- Strangers Below: Primitive Baptists and American Culture by Joshua Guthman
Historians have too often reduced Primitive Baptists to a theological or class phenomenon. In this era of multifaceted cultural analysis in history, Joshua Guthman brilliantly reveals the lived experience of Primitives. Following the lead of religious historians like Robert Orsi, Guthman gives readers a sense of the Primitive impulse by immersing them in the Primitive emotional and cultural experience. Most historians of religion and of the South know this small sect for its adherence to strict Calvinist predestination and its resistance to the mainstream evangelical developments of the early nineteenth century: creeping Arminianism, new revival measures, and, above all, missionary and institutional money raising. Guthman compellingly chronicles these historical and theological developments, but he goes beyond them to reveal the rich and complex internal and cultural life that drove the Primitives’ stances. Primitives were psychologically set apart from what became dominant evangelicalism, though Guthman emphasizes that even in the early nineteenth century the triumph of missionary evangelicalism, and the future Bible Belt, was not set in stone.
Primitives rejected the assurance of salvation favored by more Arminian evangelicals because they ultimately did not feel such assurance. They could not support missions and revivals of evangelicals who confidently saw themselves as “the saved.” Primitives rejected these evangelicals who knew the route to progress and salvation and believed they should be in charge of both. Primitives instead embraced an older Calvinist sense of guilt, uncertainty, humility, original sin, and helplessness in the face of God’s absolute sovereignty and grace. Their Calvinist adherence grew out of their emotional proclivities and felt experience and not out of a doctrinal rigidness. From this same stubborn uncertainty came adherence to a simpler, older institutional order. Although many Primitives participated in and wanted the mainstream evangelical sense of certainty and control, they could not live it.
Guthman accomplishes his analytical purpose expertly in the introduction and first two chapters and then uses the next three chapters to dip into different eras, issues, and subcultures of the Primitives. Some of these stories and arguments are more compelling than others. Guthman calls his book’s structure “idiosyncratic,” and maybe that is an appropriate approach for such a stubborn and wonderfully unpredictable religious people (p. 17). His up-close vignettes pay the highest dividends in his final section on the popularity of Primitives’ “high lonesome” musical style after 2001 (p. 120). His recounting of the music and religion of Roscoe Holcomb and Ralph Stanley is a wonderful way to close the book. The appeal of these musical echoes of America’s strict Calvinist roots reveals that despite the tidal wave of celebrations of progressive free will in American religion and culture, a vital Calvinist strain has always survived.
Guthman’s exploration of the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century African American Primitives, especially the congregation in Huntsville, Alabama, documents how an almost completely ignored segment of African Americans in the South shared the Primitive impulse. Guthman’s catchall third [End Page 956] chapter on markets, money, missions, and gender in the antebellum era is valuable in documenting how even Primitives used “the language of the market to discuss their religious affairs” (p. 66). Primitives were appalled by antebellum southern evangelicals’ rush to glorify material and financial progress. But contrary to the historical cliché, they were not backward, subsistence republicans bewildered and left behind by the market forces they resented. This insight alone puts this valuable chapter in line with the best of the voluminous research on southern evangelicals by the current generation of historians. Primitives—and Guthman—deserve a place of honor in this historical school. Primitives felt themselves to be “strangers below” on earth, but after this pithy and lively book they are much less strangers to Guthman’s readers.