Religion in the Early South, Redux

Paul Harvey

Randall beat me to the punch with his post on religion in the colonial South, and its relative importance as portrayed in recent scholarship as compared with its conventional role in older works as a foil for Yankee Puritanism.

Just a couple of notes on that, on the new issue of Historically Speaking, and on other recent and forthcoming works on this subject. First, Randall didn’t mention this, but bears noting that the new issue of HS includes a full forum reflecting on Charles Joyner’s 25-year old book Down by the Riverside: An African American Slave Community. I’ll blog more about this forum once I have a chance to look at it. Sylvia Frey, Stephanie Shaw, and other noted historians weigh in with their reflections on Joyner’s influential book. In the meantime, here's a bit from the website for the 25th anniversary edition of the book:

In Down by the Riverside, Charles Joyner takes readers on a journey back in time, up the Waccamaw River through the Lowcountry of South Carolina, past abandoned rice fields once made productive by the labor of enslaved Africans, past rice mills and forest clearings into the antebellum world of All Saints Parish. In this slave community, and many others like it, the slaves created a new language, a new religion--indeed, a new culture--from African traditions and American circumstances.

From the letters, diaries, and memoirs of the plantation whites and their guests, from quantitative analysis of census and probate records, and above all from slave folklore and oral history, Joyner has recovered an entire society and its way of life. His careful reconstruction of daily life in All Saints Parish is an inspiring testimony to the ingenuity and solidarity of a people who endured in the face of adversity.

Second, I was about to post on a new work, which I just saw reviewed in the Journal of Southern History (I had not heard of the book until I just saw this review), which appears to support strengthening the role religious ritual played for Virginia’s colonists as discussed in the HS article: Nicholas Beasley, Christian Ritual and the Creation of British Slave Societies, 1650-1780 (University of Georgia Press, 2009). The reviewer in the Journal of Southern History summarizes the themes of the book:

Exploring the worship practices of settles in the early Slouth and the Caribbean island colonies, Nicholas M. Beasley presents three main arguments in this thoroughly revisionist study, which focuses mostly on the Church of Englnad. First, white minorities in Barbados, Jamaica, and South Carolina created a lively and meaningful religiou culture during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Second, this culture gave whites unequaled opportunities to assert their power over slaves and free persons of color. Third, Christian ritual afforded whites comfrt, enabling them “to maintain their claims to Englishness in the face of clear evidence that their colonies were not settler societies that faithfully reproduced English culture.

The English settlers “observed a bewildering array of holy days and state holidays, attached great significance to days of fasting and humiliation, and held to a long tradition of weekday prayer..” Whites used the Eucharist to define their Christianity and exclude nearly all Africans and African Americasns, moreover, they celebrated marriages and baptisms at home, meaning that “public baptisms and marriages became lesser events, associated with lower-status whites and persons of color.” All this emphasis on liturgy meant that “the white minorities of the plantation world sought to maintain cultural connections to the metropole.”

Third, this new work appears to complement that of Lauren Winner, which Randall alluded to in his post. Lauren’s book will be coming out next month I believe. Here’s the full reference and link: Lauren Winner, A Cheerful and Comfortable Faith: Anglican Religious Practice in the Elite Households of Eighteenth-Century Virginia.

This enlightening book examines the physical objects found in elite Virginia households of the eighteenth century to discover what they can tell us about their owners’ lives and religious practices. Lauren F. Winner looks closely at punch bowls, needlework, mourning jewelry, baptismal gowns, biscuit molds, cookbooks, and many other items, illuminating the ways Anglicanism influenced daily activities and attitudes in colonial Virginia, particularly in the households of the gentry.

Of Lauren’s book, Richard Bushman writes the following: How do you capture the nature of Anglican piety in colonial Virginia? Lauren Winner does it by linking household objects to theological and devotional books and religious practice. Her astute analysis takes us to the heart of eighteenth-century Anglican religion—in Virginia's houses where the needlework, walnut tables, prayer books, and silver bowls she examines once resided. The result is a landmark work in material culture and religious studies scholarship.

My favorite part of her work is the section on cooking, where, in a sort of Giada de Laurentiis meets Laurel Thatcher Ulrich section, she takes us on a kind of liturgical calendar of recipes and cooking rituals which produced the appropriate foods for the ritual seasons. Lauren cooked her way through those books, and found some of the recipes pretty excruciating – just a side note on some material culture research.

By institutional measures, the early South certainly lacked by conventional forms of religious piety. By invoking religion as practice rather than as belief or institutional form, these scholars are showing how to rewrite religious history.


Eric said…
while you're at it, check out the episode of "walter edgar's journal" devoted to commemorating the 25th anniversary of DBTR. it's available as a free podcast through i-tunes, and also perhaps through the website.