- Ministers and Masters: Methodism, Manhood, and Honor in the Old South by Charity R. Carney
Over the past several decades, scholars have illuminated myriad notions of honor and manhood in the antebellum South. Yet, this same scholarship that has deepened our understanding of the gendered discourses of antebellum life have also iterated the complex ways in which southern manhood broke along occupational and class divides. Charity Carney's Ministers and Masters offers readers an examination of the world of Methodist ministers in the antebellum South and their efforts to conform and, at times, deviate from the expected gender constructions of the day.
According to Carney, Methodist ministers occupied a unique place in southern society. These men waged a constant struggle to hold on to their religious principles while also trying to modify their beliefs regarding sensitive issues such as the institution of slavery. While Methodist ministers did typically abstain from heavy political involvement, this did not preclude them from defending slavery in the South or criticizing the abolitionist sentiments of a certain northern societal class. In fact, Carney contends that it was the gradual acceptance of slavery and ardent defense of the peculiar institution that ultimately proved essential to the growth of the Methodist faith in the antebellum South. Yet, ministers still clashed with their southern brethren over such masculine ideals as drinking, dancing, and dueling through the use of "aggressive evangelicalism" (7). The Methodist exhortation to refrain from bloodshed often led to much criticism within their respective circles, but enabled the ministers to feel confident in their adherence to proper Christian morals. However, such constraints did not prevent Methodist ministers from utilizing the pen in various religious periodicals to defend their honor and the legitimacy of Methodism.
Constructions of patriarchy and how they pertained to church hierarchy also figured prominently into Carney's assessment of Methodism. For many of the southern Methodist ministers, the power of Bishops was paramount and ensured a proper hierarchy within the church while northern Methodist clergymen longed for [End Page 157] more autonomy. The respect of church elders and a clearly defined hierarchy demonstrated the paternalist sentiments of these southern Methodist ministers that were transmitted down to their congregants and the slaves that they owned. Furthermore, notions of inverted hierarchy figure into Carney's discussion of ministers as patriarchs within their own families. The role of itinerant preachers led to a focus on the success of the church over their own family's well-being and financial security. Such a focus led to non-traditional familial relations as wives typically took on all roles associated with parental authority—often with financial support from congregations in order to provide meager support for the children; ministers and their families lived in what Charity Carney describes as a constant "state of dependency" (81). The enhanced authority bestowed to wives came with severe financial and social limitations.
These notions of inverted hierarchy also extended to the roles of children in congregations. Methodist ministers made sure to note to parents that while children were God's charges and good parenting was essential, children could also be entrusted with God's mission to right the wayward souls of their parents. Such accepted wisdom of children salvaging the souls of their parents even extended to slaves and their masters. For Carney, "Methodist ministers often presented stories of devout slaves and irreligious masters that conveyed conflicting messages" (117). However, such stories found growing support among antebellum congregations as the perceived inferiority of slaves remained ever-present and ministers continued to support the institution of slavery. Thus it became part of the accepted narrative that one of the benefits of African American slavery was the slave's great opportunity to benefit the life of his master. While Carney details the evolution of antebellum southern Methodists in the decades leading up to the 1844 denominational schism and subsequently the road to civil war, she could have significantly strengthened the book with a more nuanced discussion of...