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The Continuing Virtues of the Southern Heritage

Evangelical Protestantism has long been "established" (by custom, not law) in most of the South (except for South Louisiana). We are accurately called "the Bible Belt."

  • Douglas Kelly,
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(Excerpted from "Our Southern Heritage," an address given at Minturn, SC in March, 2000)

Biblical Christianity and Good Manners
Evangelical Protestantism has long been "established" (by custom, not law) in most of the South (except for South Louisiana). We are accurately called "the Bible Belt." I suspect that love for Christ and the Bible, a love historically increased by three great revivals, has been at the root of traditional Southern courtesy and politeness, and would explain why doors did not need to be locked in these parts until perhaps the 1970s. Community kindness and respect is something that comes from profound belief in the gospel. Good manners are a beautiful thing. They flow from the Golden Rule and from the grace of the gospel. The traditional South (at its best) can offer good manners to an increasingly discourteous, surly country. Terrible soap operas and so called "situation comedies" (with canned laughter, for they are seldom really funny) make bitter fun of parents and other authority figures, and falsely present America as a cynical, atheistic rat race. The South itself needs a new infusion of the old loving, courtly gospel spirit as does the wider world. Let us thank God for how much we have had of it, and for how much still remains.

The Extended Family
The Holy Bible, so reverenced in the South, teaches that the basic unit of society is the family, not the individual, and thus our people have looked at society in terms of family rather than the atomistic individual (unlike democracy theory which emphasizes the individual and the central government, and tends to cut out the mediating institutions of family, local region, and church). The plantation system in the South worked in a way that kept families together. Many workers were needed and until the technological and economic changes that occurred in the mid-twentieth century, a fair sized plantation could support several related families on it. My father was raised in such a context, where there were three related households living on the same ancestral property in Moore County, North Carolina. (In today's economy, it would not be nearly enough land to support three large families.)

No part of the United States has ever been so family oriented as the South. That is probably one reason why we look less to the central government than does the North and West. Professor Zimmerman of Harvard University wrote three important volumes on the history of the family in the 1920s. He demonstrated that, historically, weak family structure and widespread individualism leads to powerful centralized governmental bureaucracy (for the rootless individuals look to the civil government for identity and help, rather than to the extended family or church). But strong family structure, especially the extended family, gives people a sense of belonging and security, so that they feel the support of a local network, rather than expecting (or even desiring) very much from the central state.

One of the strong continuing virtues of the South is anti-materialism or to put it positively confidence in the primacy and ultimate importance of the spiritual realm. Professor Richard Weaver said that the American South was the last center of anti-materialism in the Western world, and this is still resented by our reigning, secularistic cultural elite. The solemn words of Jesus are still taken literally by millions of ordinary men and women in our Southern states: "And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell" (Mt. 10:28). The Southern people as a whole have acted upon a higher loyalty than material values or human institutions such as the state, knowing that if there is a conflict between God and Caesar: "We ought to obey God rather than men" (Ac. 5:29) and that ultimately, "Our citizenship is in heaven" (Phil. 3:20). The fairly large percentage of believers among Southerners have understood that, "the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal" (2 Cor. 4:18). Higher loyalty to the unseen has meant that (insofar as they are consistent) they are less likely than others to be under the control of material considerations and worldly praise or blame, for in the end of the day: "Every man's work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is. If any man's work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward" (1 Cor. 3:13, 14).

These considerations have provided our people great inward freedom to be different from the contemporary culture, when they perceive it to be going in a materialistic and ungodly direction. We have still not completely lost this willingness to be different, and thus we are harder to whip into line than a culture that does not know any longer what it believes. This makes it much more difficult for the votaries of atheistic materialism to control our souls and bodies and to get our votes and loyalty.

The famous Dr. Robert L. Dabney, Presbyterian minister and professor of theology in Virginia (who served during the war as Stonewall Jackson's Chief of Staff), pleaded with the South to remain loyal to spiritual values and to disdain triumphant American materialism in a speech delivered to young men at Hampden Sydney College in Virginia in 1882. His address is entitled "The New South," and lays before the college students two options open to the defeated Southern leadership at that time. Either they could swallow the values of "the New South," namely the soulless materialism of the amoral Yankee capitalist spirit, and thus emulate their conquerors by becoming materialistic like them and, in doing so, jettison the Christian heritage of their fathers, who put God above money. Or, if they went against the direction in which the plutocrats of northern industry (protected by government-engineered monopolies) were taking the American culture, they could enthusiastically reaffirm their ancient, Christian foundations of love of God, loyalty to family, virtue rather than pragmatism, and devotion to region rather than the central state (if there is a conflict between the two). In the words of Christ, they were called to "Seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you" (Mt. 6:33).

Decentralization of Government
The last continuing virtue of the South to be mentioned is also one that is desperately needed by the contemporary world: decentralization of civil government. Two unusually perceptive Southern scholars who lived through the War Between the States soon afterwards wrote illuminating volumes on this subject. One volume is by Dr. Robert L. Dabney, A Defense of Virginia and Through Her of the South, and the other by Alexander Hamilton Stephens of Georgia, a former United States Senator and the one and only Vice President of the Confederacy, A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States.

Among much else, these careful discussions show what happens when basic Christian faith, constitutional integrity, and regional self-determination are lost by the people so that there occurs a transferring of massive and impersonal power to the central government and its bureaucracies. There were two different views of human happiness contending in nineteenth-century America. One came from the French Enlightenment and entailed great centralized power by which the state could define the structure and goal of human life and thus provide a sort of womb-to-tomb security. In the twentieth century, this has been carried out most consistently by Marxism, which created its own sort of paradise in Siberia and now has largely failed.

The other view of happiness came from the traditional Christianity of Catholic (and then, Reformation) Europe. In this view the Triune God is first; His Word is the true covenant charter, structuring man's life on earth and defining its true goal. Mankind is fallen so that he and all his institutions (including the state) need careful restraint; redemption is provided through humble faith in Christ, and life is most healthfully lived within a variety of mediating institutions, that serve as restraints on one another (church, family, regional and local governments; local schools controlled by the community or church; professional organizations and charitable agencies). These Biblically-based mediating institutions provide great liberty for the people who live in terms of them, for they are limited by one another and by Scriptural principles, and are most responsive to local conditions. In a word, they are personal, whereas faceless, centralized bureaucratic powers are impersonal.

With the military and political defeat of the South and with the cruel "Reconstruction" punishment by the Northern government afterwards, still all was not lost. Virtues are often refined in the fires, even while vices are purged away. We can be glad that some of our vices and sins are gone (even if not all of them), and can also be hopeful that some of the virtues graciously granted to our people may not only endure, but fruitfully increase as a blessing to other parts of the country the world.

It may be that several parts of our ever-changing world are in a position to benefit from some of these old Southern virtues. More than one sociologist has noted that the world today seems to be in the maelstrom of two conflicting currents: the one greater centralization and the other re-tribalization. Heavy centralization is the order of the day in multinational companies, various international trade agreements, growing socialistic governments, the United Nations, and so forth.

But at the very same time there is a quite contradictory trend; much of the world is breaking up from larger units into smaller (or "tribal") ones. We think of the unraveling of the Soviet Union after 1991 and the breaking into smaller, ethnic and religious-based sections of former Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. In July of 1999, I happened to be present at the opening of the new Scottish Parliament at New College in Edinburgh, almost three hundred years after it had been closed to merge with Westminster in London. Now the United Kingdom is experiencing regionalization, with parliaments in the ancient realms of Scotland, Wales, and Ulster.

No one knows what direction these conflicting currents will take, but perhaps some of the thoughts and aspirations of our Southern forefathers in their own faltering attempts to chart the way forward to liberty and truth will provide someone somewhere a glimmer of guidance. Flag or no flag, we, their descendants, may by gracious inheritance have some light to shine into a dark and confusing world.

With all of this in mind, we conclude with a poem by the late Archibald Rutledge, master of Hampton Plantation near Georgetown, and poet laureate of South Carolina from the 1930s until his death in 1973. It is entitled "The Confederate Dead":

Although the Flag they died to save
Floats not o're any land or sea,
Over eternal years shall wave
The banner of their chivalry.

Lost in the silent Past profound,
Their war-cries to the dead belong,
Yet poets shall their valor sound
In music of immortal song.

Save that for them I nobly live,
Bear life, as death they bravely bore,
They need no glory I can give
Whose fame abides forevermore;

Whose fame fades not in marble arts,
Nor sleeps within the Past's dim night;
Heroes who live in loving hearts
Are templed in Eternal Light.

  • Douglas Kelly

Dr. Douglas F. Kelly is the Professor of Theology Emeritus at Reformed Theological Seminary. Dr. Kelly received his B.A. from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Diploma from the University of Lyon, his B.D. from the Union Theological Seminary, and his Ph. D. from the University of Edinburgh. He is the author of many written works including, If God Already Knows, Why Pray?Preachers with Power: Four Stalwarts of the SouthNew Life in the Wasteland, Creation and Change, and The Emergence of Liberty in the Modern World. His firm grasp of multiple languages and his theological competence are capably demonstrated in translating such works as Sermons by John Calvin on II Samuel. He is serving with David Wright of the University of Edinburgh as a general editor for a revision of Calvin’s Old Testament Commentaries. Before joining the faculty at RTS, Dr. Kelly traveled extensively throughout the world preaching and teaching. He was a staff scholar at Chalcedon and was editor of the Journal of Christian Reconstruction (1982-83).

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