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  • The Sacred Mirror: Evangelicalism, Honor, and Identity in the Deep South, 1790–1860. by Robert Elder
  • Randall J. Stephens (bio)
The Sacred Mirror: Evangelicalism, Honor, and Identity in the Deep South, 1790–1860. By Robert Elder. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016. Pp. 288. Cloth, $34.95.)

Since the appearance of Bertram Wyatt-Brown's influential Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South (1982), historians have been gauging the influence and impact of honor on the South, and the related regional violence and strict gender roles that defined honor culture. Older concepts of honor—tied as these were to public perception, shame, and the occasional need for retribution—still dominated below the Mason-Dixon Line, said Wyatt-Brown, long after losing hold elsewhere. Equipped with a mountain of anecdotes, court records, and more, he argues that the North and the South went very separate ways when it came to behavior and ethics: "It was this discrepancy between one section devoted to conscience and to secular economic concerns and the other to honor and to persistent community sanctions that eventually compelled the slaveholding states to withdraw."1 For all of its critics and enthusiasts, few in the nineteenth century would have denied that honor played an enormous role in the Slave South. Yet in the twentieth century, Wyatt-Brown observes, "our view of honor is so rarefied that we do not see how [End Page 318] it could really coexist with violence and the complacent subjugation of so-called inferiors."2

Drawing on the work of Wyatt-Brown, Clifford Geertz, Julian A. Pitt-Rivers, and Donald Mathews, Robert Elder thinks that there are still certain blind spots historians have when it comes to honor in the Old South. Regarding religion, historians are at pains to explain how evangelicalism, to borrow from Wyatt-Brown, "could really coexist with violence and the complacent subjugation of so-called inferiors." Some of the persistent themes within the historiography may have to do with what Elder rightly points out: "evangelicals were never as radical as some may have hoped" (209). Explaining how southern evangelicalism and honor culture intersected is just one of the many useful things Elder does with great skill.

Focusing mostly on Georgia and South Carolina, Elder reveals that Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches embraced many of the basic tenets of honor. The story he tells is not of honor-drenched, sanguinary white men, fiercely clashing preachers, and feminized denominations. Rather, evangelicalism and honor were less competing ideologies than they were closely connected and mutually dependent. To trace that association, he uses a strong source base and helpfully sheds light on a complex topic. Elder makes use of membership records, individual church histories, diaries, periodicals, correspondence, a wide range of secondary sources, and accounts of church discipline.

The latter serve as a perfect source for finding out something about the kinds of behaviors evangelicals tolerated or looked past and the kinds that were truly damnable. In a chapter subtitled "Honor, Community, Discipline, and the Self in the Local Church," Elder shows that white men were frequently admonished or even excommunicated for drunkenness, violent fights, adultery, dancing, or gambling. White women, on the other hand, were brought before church tribunals far less often, and typically for adultery. Yet the fallout, shame, and disgrace could be much more devastating for them. Likewise, African Americans, both free and enslaved, could be punished in similar ways for sins of pleasure and the flesh. Baptists and Methodists charged black women and men far more often with sexual offenses than their white counterparts. Even with this severe double standard, African Americans joined churches with their own social needs in mind. Evangelicalism, Elder suggests, "paradoxically … established important limits and counterweights to the social death and dishonor of slavery" (139).

Though certain pastimes and activities were forbidden or frowned on for evangelicals, Elder points out others that were not. In a chapter dealing with the power of oratory and the appeal of pulpit shouters, he notes that [End Page 319] believers condemned dueling and were not allowed to gamble, fight, go to horse races, curse, or drink. "But as an important subset of the constellation of...


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pp. 318-321
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