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ESSAY Olmsted's Cracker Preacher by Eugene D. Genovese rederick Law Olmsted, in his Journey in the Seaboard Slave States (1856), left a vivid picture of the religious life of the common people of the southern back country, which had an incalculable influence on northern opinion in its day and has lingered on in the appraisals of recent historians. After reporting from North Carolina that the poor whites who worked the turpentine forests believed in witchcraft and evil spirits, Olmsted warmed to his task. He provided a lengthy account of a "Cracker" church in Georgia, which he chose to visit instead of the staid Episcopal church nearby. A good many blacks sat in back, dressed more neatly than most of the whites. In the evening the same white minister would preach to the blacks in a service oftheir own. The leisurely coming and going of whites and blacks displeased Olmsted, and the shrieking offended his sense of propriety. To his chagrin, dogs also came and went, and the open windows let in the neighing and braying of the horses and mules. Olmsted recounted the "meaningless" harangues of the preacher, who attacked atheism, socialism, and other isms and especially had it in for Fourier, Tom Paine, Voltaire, "Roosu" [Rousseau], the Pope of Rome, and Joe Smith. Although the preacher did not often resort to violent language, he constantly cried aloud while maintaining a curiously conversational tone that held his audience. Olmsted took notes on the sermon: "A-ah! why don't you come to Christ? ah! what's the reason? ah! Is it because he was oí lowly birtht ah! Is that it! Is //because he was born in a manger? ah! Is it because he was of humble origin? . . . Or is it—is it because"—He drew back, and after a moment's silence put his hand to his chin, and began walking up and down the platform ofthe pulpit, soliloquizing. "It can't be—it can't be? . . . perhaps you don't like the messenger—is that the reason? I'm the Ambassador of the great and glorious King; it's his invitation, 'taint mine. You musn't mind me. I ain't no account. Suppose a ragged, insignificant little boy should come running in here and tell you, 'Mister, your house's a-fire!' would you 54 Frederick Imw OlmstedSr., in a photograph taken around the time ofhis writing]o\imzy in the Seaboard Slave States. Courtesy ofthe NationalPark Service, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site. mind the ragged, insignificant little boy, and refuse to listen to him, because he didn't look respectable?" The preacher turned to the sorrows of parents whose children were snatched early by death, beseeching them to pray that the departed be spared the torments of hell. He appealed to wives to steer their unconverted husbands to the right path. Olmsted confessed his astonishment at the sympathetic reception of the sermon by one and all, especially since some ofthe fifty or so whites were wealthy slaveholders and most of the others seemed more prosperous than their rude dress might lead one to believe. He concluded that the preacher and his flock thought alike on all essential matters. A few declared for Christ then and there. All and all, Olmsted clearly found the whole show in bad taste and rather absurd but nonetheless impressive.1 The more isolated rural areas of the South harbored congregations as insulated and ignorant as Olmsted assumed this one to be. Since he noticed, as did other travelers, that many of those in attendance were well-to-do property holders, some ofthem wealthy planters, he might have reflected, although he did not, that the sons of the well-to-do were probably headed for academies and colleges. Others unfamiliar with the southern countryside reacted as he did to the downhome Baptist and Methodist preachers. Catherine Cooper Hopley, an Englishwoman who taught in Virginia during the Civil War, came upon a Methodist verOlmsted 's Cracker Preacher 5 5 sion and was duly appalled. Visiting a rough-hewn, unlhe leisurelypainted church in eastern Virginia, she could hardly bej · lieve the preacher's poor English and trite raging at sin. ? is Wadley...


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