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Christianity, the South, and the Culture War

Culture implies far more than common food, dress, or accent. The root of our English word "culture" is the Latin "cultus," which to the Romans signified worship of the divine.

  • Steve Wilkins,
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Culture implies far more than common food, dress, or accent. The root of our English word "culture" is the Latin "cultus," which to the Romans signified worship of the divine. This reminds us of the foundation of culture which is so often forgotten in our day. As Russell Kirk has noted, "[C]ulture arises from the cult; that is, people are joined together in worship, and out of their religious association grows the organized human community."1

Culture implies a common way of life, common standards, a common worldview, if you will. But this commonality is founded ultimately not upon economic status, race, or nationality, but, as the word indicates, a common faith. Christopher Dawson puts it this way, "It is clear that a common way of life involves a common view of life, common standards of behavior, and common standards of value, and consequently a culture is a spiritual community which owes its unity to common beliefs and common ways of thought far more than to any unanimity of physical type.... Therefore from the beginning the social way of life which is culture has been deliberately ordered and directed in accordance with the higher laws of life which are religion."2

Thus the most important factor in the formation of a culture is the predominant faith of the people. The foundation of Western culture is Christianity and, in this country, Protestant Christianity of the Reformation type. This was true throughout this country, generally speaking, up through the early nineteenth century. Increasingly, however, as the nineteenth century wore on, the Northern section of the country slid away from historic Christianity to embrace the heresies of Deism, Unitarianism, and Transcendentalism.3

This, coupled with the influence of the aberrant (actually heretical) theology of Charles Finney, drove the majority of the North away from the historic foundations of Biblical Calvinism. The doctrines of God's sovereignty and man's depravity were discarded. Men were left with an irrelevant God (or none at all) and a sovereign, perfectible man. Harriet Beecher Stowe observed that in Boston during the mid-nineteenth century, "the only thing worse than an atheist was a Calvinist." The Biblical teaching of human depravity was offensive to the modern Northern sensibilities. Man was basically good, they believed. "Sin," so-called, was the consequence of inadequate education and unseemly surroundings, not some defect in man himself. Thus, man's problem was not seen as a problem inside of him but something external to him, in society. There was no need for a new birth in the Biblical sense. Man was not saved by grace but by social and political reform.

The South observed this drift into semi-paganism with a mixture of fear and amazement, for while the North was experiencing a general apostasy, the South was seeing a revival of the old Faith. While the North drifted more and more from the Bible, the South was becoming more and more attached to the Bible.

The relatively high level of faithfulness that had existed in the early seventeenth century because of the Christians who founded many of the Southern colonies, and which was revived through the Great Awakening, was lost by the 1790s. Thus, at the beginning of the nineteenth century the South was one of the most "unchurched" sections of the country. In 1800 only one Southerner in ten was a church member. Religious apathy and spiritual declension characterized the region.

But this all changed as the nineteenth century progressed. God revived the true Faith so that by the 1830s the South had become the most strongly evangelical section of the country. The Second Great Awakening was not noted for its orthodoxy in the Midwest and Northeast (and in some sections of the upper South as well), but it took on a different character in the South as a whole.

Charles Finney's humanistic revivalism never found ready reception in the South at large. The Southern Christian leaders were of a different persuasion altogether. Daniel Baker, J. H. Thornwell, B. M. Palmer, R. L. Dabney, John Holt Rice, Thomas Peck, Moses Drury Hoge, and many other great and faithful men kept the reins of the Southern revival. By their sound instruction and expository preaching, they prevented the movement from being corrupted by the unscriptural practices and fanaticism that dominated the Northern revivals. It was the belief of these men that true revivals were God-made, not man-produced as Finney and his followers insisted. Revivals could not be planned or scheduled, nor could they be prolonged by artificial means. They were the sovereign gift of God and could only be gratefully received and rejoiced over.

These two contrasting views ought not to be dismissed as insignificant or irrelevant. The one focused on man's ability to manipulate God and thus produce reform by his own efforts. The other insisted on man's utter dependence on God and faithful adherence to His Word, and recognized that nothing could be accomplished apart from His blessing. These two contrasting perspectives would bear quite different fruit for each region. Dependence on God and strict adherence to God's means as set forth in His Word became characteristic of Southern Christianity. Political coercion in the name of God more and more became the hallmark of the North.4

The orthodoxy of the South contrasted in quite a few other ways from the prevailing spirit of the North. The rationalism of Northern Unitarianism with its detached, Stoic propriety and the polite, lecture-like quality of the sermons was quite different from the warm-blooded preaching and affection for the Savior that this preaching produced across the South.

The contrast was manifest to travelers in both regions. A writer in the Presbyterian Advocate in 1830 gave this comparison between the preaching in New England and that of the Southern states:

There [i.e., in New England] the preachers write their sermons and read them to their audience;... [the style] is chaste, argumentative, but wanting in animation. The style [in the South] is unequal, often incorrect, but animated, vehement and powerful... Which on the whole are the most useful it is difficult to decide. For instruction the former excel; for delight we would listen to the latter.5

William Plummer, pastor for many years at the First Presbyterian Church at Richmond, was replaced after his departure by a Northerner. The Northern replacement, we are told, had a good and highly cultivated mind and his sermons instructed and pleased, but, says Moses Hoge, "they were not Southern sermons." There were no "bursts of passion, no involuntary emotion, no sudden and splendid inspiration, bearing a man away from his manuscript and from his commonplaces as in a chariot of fire." "Yankees," said Hoge, "seem to say good things because they have studied them. Southern men say good things as if they could not help it."6

The passion of these men often made Northerners feel out of place. William Henry Foote wrote of George Baxter, who was President of Washington College at the time, "I have never known any minister of the gospel who so often shed tears in the pulpit. It was very common for his voice to falter, and become tremulous from the swelling tide of his strong emotions, especially when speaking of the suffering of Christ, or when warning sinners to flee from the wrath to come."7 The truth of God so gripped the soul that it could not be spoken as if it were bare statistics or a report of some business that had been carried out in a foreign land. They were dealing with issues of life and death and they preached with a passion that indicated they truly believed this to be true.

Moses Hoge, having listened to a number of Northern sermons, longed for the good old fire of Southern preachers. In the same letter previously quoted, he went on to say that he longed to hear Dr. Plummer preach again, "I am hungry to hear him roar once more. I want to see his eyes glare and his hair stand up on end. It will refresh me to see him foam at the mouth again."8

Sermons in the South were not dry, abstract disquisitions on the latest philosophical speculations, but "cataracts of holy fire" that moved men to the foundation of their beings. Southern sermons sought to change the heart and move the soul. Not that Southerners ignored the intellect, they didn't; but they realized that unless a man's heart is changed, he will ignore even what his mind is convinced is true. One historian has noted, "Every sermon, whether Presbyterian, Methodist, or Baptist, preached both doctrines and duties and was addressed not only to the understandings but to the hearts and consciences of the congregation."9

The preaching of the Word was viewed as the "chief means" God uses to change the hearts of men. The chief instrument of reform was not legislation or social movements but the truths of God faithfully proclaimed to the consciences of men. Reform always began from within man by the grace of God, not from without by force.

The predominant view in the South was that the Bible is the very Word of God written. It is infallible, inspired, inerrant, and authoritative in all areas of life and thought. The content of the sermons was overwhelmingly Biblical. Benjamin Morgan Palmer (long-time pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of New Orleans) echoed the widely accepted notion that the minister is a "messenger from God" whose duty, said Palmer, was "to speak only the word that is put into his mouth." That is, the job of the minister is not to tell us of his latest dreams and imaginations, or of his opinions of world events, nor is it to display his grasp of current problems. He has but one job to expound and apply the Word God has given to us. "His sole care," said Palmer, "must be to inquire what God the Lord will say." He is "to study God's Book, to expound its doctrines, to enforce its precepts, to urge its motives, to present its promises, to recite its warnings, to declare its judgments."10 Southern ministers spent their energies explaining and applying the great truths of Scripture, the sovereignty of God, the depravity of man, the divine election of grace, the atoning death of Christ, the call to repentance and justification by faith.

The South, influenced more and more by the old orthodoxy, believed that God was sovereign. He alone possesses unlimited authority and He alone can be trusted with such authority since He is spotlessly holy, just, and good. They believed, therefore, that God had ordained all human institutions with strictly limited authority and that, if society was to prosper, each institution (family, church, and state) must abide within the limitations set forth by God.

Further, the South believed that man was basically sinful. Thus, his greatest need was the grace of God, not political and social reform. Salvation was achieved not by man's efforts but was mercifully and freely given by God on the basis of Christ's work in atonement for sinners.

Trinitarian orthodoxy produced a society where both unity and diversity could coexist. It is only within God Himself that we find the solution to the ancient question of the one and the many. God is both one and three. Both unity and diversity are equally ultimate in Him. Christian cultures have always had a place for both "oneness" (unity, structure, form) and "manyness" (individualism and diversity). Only in the Triune God and in His covenant can we find unity that does not annihilate legitimate diversity and vice versa.

Thus, only in Christian culture can you have unity and diversity, unity and freedom. In imitation of the Triune God, there is a unity of faith and purpose and yet there is no demand for uniformity of personality. There is a unity without the assimilation of the individual into the whole.

The general theological consensus that existed in the South gave rise to a prevailing tolerance among the populace. Sincere men were respected (even though they might be wrong in their choice of denominations!). Convictions were held strongly; but for those who sincerely sought to be faithful, the judgment of charity prevailed.

Men learned the importance of minding their own business. The officious, reformist, busybody attitude of New England was not tolerated. Men sought in a scriptural and neighborly way to see after one another. But they knew there are certain things that are none of your business and you had best resist the temptation to run other people's lives for them.

In unitarian and atheistic cultures, you find just the opposite. There is usually a demand for a stifling egalitarian conformity in order to preserve unity. Unitarianism views God not as a Person, but as an impersonal force. There is and can be no "love" in God (since His monism makes it impossible to express love within Himself), and thus the culture, reflecting this view of God, becomes cruel and heartless. A culture that refuses to recognize the loving Trinity seeks unity by force (totalitarianism and statist egalitarianism), and thus tends to be characterized by harshness, bitterness, and cruelty (as Islamic and communistic cultures are and ever have been).

True unity is founded not upon impersonal or bureaucratic force but upon the love and grace (the personableness) of the Triune God. Where this is lacking, there can never be freedom, peace, or prosperity.

The general orthodoxy which pervaded the South prior to the War was the reason for the political views which dominated the region as well. The concepts of limited constitutional government, a union composed of free and independent states, a hearty distrust of democracy, strict adherence to the Constitution, the doctrine of the separation of powers, the rules of justice all these distinctives, and many more which marked our nation in its founding, are rooted in Biblical Christianity.

But even more important than Christianity's influence upon our political theory is the fact that it molded a citizenry that was willing and able to preserve this system of liberty. There were a number of dominant characteristics of the South in the middle eighteenth century, all of which are fruits of Christianity.

1. Reverence for God and the Scriptures. The two most influential books in the early part of this country's history were the King James Bible and John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress.11 They shaped the South in particular. After its refusal to follow the pied pipers of Transcendentalism in order to remain faithful to the Bible, the South became known derisively as "The Bible Belt."

2. Marriage and family held in high esteem. Tocqueville noted, "Certainly of all countries in the world America is the one in which the marriage tie is most respected and where the highest and truest conception of conjugal happiness has been conceived." This gave a stability to our society lacking elsewhere. "When the American returns from the turmoil of politics to the bosom of the family, he immediately finds a perfect picture of order and peace. There all his pleasures are simple and natural and his joys innocent and quiet, and as the regularity of life brings him happiness, he easily forms the habit of regulating his opinions as well as his tastes."

This was especially so in the South. Large families were the norm, with the result that the entire culture was pervaded by a sense of kinship, family history, and family-centered thinking. It was not uncommon to find churches of several hundred members with only five or six surnames. In the South it was often of more consequence to be kin to certain people than it was to be wealthy.

This emphasis on families had a great influence in the practical management of slaves as well. Douglas Kelly has noted, "Southerners held to a view of domestic servitude in which they felt that the slave was in some sense a member of the larger family circle, with commensurate duties and privileges."12 Slaves were, in most places, viewed and treated as members of the family.

3. Generosity and hospitality. The Southerner, often because of his isolated or semi-isolated condition, fairly craved visitors (both of strangers as well as family and friends). If you were privileged to keep an honorable traveler, his visit was regarded as a great benefit to your house. It was the equivalent of "entertaining angels unaware."

Christianity also laid the foundation for courtesy and respect. The Bible teaches that all men are created after God's image and that we are to esteem others better than ourselves. It was viewed a mark of an extreme lack of grace to be discourteous without just cause. The oil of society was courtesy and deference to one another.

4. Household independence (personal responsibility). Southerners did not expect others to take care of them nor would they have allowed such a thing as long as they had the capability of caring for themselves. God expected each to use his strength and gifts to provide for himself and his own. And the man who refused to do that was "worse than an infidel." The irresponsible welfare mentality simply did not exist.

5. Honesty and integrity. You always will have scoundrels, but in general, Southerners had habits of fair dealings ingrained in them from both pulpit and hearthstone. Your word and good name were most important. Nothing was more despised than a swindler and thief. Nothing more scorned that a man who would sell principle for advantage. Henry Laurens of South Carolina once said to a British advocate, "God knows I am a poor man; but your king is not rich enough to buy me!"13

6. Respect for law and lawful order. Christianity produced both a fierce determination to defend liberty as well as a deep respect for godly law and order. This was the basis for the respect which prevailed in the South for common law which had been the foundation of England's judicial structure. The common law is based (from a Christian perspective) upon the fact that there are principles of justice ultimately established by God Himself which overrule the laws of men and under which all men are subject regardless of who they are. No king or legislature can enact a law that supersedes or sets aside the common law. Nor is there any need for kings or legislatures to ratify common law. No law of men may contradict or contravene the common law.

It was this that molded the South's view of tyranny. When the North sought to combine against the South and by pure majority overthrow the Constitution, the South felt itself duty-bound to defend the old ways. Secession was not driven by a desire to rebel but by a zeal to preserve the old order. A. H. Stephens made this very point: "The real object of those who resorted to Secession, as well as those who sustained it, was not to overthrow the Government of the United States; but to perpetuate the principles upon which it was founded. The object in quitting the Union was not to destroy, but to save the principles of the Constitution."14

Robert E. Lee stated the matter similarly: "All that the South has ever desired was that the Union as established by our forefathers should be preserved, and that the government as originally organized should be administered in purity and truth."

7. Southerners, a people of "holy memory." Practical intelligence and common sense were widespread, of course, but here I refer to the fact that they understood the importance of liberty and the dangers of the abstract  ideas of statist utopianism. While the North took pains to obliterate the past, the South refused to forget. They remembered the dangers there grandsires face from a government which tried to control all areas of life and thought. They remembered the persecution and injustice their ancestors suffered, and knew the dangers of men who thought they knew what was best for the rest of the people. There was an ingrained  aversion to anything that smelled of centralism and hinted at the infringements of basic, God-given liberties.

The presence of these traits made the South the last bastion of Christendom. With the defeat at the hands of the North in 1865 and the ravages of Reconstruction, far more was lost than the old Confederate States. The defeat of the South marked the end of the old order which had prevailed since the founding of the country. It was the beginning of a new era such as had not been seen in this country.

Thus, these things which once marked the South are no longer present. The erosion of Biblical Christianity that has occurred over the last century has left the South a bare shadow of its former self. Many Southerners are now realizing what has been lost in cultural terms but fail to realize the true cause for this loss. It has not been caused by the opposition of the liberals, the silly lawsuits of the ACLU, the screaming meemies on MTV, or the droves of Yankees moving down every other week. It has been caused by the rejection of the historic Christian Faith of the Reformation. A culture cannot retain the fruits of Christendom without the Faith which alone is able to produce those fruits. The frantic grasping for political power (through a revived Republican Party and the "conservative" movement) is a poor substitute for the water of life. When the Faith has been destroyed, there is little point in engaging in political tinkering.

The only hope for the South (and, of course, for our country as a whole) lies in rejecting the false gods of humanism both of the radical and the conservative type and returning to the Faith once for all delivered to the saints. Reformation can come only when we cease to rely on revolutionary faith and tactics. Liberty and true blessedness cannot exist where the Spirit of the Lord is dishonored. This is the indispensable prerequisite for godly culture.

  1. Russell Kirk, American's British Culture (Transaction Publishers, 1994), 1.
  2. ibid., 2.
  3. Obviously, when I speak of the regions ("The North was this way" or "the South was that way") I am speaking in generalities. I am aware there were many exceptions in each region to the dominant characteristics I am noting.
  4. There were, of course many imperfections in Southern society. Pride and arrogance (which led to the problem of dueling) and the institution of slavery with its attendant abuses and injustices were only a couple of the more prominent sins of the South. The adherence to Biblical standards, however, insured that these sins were viewed as sins and not as acceptable or approved behavior. They were consistently denounced by faithful preachers. (See in regard to opposition to dueling, Clayton E. Cramer, "Duels & Deliverance in the Old South," The Shotgun News, vol. 54, issue 15. For the opposition to slavery's abuses see Eugene D. Genovese, A Consuming Fire: The Fall of the Confederacy in the Mind of the White Christian South [University of Georgia Press, 1998]).
  5. Ernest T. Thompson, Presbyterians in the South (John Knox Press, 1963), vol. I, 221.
  6. Quoted by Anne C. Loveland, Southern Evangelicals and the Social Order (Louisiana State University Press, 1980), 41.
  7. Thomson, Presbyterians in the South, 220.
  8. ibid.
  9. ibid., 42.
  10. ibid.
  11. America's British Culture, 22-23.
  12. Preachers With Power, xv, xvi.
  13. Thomas N. Page, The Old South, 48.
  14. A. H. Stephens, A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States, vol. I, 31.