35 Culture in the Old South

Southern culture was strongly shaped by religion. Before the American Revolution, the Anglican Church served as the established church throughout the southern colonies. The rise of Protestant evangelicalism in the 1740s posited a fledgling alternative to the Anglican establishment. For evangelicals, the conversion experience was upheld as a universally attainable route to spiritual salvation. It employed highly emotional sermons and liturgies—many of them at large, interdenominational, outdoor camp meetings—to facilitate this conversion experience among believers.

British defeat in the American Revolution further transformed religion in the South as many rejected the Anglican Church as an institution of the British Crown. When the United States of America rejected any religious establishment, the Anglican Church, now renamed the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States, suffered. Many former Anglicans became Episcopalians, but others drifted off to other denominations, including the Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians.

Influential Jewish and Catholic minorities also emerged in some of the South’s urban areas, notably New Orleans, Savannah, and Charleston. By 1800, Charleston had the largest Jewish population in the United States, a distinction it retained until around 1830 when it was surpassed by New York City. Jewish settlers began arriving in South Carolina as early as the late seventeeth century as they fled from persecution under the Spanish Inquisition. Reform Judaism had its roots is in the antebellum South as the members of Congregation Beth Elohim in Charleston began to modernize the faith. From these roots in Charleston, Reform Judaism took its formal shape in Ohio under the leadership of Isaac Mayer Wise and blossomed into the largest Jewish denomination in the United States.

Catholics had established permanent settlements in Spanish Florida prior to the creation of Jamestown. Rivalries between Catholic Spain and later Catholic France inhibited the growth of Catholicism in British North America. Catholicism became the largest denomination in the United States by 1850, but most of this growth owed to immigrants in the northern states. Southern Catholicism nonetheless represented an important minority in the South, and in some cities, particularly New Orleans, Catholicism dominated the social life of many southerners.

While the South contained important pockets of religious diversity, the evangelicalism of the Second Great Awakening established the region’s prevailing religious culture. Led by Methodists, Baptists, and to a lesser degree, Presbyterians, this intense period of religious revivals swept the along southern backcountry. By the outbreak of the Civil War, the vast majority of southerners who affiliated with a religious denomination belonged to either the Baptist or Methodist faith. Both churches in the South eventually became some of the most vocal defenders of slavery.

Southern ministers contended that God himself had selected Africans for bondage but also considered the evangelization of slaves to be one of their greatest callings. Missionary efforts among southern slaves increased Protestantism among African Americans, leading to a proliferation of biracial congregations and prominent independent black churches. Some black and white southerners forged positive and rewarding biracial connections; however, more often black and white southerners described strained or superficial religious relationships.

As the institution of slavery hardened racism in the South, relationships between missionaries and Native Americans transformed as well. Missionaries of all denominations were among the first to represent themselves as “pillars of white authority.” After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, plantation culture expanded into the Deep South, and mission work became a crucial element of Christian expansion. Frontier mission schools carried a continual flow of Christian influence into indigenous communities. Some missionaries learned indigenous languages, but many more worked to prevent indigenous children from speaking their native tongues, insisting upon English for Christian understanding. By the Indian removals of 1835 and the Trail of Tears in 1838, missionaries in the South preached a pro-slavery theology that emphasized obedience to masters, the biblical basis of racial slavery via the curse of Ham, and the “civilizing” paternalism of slave-owners.

Slaves most commonly received Christian instruction from white preachers or masters, whose religious message typically stressed slave subservience. Anti-literacy laws ensured that most slaves would be unable to read the Bible in its entirety and thus could not acquaint themselves with such inspirational stories as Moses delivering the Israelites out of slavery. Contradictions between God’s Word and master and mistress cruelty and inhumanity did not pass unnoticed by many enslaved African Americans. As former slave William Wells Brown declared, “slaveholders hide themselves behind the Church,” adding that “a more praying, preaching, psalm-singing people cannot be found than the slaveholders of the South.”

Many slaves chose to create and practice their own versions of Christianity, one that typically incorporated aspects of traditional African religions with limited input from the white community. Nat Turner, for example, found inspiration from religion early in life. Adopting an austere Christian lifestyle during his adolescence, Turner claimed to have been visited by “spirits” during his twenties, and considered himself something of a prophet. He claimed to have had visions, in which he was called upon to do the work of God, leading some contemporaries (as well as historians) to question his sanity. Coupled with the “Baptist War” in Jamaica later that year—in which Baptist missionaries were alleged to have encouraged enslaved people to revolt—Nat Turner’s rebellion caused some whites to limit independent black churches. These independent religious communities served as one of the key sources of slave resistance. But despite the importance of independent black churches, the story of religion in the South is ultimately a story of biracial congregations.

When antislavery and abolitionist critiques began to usher forth from northern pulpits in the 1820s and1830s, socially prominent Protestant Evangelicals developed staunch proslavery positions, using religious faith to justify slavery. Debates over slavery led to a split between northern and southern congregations, beginning with the Presbyterian schism of 1837, followed by the Methodists in 1844 and the Baptists in 1845

Evangelical religion reinforced other elements of southern culture, including an obsession with masculine honor. Honor prioritized the public recognition of white masculine claims to reputation and authority. It also encouraged men to privately reflect on their behavior and reputation.

Southern men developed a code to ritualize their interactions with each other and to perform their expectations of honor. This code structured language and behavior and was designed to minimize conflict. But when conflict did arise, the code also provided rituals that would reduce the resulting violence.

The formal duel exemplified the code in action. If two men could not settle a dispute through the arbitration of their friends, they would exchange pistol shots to prove their equal honor status. Duelists arranged a secluded meeting, chose from a set of deadly weapons and risked their lives as they clashed with swords or fired pistols at one another. Some of the most illustrious men in American history participated in a duel at some point during their lives, including President Andrew Jackson, Vice-President Aaron Burr, United States Senators Henry Clay, and Thomas Hart Benton. In all but Burr’s case, dueling assisted in elevating these men to prominence. For Burr, however, killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel, a much beloved Founding Father, began the downward spiral of his political career.

During the 1830s, religious piety became integrated into the honor creed, creating an ethic of “righteous honor.” It emphasized restraint as the surest path to moral righteousness, but allowed for the justification of violence when threatened with moral corruption. Righteous honor governed male interactions and extended by proxy over their households and dependents—male and female, white and black—over whom they exercised authority. Domestic disorder threatened personal honor, which threatened public disgrace.

Dueling contrasted deeply with other forms of violence more common among those in lower social positions. Canings, whippings, and clubbings were also used to preserve ones reputation, but such acts were typically applied to men deemed socially unequal and, unlike dueling, the violent act intended to demonstrate that the man assaulted was no better than a slave. The most prevalent form of violence in the South was directed at those men and women in bondage. Violence manifested itself in the form of whippings, beatings, and even sexual assaults, including rape.

Violence amongst the lower classes, especially those in the backcountry, involved fistfights and shootouts. Tactics included the sharpening of fingernails and filing of teeth into razor sharp points, which would be used to gouge eyes and bite off ears and noses. In a duel, a gentleman achieved recognition by risking his life rather than killing his opponent, whereas those involved in rough-and-tumble fighting achieved victory through maiming their opponent.

The legal system was partially to blame for the prevalence of violence in the Old South. Although states and territories had laws against murder, rape, and various other forms of violence, including specific laws against dueling, upper-class southerners were rarely prosecuted and juries often acquitted the accused. Despite the fact that hundreds of duelists fought and killed one another, there is little evidence that many duelists faced prosecution, and only one, Timothy Bennett (Belleville, Illinois), was ever executed. By contrast, prosecutors routinely sought cases against lower-class southerners, who were found guilty in greater numbers than their wealthier counterparts.

The southern emphasis on honor affected women as well. While southern men worked to maintain their sense of masculinity, so too southern women cultivated a sense of femininity. Femininity in the South was intimately tied to the domestic sphere, even more so than for women in the North. The cult of domesticity strictly limited the ability of wealthy southern women to engage in public life. While northern women began to organize reform societies, southern women remained bound to the home where they were instructed to cultivate their families’ religious sensibility and manage their household. Managing the household was not easy work, however. For women on large plantations, managing the household would include directing a large bureaucracy of potentially rebellious slaves. For the vast majority of southern women who did not live on plantations, managing the household would include nearly constant work in keeping families clean, fed, and well-behaved. On top of these duties, many southern women would be required to assist with agricultural tasks.

Scarlett O’Hara’s fictional life was filled with leisure. The reality for southern women was far less glamorous. Maintaining order in a society rooted in slavery required a constant presence of violence, and this violence hung over the Old South, haunting men and women; white, black, and Native American. Despite the brutality of slavery and the dominance of cotton, the Old South was a place of diversity and cultural innovation. So much of what would later become mainstream American culture had its origins in the Old South.


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