When Worlds Collide: Methodism and the Southern Mind, 1770-1810
Lyerly, Cynthia Lynn
Boles, John B.; Cline, Allyn R.; Cline, Gladys M.
Doctor of Philosophy
When Methodists first arrived in the South, they were critics of the social order. They preached in public against slavery and counselled in private against slaveholding. They condemned the code of honor and supported pious women and children who defied irreligious patriarchs. In Methodist churches white women played vocal and leading roles, and in service of their religion, they often defied southern gender conventions. African Americans were also prominent and vocal in early Methodist services, and through Methodism they contested racist assumptions and critiqued their masters. Many free black and slave men exhorted, preached, and led classes and congregations. Methodists condemned the lifestyles and mores of southern elites and promoted an ethic that prized piety over property. By advocating virtues traditionally deemed feminine, opposing slavery, and preaching against wealth, Methodists challenged southern secular values. In their churches, Methodists created a public space where secular rankings of class, gender and, to a lesser extent, race, were set aside and where southerners who were considered by secular society inferior advanced an oppositional world view. Opponents of the church, especially elite white men, believed their values, ways, and ideals were under assault by the Methodists. Opposition, including denunciations of Methodist doctrine and enthusiasm, patriarchs' physical assaults of Methodist women and children, and mob violence against slave and free black Methodists, bound Methodists more closely to one another. The church's beliefs that suffering was salutary and that persecution was evidence of true faith sustained its members in a hostile world. As Methodism evolved from an outcast sect to a respectable denomination, its opposition to gentry custom, gender conventions, and slavery weakened. Because of the church's intensely individualistic focus, its naive optimism about the ability to change hearts and minds, and its failure to see social evils in other than religious terms, Methodists could not sustain their critique of southern society. Nonetheless, for a few brief decades, Methodists promoted a genuinely alternative world view, and their experience illustrates the possibilities and limits of dissent in the Revolutionary and early national South.
Religious history; Methodist Church; Southern states; History