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  • The Cult of Domesticity, Southern Style
  • Charles F. Irons (bio)
Scott Stephan . Redeeming the Southern Family: Evangelical Women and Domestic Devotion in the Antebellum South. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2008. ix + 304 pp. Appendix, notes, bibliography, and index. $44.95.

White women in the nineteenth-century South, as they have in most times and places throughout American history, constituted a majority of the membership in most churches. Even though these women were willing to make multiple trips to the sanctuary per week when preaching was available, they nonetheless lived out most of their lives outside of the walls of the church. Churchgoing white women not only spent most of their time at home, but they also made the household the site of many of their most significant religious experiences. Within domestic spaces, women tested their future spouses' religious commitments, strove to build marriages based on Biblical ideals, raised children to receive the faith, and guided loved ones through death from this world to the next. In Redeeming the Southern Family, Scott Stephan offers an intimate portrayal of the ways in which women took on these spiritual challenges.

Stephan, with his focus on domestic devotion, helps to explain why so many white Southern women frequented congregations in which the male leadership preached about the importance of retaining racial and gender hierarchies. In this way, he contributes to the flowering of scholarship in response to Ann Braude's insistence that in order "to understand the history of religion in America," where most adherents across traditions have historically been female, "one must ask what made each [religious] group's teachings and practices meaningful to its female members." This call is especially meaningful in the context of the U.S. South, for most scholars of the region have characterized white practitioners of "Southern religion" (by which they, like Stephan, generally mean evangelical Protestantism) as more concerned with maintaining racial and gender hierarchies than their Northern counterparts. Beth Barton Schweiger and Cynthia Lynn Lyerly helped to prepare the way for Stephan's contribution to this discussion, both with their own excellent work and with their explicit call for scholars, in Schweiger's words, to delineate more clearly "the power that mattered in southern churches and in the lives of Protestant women."1 Stephan answers this charge by demonstrating [End Page 253] the sorts of spiritual power that white Southern Protestant women wielded within their households. "As women struggled to redeem their families," he suggests, "they found their taxing work uniquely meaningful, offering historians an explanation for women's persistent domination of antebellum southern evangelical congregations in spite of the clergy's rhetorical celebrations of male authority" (p. 7).

Profoundly influenced by scholars such as Steven Stowe and Robert Orsi, who have emphasized the "lived experience" of everyday people, Stephan turns to the private papers of Southern women—instead of congregational or denominational records—for information about their religious commitments. As Stephan himself points out, "this approach limits [his] ability to address issues of class and race"; for those women who left substantial collections of letters and/or diaries also tended to be among the most affluent (p. 13). Indeed, within his relatively small sample of twenty-one core families, eight of the women were married to Protestant clergymen, and none claimed African descent. Some readers will doubtless raise questions about the small number of families in the study and their elite status. To Stephan's great credit, however, he is as transparent about his sources as it is possible to be; a detailed appendix contains descriptions of the principal families, supplemented in many places by records from the federal census (pp. 233-39). Readers therefore have a very clear sense of the book's evidentiary base and may judge for themselves just how far down the region's socioeconomic ladder Southern women experienced spiritual empowerment in the ways that Stephan describes.

Of greater interest to this reviewer than the size or status of Stephan's sample, which is more or less of a problem in most social histories, is his decision to leave Southern churches on the margins of his study. Only in the first chapter does he bring in the institutional church, and...


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