- Hard, Hard Religion: Interracial Faith in the Poor South by John Hayes
In his excellent new book, John Hayes offers a rich and thoughtful analysis of religious culture among the poor of the New South. Hayes's approach owes much to anthropological and folkloric methods; it stands in the tradition of Robert Orsi's and David D. Hall's scholarship on "lived religion," which explores the experiences of faith in everyday life. But Hayes is also contributing to recent literature [End Page 412] that explicitly engages the relationship between religion and class for southern working people. Hayes's work deserves its place at the forefront of this rich body of scholarship.
Hayes argues that, between the end of Reconstruction and the emergence of the "Sun Belt," a distinctive folk Christianity emerged among the poor of the New South. This culture encompassed the entire region. It was an oral tradition, communicated through song, story, and sermon, and spread over the roads and railways of emerging commercial networks. In experience and worldview, it differed significantly from the orthodox evangelicalism of both white and black churches; indeed, in Hayes's telling, it shared more with medieval Catholicism and pre-Christian African ritual than with the post-Enlightenment theology of churches and seminaries. Most crucially, Hayes insists, folk Christianity tentatively transcended racial lines. This point is so important because, as Hayes observes, this periodization is precisely the one in which Jim Crow became institutionalized. To Hayes's thinking, the insistence on absolute segregation was, like the parallel obsessions with respectability and domesticity, very much the province of the New South's emerging bourgeoisie.
Hayes develops these arguments subtly, winding them throughout chapters that are organized thematically around different expressions of folk Christianity. After a first chapter contextualizing the region and era, Hayes focuses on the importance of song to the poor's religious culture. In particular, he examines the spread of Lloyd Chandler's "Conversation with Death," a song that was adopted by folksingers across the color line and expressed a visceral, bodily grappling with mortality that was starkly different from the sentimental optimism common in Gilded Age hymnals. Next, Hayes examines accounts of conversation, and of the "call" to preach. Narrating these experiences gave poor folk "breathing room to explore an identity other than that taught by the dominant culture" (p. 118). Hayes then analyzes the makeshift cemeteries of the poor, noting how graves were decorated with clocks, shells, broken plates, and even icons of popular culture. Parting with some of these items presented a real loss to poor people; [End Page 413] Hayes explains that "folk Christians were affirming materiality in the face of a dominant culture" that equated the poor's lack of material wealth with a lack of respectability (p. 132). Lastly, Hayes describes an "ethic of neighborliness" among folk Christians, which emphasized a heartfelt other-centeredness that allowed the poor not just to survive, but to transcend the very real destructive possibilities that threatened to pull marginal people into webs of violence, abuse, or self-destruction.
Some scholars might wonder what this religion adds up to, or even whether it ultimately "matters" to the history of the New South. Hayes admits that folk Christianity did not figure significantly among the Populists or progressive labor unions. It did not explicitly challenge racism or inequity. However, Hayes contends, "as a critique of the cultural pillars undergirding economic power … it definitely contained politics" (p. 179). This point will likely continue to be debated, but there is no gainsaying Hayes's deftness in analyzing this religious culture.
MATTHEW PEHL is an associate professor of history at Augustana University, Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He is the author of The Making of Working-Class Religion (2016).