Southern Cultures 9.1 (2003) 106-108
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Religion in Mississippi. By Randy J. Sparks. University Press of Mississippi, 2001. 291pp. Cloth $40.00
This sweeping survey of religion in Mississippi provides a guide for viewing the religious experience of the whole South. Randy Sparks has read broadly in the growing body of literature on southern religious history, and he carefully summarizes competing interpretations as he proceeds from colonial Catholicism to the contemporary stresses in mainstream Protestant denominations.
For the most part, Sparks's eleven chapters focus on the two topics that he knows best and that he judges to be most critical: the dominant role of Protestant evangelicalism in the region, and the bedeviling influence of race prejudice. His research in original sources is impressive, and he has an eye for colorful quotes that make for good reading.
Religion in Mississippi incorporates modern religious outsiders such as Catholics, Jews, and Mormons, but the main story is the growth of a Methodist-Baptist-Presbyterian dominance after the American Revolution. These churches won the South as a part of the broader "democratization" of American religion; before 1830, they formed a creative "counterculture" that empowered the common people and played fast and loose with social conventions. Sparks is at his best telling tales of the camp meetings that were, in the words of Methodist Bishop Francis Asbury, the Lord's "battle ax and weapon of war."
While they did not completely level frontier society, early-nineteenth-century evangelicals appealed to all: "Women and slaves were drawn to evangelicalism by the respect, the spiritual equality, and the substantive leadership opportunities that it offered." In an excellent chapter on black religion from 1799 to 1860 Sparks paints a broad picture of interracial meetings, enduring independent and quasi-independent black congregations and preachers, repressive white efforts to control black religion after 1830—in all, a highly complex religious landscape.
Things changed in the South after 1830. Slave revolts and radical abolitionism account for much of that change, but Sparks concentrates on another development [End Page 106] that revolutionized southern evangelicalism. "Flush times" separated planters from yeomen farmers; the democratic sects of the early nineteenth century increasingly became formal denominations led by educated clergymen. That was not good news for the equalitarian evangelicals lionized by Sparks: "The period from 1830 to 1860 saw a major shift in evangelical theology as progressives abandoned the traditional evangelical emphasis on the equality of believers and advocated instead a hierarchical, corporate view of the religious community, a change with tremendous implications for blacks and women."
Religion in Mississippi describes an increasingly denominational and domesticated evangelicalism after the Civil War. Evangelicals remained ubiquitous but became more and more divided. Some preachers and women's groups were more responsive to social injustice than generally assumed; Methodist Bishop Charles B. Galloway, for instance, championed women's rights and anti-lynching laws. But mainstream evangelical churches paid a price for even moderate bows to reform and political liberalism; increasingly in the twentieth century they were outflanked by new groups to their right—Pentecostals, churches of Christ, and other conservative churches.
In a chapter on religion and civil rights Sparks returns to the question that most troubles his conscience: how did Mississippi Christians, white and black, evangelicals and outsiders, respond to the moral challenge to combat racial injustice? Not very well, he concludes. It is true that one can point to white liberals who refused to compromise their faith (between 1959 and 1964 seventy-nine Methodist ministers transferred out of the Mississippi Conference) and to "courageous" black leaders, but there were also black ministers "in the pay of whites" and, of course, hard-line Christian segregationists. Still, most Mississippi Christians were probably somewhere in the middle; at the time, historian James W. Silver observed that "almost every congregation in the state was composed of individuals who ranged from liberal to racist." Sparks's treatment adds needed depth to this tragic era. He clearly states the dilemma of the moderate middle, a group that begs further study: "Attacked by right-wing segregationists for being too liberal and almost equally denounced by their...