What about Southern Irreligion?

Art Remillard

As one brilliant (and humble) reviewer summarized, volume one of The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture "is comprehensive, relevant, and representative of past and present trends in the field of southern religion." If there is something missing here, chances are Sam Hill's hulking Encyclopedia of Religion in the South would have it.

Yet this morning, while flipping through the entries and indexes of both, I couldn't find a single reference to southern irreligion. No atheism, agnosticism, freethinking, or skepticism. And why would I? As Randall "Emotive Cutting Language" Stephens rightly said, the South is "the prayer capitol of America." But academic historians are in the business of finding new and unexplored topics (and convincing us of how important these topics are). So isn't there someone willing to fill this gap? Well, we might just have somewhere to begin with John Sparks's Kentucky's Most Hated Man: Charles Chilton Moore & The Bluegrass Blade. From the book description:

...born in 1837, [Charles Chilton Moore] was the grandson of religious reformer Barton W. Stone, and was himself a minister in Versailles, Kentucky, before he left the church, passing through deism and agnosticism to eventually declare himself an atheist. Moore founded The Blue Grass Blade newspaper in 1884 in Lexington. He was only able to publish sporadically due to financial and legal problems originating mostly because of the paper's editorial content--attacks on citizens that Moore considered to be bigots (including Bible-thumpers and whiskey distillers) and his advocacy of unpopular positions such as agnosticism and women's suffrage. . . . Moore is considered one of the fathers of American atheism. The Blue Grass Blade was circulated across the country, gaining him notoriety among both the religious and non-religious. . . . His legal trials resulted in landmark Federal judicial decisions which set precedents in the areas of both freedom of religion and
freedom of the press.

Stylistically, the book is similar to Sparks's biography on "Raccoon" John Smith (subtitled, Frontier Kentucky's Most Famous Preacher--I'm seeing a pattern here). In his review, Craig Thompson Friend lamented Sparks's penchant for prolonged digressions, reliance on outdated sources, and lack of attention to the historiography. The same can be said of Kentucky's Most Hated Man. But Sparks is not an academic historian. And he seems rather unconcerned with our insights and criticisms. Still, the book might be conversation starter. Citing Susan Jacoby's Freethinkers, Sparks observes that Moore came along during the "Golden Age of Freethought," and modeled himself after "The Great Agnostic," Robert Green Ingersoll.

So Moore localized a national freethinking trend in Dixie. He also felt the Bible Belt's wrath as a result. The debates that Moore generated found southern evangelicals articulating their beliefs in new ways, fending off the unique challenges put forth by this atheist interlocutor. How many Moores were there in the New South? Who knows. But somewhere, there's an ambitious doctoral student searching for a topic--hopefully that person will be willing to write an encyclopedia entry or two.


Anonymous said…
Hi -

I actually have an article under review on race, gender, and atheism in the work of Richard Lynch Garner (1848-1920), a passionate advocate of freethought from Virginia who became famous for his dubious claims to have found methods of understanding the languages of primates and monkeys through research visits to the French African colony of Gabon. I was struggling to find any work on southern freethinkers, save for HL Mencken (admittedly a stretch, but he did come from Baltimore). I'm glad to see someone bring this up!

Jeremy Rich, Middle Tennessee State University jrich at mtsu.edu
Phil said…
Great post, and, indeed, a brilliant review.

One hopes a future edition of this fine and very useful encyclopedia will have an entry on Joel Osteen--particularly since a photo of Lakewood churchgoers graces the front of it (although, to be fair, the 2006 publication date means that the encyclopedia was in production and in press during the earliest moments of Osteen's rise to national fame).
Christopher said…
Chris Grasso's current book project on religious skepticism and doubt from the revolution to the civil war engages the South, I believe.
Art said…
OK, well, it looks like my theory about a doctoral student taking on the subject is WAY off. All great stuff that I look forward to seeing!

Omissions in encyclopedias are inevitable. That’s why I suggested in my review that they consider going electronic. The info would be much more simple to revise and update. And for me, an online encyclopedia makes more sense than an online book. I only spend a few minutes looking something up on the former; but my eyes start going haywire if I try reading a book online for too long.

All this being said, I’m sure that there are practicalities and money matters at stake that I’m clueless about. So who knows if such a thing could ever really happen.
Bland Whitley said…
I'm reminded here of Twain's great novel Puddn'head Wilson, in which the title character starts a free-thinking society in the novel's small Missouri town setting. The society attracts exactly one other person.
John Sparks said…
Thanks for the notice here. Wish I'd discovered it sooner. True, I'm no academic historian, but in fact I do care what academic historians say. Anyway...to add something to Dr. Remillard's call for academic research on Southern freethinkers, I hope that somebody with background in feminist studies will some day take the time to do a good biography of Josephine Henry. There's an extensive collection of her writings, and some family photos as well, at the Woodford County Historical Society in Versailles, Kentucky.
Charles Chilton Moore must be cloned immediately. Perhaps we can splice in some Hitchens?