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Southern Cultures 8.4 (2002) 56-68

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The Dulcet Tones of Christian Disputation in the Democratic Up-Country

Eugene D. Genovese


Antebellum southerners had ample reason to consider themselves as religiously tolerant as any people in America. Certainly, the testimony of Catholics and Jews bore them out. Yet, according to prevalent Yankee opinion, the Old South stood as the very embodiment of bigotry. The facts simply did not matter. The

frequent—and ludicrous—charges of religious bigotry did have a basis but not one readily suitable for the abolitionists, who themselves wallowed in anti-Catholicism and related niceties. The plantation belt demonstrated the religious toleration that southerners prided themselves on, whereas the yeoman-dominated up-country provided grist for the mill of those who loved to denigrate the South.

Throughout the South enormous crowds gathered to hear ferocious debates over predestination and free will, over infant and adult baptism, over rival forms of church polity, over theological and ecclesiastical matters, large and small. The wildest of political debates did not overmatch them in enthusiasm, partisanship, and coarse language. Consider this observation from Carrollton, Mississippi: when the Disciples of Christ and the Methodists went at each other in 1851, Sarah Watkins heard "as much stamping of feet and applauding as if they had been at a theater or some such place." Especially in the border states preachers could be heard to rail against infidels, heathens, and atheists when they were referring to, say, Campbellites (Disciples of Christ). The Campbellites, along with others in the line of fire, gave as good as they got. 1

The polemical rough stuff shocked the tender sensibilities of genteel travelers and contributed to a regional reputation for religious intolerance, not to say bigotry. But notice that most of the debates took place in a church presided over by a pastor who invited his rival to share the pulpit, and in no few cases the rival was invited to take the pulpit by himself, to be answered at another church service. The warring ministers usually were, at that very moment, cooperating closely in community activities—for example, in the promotion of education—and often they maintained cordial personal relations and could be found dining at each other's homes. [End Page 56]

An exposition and defense of the tolerant spirit of the plantation South may be left for another day. Here let us tarry with a worst-case scenario, which, as might be expected, occurred in the up-country. The war between Calvinists and Arminians in east Tennessee set all-time lows for vulgarity and meanness—for slander, libel, irresponsibility, mendacity, and demagogy—but this much may be said for it: it provided wonderful sport for heathens and anticlericals. The Reverend J. R. Graves, emerging as the foremost leader of the Landmark Baptists, had a talent for invective rivaled only by that of Parson William G. Brownlow, the fiery Methodist preacher and Whig politician in whose eyes Calvinists ranked with Democrats as Satan's special disciples. In Alabama P. H. Pitts heard Graves deliver "the most beautiful & powerful discourse I ever listened to." Pitts thereupon borrowed five dollars and gave it to him. After Graves's next sermon, Pitts kicked in fifteen dollars more, whether also borrowed he did not say. 2

Unseemly polemics had been raging for years, and in 1848 the Reverend Frederick A. Ross delivered what struck many in the audience of two thousand as a tirade. Ross, a New School Presbyterian well known for his preaching at revivals [End Page 57] [Begin Page 59] in Kentucky, Ohio, and Virginia, as well as Tennessee, described Wesley's doctrine of direct witness as unscriptural and mischievous. Charles Collins, president of Emory and Henry College, replied for the Methodists, and the ensuing ruckus got steadily harsher as Brownlow and Graves entered the fray. The harsh soon passed into the ugly when a spate of widely circulated books followed the delightful doings on the lecture circuit and the publication of articles that muddied the pages of denominational journals. Stephen Morgan, a contentious Presbyterian minister...


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