constraints on church authority altered the stakes of political engagement for southern white evangelicals.