The Origins of Southern Evangelicalism Revisited: New Book by Thomas J. Little

Paul Harvey
Thomas J. Little, The Origins of Southern Evangelicalism: Religious Revivalism in the South Carolina Lowcountry, 1670-1760 (University of South Carolina Press, 2013).

Here’s an important and (relatively) new title to call to your attention, especially for those of you in colonial history, southern religious history, and eighteenth-century American studies.

In this work, Thomas Little seeks to revisit the “origins” question – in this case, the “origins of southern evangelicalism.” And he does so through intensive, painstaking research into religious practices in South Carolina through the late 17
th and first half of the 18th century.
 There are bits and pieces of this story (Jonathan Bryan, George Whitefield’s tours, the SPG missionary Francis Le Jau, and a few others) which have been discussed elsewhere and are staples of the story; but there are an awful lot of people in here that I had scarcely or never heard of, and remarkable stories from individual congregations and congregants – featuring Harold Camping style ranting about the end days, German Pietists who murdered people in their own congregation, Quaker women who were publishing defenses of women in the ministry, and Protestant dissenters from all over Europe who were coming into South Carolina to man newly opening frontier towns but along with them brought a huge variety of Protestant practices that set Anglicans’ teeth on edge – that I’ve never seen so extensively narrated and discussed before. The end result is a persuasive pressing of his thesis, that evangelical revivalism and dissent came along much earlier than is usually depicted. 

John Boles’s blurb captures this perfect: “By shifting his focus away from Virginia, Little shows that a vibrant and lasting evangelical subculture developed much earlier than generally recognized, decades before the Revolution.”

Aside from the important thesis presented, readers will appreciate the wealth of often surprising individual stories detailed here. I’ll give just one example. The Anglican itinerant Charles Woodmason is a favorite of American religious historians in this era; he invariably shows up with some famous and humorous quotations excoriating the primitivism of the southern backcountry, angry that he had to face such obnoxious and untutored congregants. In class, I like to stage “debates,” where one student has to play the role of an Awakening minister, and another gets to read some of these lines from Woodmason, which invariably draws guffaws from my students (this being an upper-division class, I say that Woodmason was having to deal with a class full of freshmen, which also makes my students laugh).

But here is Woodmason in this book, representing (another of Little’s arguments) the movement of the Anglican church in the colony towards lower-church forms, a clear-cut response to market pressure the Church of England faced in a colony full of diverse varieties of dissenters. Indeed, the Anglicans were so successful at doing this that leaders of the Protestant dissenters felt that their folks had backslidden, because they weren’t critical enough of the Anglican Church. Woodmason himself began acting like a dissenting itinerant, though.” Preaching to St. Mark’s Parish, he “came to see himself as being ‘exactly in the same situation with the Clergy of the primitive Church,’ preaching and praying extemporaeneously and using ‘no book but the Bible.’ After preaching to one congregation he even boasted, ‘My discourse pleas’d so well, they said I was inspired.’” In other words, my favorite snooty whipping boy himself saw where his bread could be buttered, and played to the audience accordingly.

Little appropriately discusses the rise of slavery in the colony, the (mostly unsuccessful) missionary efforts to slaves, and the basic response of Anglican, SPG, and most dissenting ministers to the threat that Christianization might bring about a regime of black freedom – on the contrary, they said, just the opposite would happen. Those who (occasionally) dared to suggest otherwise got knocked down pretty quickly. One question that did come to mind was the response of all these much-more-religious-than-we-ever-thought folk to the massive slave trade that was going on all around them – that of Indians. In his Bancroft-Prize winning book The Indian Slave Trade: The Rise of the English Empire in the American South, 1670-1717 (Yale University Press0, Allan Gallay showed the incredible extent of trade in Indian flesh in Charleston, reaching levels higher than the trade in African flesh until sometimes in the early eighteenth century. And colonial scholars in recent years have been hot on the trail of Indian slavery and the Indian slave trade; increasingly, it has taken on a central role in our understanding of the colonial era (as evidenced by the recent remarkable work of Brett Rushforth, Bonds of Alliance, discussed at The Junto blog here.

Was this trade invisible to the Anglicans and the evangelicals? Did the SPG have much to say about it, given that one of their ostensible aims was to evangelize among the Natives? How did the dissenting folk who were given inducements to move to the colony and man the frontier outposts respond to this? So many questions, so little evidence, unfortunately, available to answer them.

This book isn’t for your beach reading list; but it’s heavy-duty research and intensive analysis that scholars will appreciate. I give it two thumbs up and have a much different understanding of the nature of religion in the South Carolina lowcountry prior to the Great Awakening than I did before. Kudos to Thomas Little. 


Those interested in Little's book, should also consider reading Samuel Smith's "A Cautious Enthusiasm: Mystical Piety and Evangelicalism in Colonial South Carolina" (U. of S.C. Press, 2013)

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