The Real Old Time Religion

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People in the South who are intuitively attuned to its culture and history suspect that what passes for popular, evangelical religion in the region is not precisely what it has been in the past. Besides the fact that the South, like other parts of the country, is slowly giving in to the forces of secularism, those states from Maryland to Texas, and halfway up the Mississippi Valley, exhibit a kind of religion that is less distinguishable now, than earlier in their history, from New York, Minnesota, and California. The Crystal Cathedral in Anaheim, California, might just as well be in Atlanta. And the seeker-sensitive Willow Creek Community Church will find its imitators in Oklahoma City, Dallas, and New Orleans. The fundamentalist-liberal rift that once plagued Northern mainline Protestantism, now has its mirror image all across the South, especially in the Southern Baptist Convention.

What the Traditional South Resisted

In order to understand what has changed in the South, it is necessary to have clearly in view the kinds of disorders that the religious communities of the South, whether consciously and intentionally or unconsciously and intuitively, resisted. What they rejected at almost every significant point were three movements that had considerable impact in other parts of the country, and especially in the Northeast. These were (1) fundamentalism, (2) Puritanism, and (3) vulgar pantheism. All three of these have enjoyed some success in the United States, but until recently none of them have been favorably received in the South. That is not to say that they did not exist in the South: for each represents a kind of permanent temptation for all people everywhere. But each of them also represents something to which some cultures have developed a degree of resistance. The South has historically been somewhat resistant to the first, more resistant to the second, and until relatively recently almost untouched by the third.

The first category will come as a surprise to many: fundamentalism. Often, it is assumed that since the South has been traditionally and so thoroughly influenced by religion, and by a biblical or even biblicist orientation toward religion, there is nowhere that fundamentalism is more at home than in the South. It is not, of course, unknown anywhere. The fundamentalist phenomenon is so frequently found among people of all kinds, and especially those who are less inclined toward non-literal use of language—those who have less of a poetic and metaphorical grasp of reality—that it is descriptive of a certain portion of any population. St. Augustine commented upon this habit among “simple people” in his own day, and never has there been a time without those who think in simple and direct, or literal, categories. The Church, however, has traditionally understood its teaching as rooted in the historical and literal, but not confined to it. And the South, as it has been represented in the leaders of her churches, has successfully resisted an extreme preoccupation with the mere “facts” of the Bible, and instead saw in these facts a more comprehensive truth. It was, after all, in the North and the Midwest, not the South, that major denominations were split asunder by the fundamentalist-liberal controversy in the 1920s. In the South, inroads were made but were typically marginalized. In North Carolina, William Poteat, president of Wake Forest College wrote favorably of evolution at a time when his Northern peers in denominational colleges would not have dared such; and at home it was little commented upon. B.H. Carroll (1843-1914), theologian and founder of Southwestern Baptist Seminary spoke of Scripture in a way that was distinctly non-fundamentalist. His biographer, Jeff D. Ray, wrote in 1927, at the height of the liberal-fundamentalist controversies in the North, that Carroll,

… believed all the Bible to be true in all that it taught, but his mind was too keenly discriminating to allow him to be trapped by any modern so called Fundamentalist into saying that it is all literal. He was orthodox, and what might be called an ultra-conservative on the plenary and even the verbal inspiration of the Scriptures, but he never felt the necessity of bolstering his orthodoxy by denying that the Bible often teaches deep spiritual truth by means of figurative language.

He found in the Bible something more positive and life-affirming than the fundamentalists knew. After an exceedingly cruel war, in which he lost everything, he searched modern philosophies in a quest for life’s meaning. Then, like many young soldiers returning to a devastated homeland, he turned to Christianity. “Once more I viewed the anti-Christian philosophies,” he wrote, “no longer to admire them in what they destroyed, but to inquire what they built up, what they offered to a hungry heart and a blasted life.” These anti-Christian philosophies were “mere negations,” and whoever “looks trustingly into any of its false faces looks into the face of a Medusa, and is turned to stone.” In the midst of this search “two books of the Bible took hold of me with unearthly power.” They were Job and Ecclesiastes.

There is something rather subtle, but extremely important, in the tone and emphasis that we find in Carroll’s reference to the Bible. For Protestants of the South in general, and for B.H. Carroll as a good representative of this sentiment, the Bible was not just an accurate book that could be used to good effect by moralists and religious fanatics, but it was a powerful book, capable of changing lives and forming the human soul.

James Boyce, the Charlestonian founder of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in the years before the War Between the States, clarified his doctrine of the Scripture in his massive Abstract of Systematic Theology, without so much as alluding to any controversy surrounding their literal or non-literal interpretation. The great Northern theologian A.H. Strong, from a somewhat later period, felt the need to spend more than a hundred pages dealing with just such misunderstandings. The contrast clearly indicates that in the South, as opposed to the North, refinements of expression regarding how Scripture was authoritative had not become a major issue. The Southern Presbyterian theologians, R.L. Dabney and James Henley Thornwell, spent much time defending the authority of the Bible and the reality of miracles, but not even a paragraph on the literal interpretation of a Scripture that they both saw as pointing not simply to the facts, but through the facts to a transcendent reality. There was plenty of controversy in the South, but it rarely had to do with a strained and factual interpretation of Scripture. There was controversy over ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church) and soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) and Southern theologians had their share of debate, along with the rest of western Christendom, over divine sovereignty and human free will. But there was evidently little dissatisfaction with a less-than-literal reading of the Bible. For Southerners, there was still no problem in believing that truth is conveyed by poetry, parable, and rhetoric, as well as by straight, hard data. Texas witnessed the great Baptist controversy involving the fundamentalist J. Frank Norris, but his efforts were marginalized, and the juggernaut of the Southern Baptist Convention was not troubled by the spirit of fundamentalism for another sixty years. Today, in the controversy that has troubled these Baptists, the split might be more fairly represented as between the moderates and the conservatives. However, there is plenty of evidence of true fundamentalists playing a part on both sides.

Why only recently has fundamentalism played a significant part in the religion of the South? The most important point is that “fundamentalism,” for all its protests against modern ways is actually a modern way of thinking. It has much to do with what Richard Weaver saw as the turning point of Western history: the triumph of nominalism over realism.

For the nominalist, only individual things exist, and what we call universals or principles are only names. This contrasts with the doctrine of St. Thomas—beloved by Southern thinkers from James Petigru Boyce (the Baptist theologian) to Flannery O’Conner (the Catholic writer)—who said that things exist, in the first place, because God creatively thought them. These two contrasting ideas provide for two ways of treating facts. One says that truth or reality lies in the facts themselves. The other holds that facts point beyond themselves to a deeper truth. The former option is nominalism: and it is only under the spell of nominalism that fundamentalism has any appeal. Fundamentalism, therefore, is not an old-fashioned way of thinking, as some assume. The South resisted modernity longer than other parts of the country, and this modernity included fundamentalism.

Fundamentalism, Puritanism, and Vulgar Pantheism

The term “fundamentalism” is almost always used in a pejorative sense, and yet I think seldom carefully defined. Often the speaker means religious fanaticism of the sort that might better be called “Puritanism.” In the case of Shiite Islam in Iran, and in the case of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the disorder is definitely Puritan, not fundamentalist, though these are often identified as “fundamentalist Islamic” sects or movements. The Puritan wishes to cure the world’s ambiguity. He thinks that doing right is a simple matter, to be accomplished with force if necessary. He speaks casually of “solving problems” in society, as if such a thing had ever occurred—as if history had ever yielded anything but slow and uncertain improvements, within enclaves of humane communities, and sometimes within civilizations that stretch over much of a continent. The Puritan neglects mystery and underestimates the depth of sin, even his own. He fails to see that where improvements were made, they were at best ambivalent and desultory. At such times were wonderful glimpses of freedom, goodness, generosity, industry, charity and the like. But never were problems erased as the Puritans of Old England and New England had anticipated. And the ethic of the Puritan brought at least as much disorder as it did improvement.


Fundamentalism is also a disorder, but different from Puritanism. One might say—overstating the case only slightly—that Fundamentalism is a disorder of the intellect, while Puritanism is a disorder of the heart. One, Puritanism, fails to understand the subtlety of the affections, and the elusiveness of the good and the just, both in society and in private lives. Its perfect image is in the scientist of Hawthorne’s story “The Birth Mark” who wishes to rid his wife of the one small flaw detracting from her otherwise perfect features, and he ends in taking her life. She is poisoned by the elixir he had prepared for the perfection of her beauty. The other, Fundamentalism, fails to appreciate the subtlety of the intellect, thinking that truth presents itself in univocal and transparent ways to a mind innocent of paradox or metaphor. Its image is Silas Marner, the miser whose understanding of life has been reduced to a commodity that can be seen, and felt, as well as weighed and counted. The symbols of reality have become reality for the fundamentalist.


In Puritanism one often finds an extreme form of Calvinism that would have been foreign to John Calvin himself. Where the goodness of creation is forgotten, the ultimate hope becomes not so much the good news of God rescuing his world from bondage; it becomes instead the triumph of a sovereign God over a fallen world utterly dispossessed of its original goodness. It is a theologizing that has the feel of Gnostic speculation. The more contemptuous its doctrine is of experience and the less given to moderation, the more it must be trusted. Nathaniel Hawthorne had complained of the type who, in such a manner, turn moral abstraction into an idol:

They have no heart, no sympathy, no reason, no conscience. They will keep no friend, unless he make himself the mirror of their purpose; they will smite and slay you, and trample your dead corpse under foot, all the more readily, if you take the first step with them, and cannot take the second, and the third, and every other step of their terribly straight path.

This metaphysical dualism either leaves the world without a God, such as one finds in the deism of the long-forgotten andfinally-irrelevant Creator; or else the Deity returns, as in New England Puritanism, striking poor sinners with the rod of moral conquest. The deist God is missing and nature becomes sterile and rational, bereft of warmth or life. It is a disenchanted nature. The Puritan God rules over a nature equally disenchanted, but which is not only alienated from God, but will always pay the price for its alienation.

The Puritan God draws near, in other words, in order to conquer. The love of this God consists of hope on the other side of a mountain of wrath. And while he is near-at-hand (unlike the deist deity), he is morally transcendent, the appalling visitation of absolute justice. In the name of such a God, ethics becomes a weapon with which to subdue nature. And nature becomes the enemy.


Transcendentalism is another religious note that met with timely resistance from Southern theologians such as R.L. Dabney and James Henley Thornwell. It is instructive that Transcendentalism grew up as a prominent successor to Puritanism in a Puritan world. On the surface, this New England philosophy, with its strains of Romanticism and Pantheism, appears to be a reaction against the Puritan metaphysical dualism.

In fact, however, it would seem that the two systems are actually very close. That is, the Puritan’s vision of an all-conquering deity is monist (one form of which is pantheism) at heart. This God has no dialogue with his creation; he allows no Sabbath in which his creation can exist on its own; he does not live so much in relationship with the world, and it is difficult to say that such a God loves the world. He can only be understood as existing in sovereign power over it. The reality of the world, with its variety and its differentiation, its separateness, and its independence fades away, as the sovereign reality of a supreme Will becomes the only true thing.

When conquest is complete, the give and take of separate wills, the dialogue of real persons, or of the personality with nature, no longer has any meaning. Only one will counts; and therefore only one will exists. It is difficult to call that will “personal” since personality implies relationship. The Supreme Power relativises and eventually absorbs all smaller powers—and the radical transcendence of the Puritan deity—Kerboom!—has collapsed the world into itself with the result that what appeared to be a stern dualism turns out to be pantheism. Old John Calvin becomes a whirling dervish in this picture—which is far from historical except in the sense that Cotton Mather, the witch-hunting Calvinist, and his tribe begat Walt Whitman and his own kind of whirling dervish—whirling until the world and God, that is, he and God, became one:

Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy
whatever I touch or am touched from;
The scent of these arm-pits is aroma finer than prayer,
This head is more than churches or bibles or creeds.
(“Song of Myself,” Stanza 24)

The absolute sovereign deity of the Puritan becomes the Unitarian’s wedge against the untidy Trinitarian, and finally devolves to the absolute “I” of Whitman’s vulgar romanticism.

The South’s Incarnational Religion

Between these two—the abstracted Puritan moral principle and the Romantic Pantheism of the Emerson-Thoreau-Whitman variety—lies what I am calling an incarnational sentiment in religion. This describes the most essential character of religion in the American South. A theology that tends to remember, along with its hope for salvation, that the world was created good, and that God became flesh, is not likely to err in the fashion of the ancient gnostics. That is, it is not likely to promote a hatred of the world and an excessive distrust of humanity. Its doctrine of a fallen humanity does not lead to revolutionary hopes for an alternate world. On the one side, Calvinism has, in its most extreme form, so distanced God from the world that what remains is a yawning chasm between the world and its God. The sense almost inevitably becomes that of an antagonistic dualism, with mind on one side and nature on the other, splitting apart soul and body, reason and passion, word and flesh. The intellect stands to nature as its conqueror. The same sentiment transferred to the exact sciences follows Descartes’s idea that science is intended to make us the “masters and possessors of nature.”

Southern religion has always been dominated by a strain of theology that had a healthy respect for nature and the human senses. The Reformed theology of the South, rather than taking on the Gnostic inclination of the New England Puritans and their Unitarian successors, was the sort of Reformed thought influenced heavily by Scottish Common Sense Realism. This, in turn, kept Reformed thought from losing its original respect for natural theology—that is, the idea that we can know something of God through nature, Scripture acting rather as a pair of spectacles by which we might discern God’s glory in his created order. The natural theology of St. Thomas Aquinas still has a bearing upon this branch of Reformed thought. The Baptists and the Methodists, who have made up the largest segment of Southern religion for more than two centuries, are denominations classically shaped by a strong infusion of natural theology. Among the Baptists this was manifested in the degree of reliance on human will and judgment, or “soul competency,” as well as by the high degree of localism in their church polity. Among the Methodists, the Arminian theology,
with its emphasis upon the human will as it plays a part in the divine economy, bears within it a certain resistance to a one-sided view of divine power. The Presbyterians and Episcopalians who have, since the early nineteenth century, influenced Southern thought to a degree outweighing their numbers, also strongly reflect this positive view of nature, creation, and the incarnation. The Roman Catholics, who even in the nineteenth century accounted for much of the population in the regions of the old Louisiana territory, naturally reflect the interplay of natural and revealed theology that has long been a hallmark of Catholic thought.

The strong development of a natural theology in the West can be attributed to two main influences. One is the great theological synthesis of St. Thomas Aquinas; and the other is Reformed thought following in the tradition of John Calvin. It is interesting that, when James Petigru Boyce, the founding president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, taught theology to his upper level, Latin-reading students, he concentrated upon two major thinkers: Francis Turrettin, the Calvinist systematic theologian, and Thomas Aquinas.

Southern Religion and the Lost Cause

It is worth mentioning that the very fact of the South’s brutal experience of war, and its humiliating defeat, played a part in that section’s resistance of a religious error that has otherwise seemed endemic to the United States. It is the same error to which ancient Israel was so prone: the belief that right religion would always triumph, and defeat is a sign of divine disfavor. This error belongs to the adolescence of religion, but not to its maturity, as the prophets Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, were to teach their people.

Southerners also had to deal with their own defeat and ruin, as well as with the eventual recognition of their own sins—even while the virtues of their oppressors were exaggerated and their sins ignored. Nevertheless, certain virtues can only come prominently into play under conditions that are mostly foreign to the bourgeois comforts of twentieth century America. Flannery O’Conner worried that Southerners were losing this sense of difference and alienation that has something in common with the very idea of holiness. She said once,

The Anguish that most of us have observed for some time now has been caused not by the fact that the South is alienated from the rest of the country, but by the fact that it is not alienated enough, that everyday we are getting more and more like the rest of the country, that we are being forced out, not only of our many sins but of our few virtues.

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