- Varieties of Southern Religious History: Essays in Honor of Donald G. Mathews ed. by Regina D. Sullivan and Monte Harrell Hampton
Fifty years ago, Donald G. Mathews published his first book, the landmark Slavery and Methodism: A Chapter in American Morality, 1780–1845 [End Page 667] (Princeton, 1965). That notable volume, still foundational for its analytical insights as well as its prodigious research, became overshadowed a little more than a decade later by the appearance of Mathews’s field-defining Religion in the Old South (Chicago, 1977). If historians of religion in the South have more recently asked questions that move beyond the parameters of evangelical Christianity, Religion in the Old South nonetheless continues to cast a long shadow. It remains a staple of graduate reading lists and influences the framework of debate among scholars. Mathews’s work ever since, on gender and the politics of the Equal Rights Amendment, as well as religion and lynching, has kept his scholarship at the center of conversations in southern and religious history.
Beyond his published writings, an abiding testament to the reach of Mathews’s influence has been his career as a teacher and mentor. Over the course of his distinguished career at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Mathews advised twenty-four doctoral dissertations. Sixteen of his students are represented in this volume, covering the late eighteenth century to the recent past. However, the book’s main title is somewhat misleading: although most of the volume offers a variety of pace-setting work in the subfield of southern religious history, four of the essays have little connection to the history of the South, and two are not really about religion in a direct sense. In this collection of compelling but disparate essays, editors Regina D. Sullivan and Monte Harrell Hampton forgo a general organizational introduction in favor of a probing analysis of the key questions and approaches that have guided Mathews as a scholar and adviser. Thus the book’s subtitle—Essays in Honor of Donald G. Mathews—is right on the mark.
For students of religion and culture in the South, this collection should be a new starting point for many inquiries. It showcases work on many familiar topics in the field: the tensions inherent in “frontier” religion, debates over pluralism in the evangelical South, slavery and emancipation, and race and politics, as well as gender, religious activism, and reform. But even in this familiar litany, several chapters stand out for pointing readers in new directions. Hampton’s chapter on North Carolina African American Methodist minister Henry Evans explores how a biracial nineteenth-century faith became segregated; David J. Voelker shows how the perceived threat of Unitarianism pushed Kentucky Presbyterians to narrow the educational ambition of Transylvania University in the first decades of the nineteenth century; Philip N. Mulder skillfully contrasts the careers of two ministers—Methodist Lorenzo Dow and Baptist John Taylor—who saw in the new American “wilderness” the possibilities of wild and wooly religious experience and were bedeviled by its uncontrolled and unregulated nature.
Furthermore, the book provides work on a number of topics that remain understudied: southern Spiritualism; the relationship of psychology to historical analyses of violence, death, and fear; the impact of American denominations in Cuba after its revolution; and the influence of a “trans-Pacific” Protestantism in Japan as practiced by Japanese believers (p. 163). Finally, Emily Bingham’s chapter on Henrietta Bingham—a sexually liberated Louisville debutante who introduced the London-based Bloomsbury Group of writers to southern culture, especially African American music [End Page 668] and folkways, in the 1920s—opens up rich interpretive veins for southern cultural history.
Two chapters especially should push historians to think differently about some perennial topics in the field. Scholars have often been befuddled by Nat Turner’s apocalyptic claims, which led him to begin the largest slave uprising in the United States. In a deeply researched chapter, Wayne K...