In the American South, the decades from the 1740's to the 1830's when the Baptist and Methodist churches were taking shape, marked a time when itinerant preachers on horses, moved across the Southern landscape to spread the evangelical faith.

Young Baptist and Methodist preachers seeking to win Southern converts in the 18th century faced a formidable opposition, primarily because their message of salvation initially carried a challenge to both white supremacy and male dominance in the region.

In their quest for "the rebirth of the fallen soul" and "the regeneration of the corrupt heart," the early Baptist and Methodist ministers encompassed a variety of sins and sinners. These were often termed as "Worldlings" who pursued hedonistic pleasures like dancing, drinking, and gambling; the humanists (like Thomas Jefferson) who extolled the rational virtues of the Enlightenment; slaveholders -- as blacks were considered God's children too, the rebellious churches believed, with souls worth saving. Methodist and many Baptist clergies opposed human bondage and at first called on believers to release their slaves.

Evangelicals also honored women, in ways disturbing to white Southern men, by acknowledging "the spiritual capacities of white women" and affirmed the right of women, both black and white, to bear witness to their faith in public. As a consequence, Baptist and Methodist churches became "The only settings in the South in which white men were required to compete for standing not only with white women but also with African Americans." And as a consequence to that, adult white male converts were relatively few in the 18-century South, a situation evangelical leaders found increasingly disturbing as the turn of the century approached.

By 1784, Methodists had formally abandoned their efforts to prohibit slaveholders from membership, and Baptists increasingly saw nothing incompatible in being a Christian and being a slave owner. Worship services became racially segregated, and the ministries of black preachers were restricted to slave communities across the South.

Other repercussions that took place included women eventually being put in their place; the emerging church leadership began preaching a different gospel regarding women; usually young, normally unmarried Evangelical clergymen in the 18th century became older, more settled and married in the 19th century.

A more powerful Christianity took hold in Southern evangelical churches in the first half of the 19th century. The language of warfare and martial imagery became commonplace in religious settings. A new class of "warrior preachers" came to dominate the Southern evangelical scene with profound implications for a section increasingly given to calculating the value of the Union as the 19th century wore on.


Source: The New York Time Book Review, May 11, 1997 pg. 25