Thursday, May 26, 2016

Robert Elder's "The Sacred Mirror"

Robert Elder is assistant professor of history at Valparaiso University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Sacred Mirror: Evangelicalism, Honor, and Identity in the Deep South, 1790-1860, and reported the following:
On page 99 of The Sacred Mirror, I wrote:
In the South words were powerful, part of a broader and deeper ‘language’ of symbols and meaning that southerners used to order their world. Outside observers marveled, and some southerners lamented, that in the South the wrong words could end friendships, provoke violence, and even lead to the loss of life, evidence of the close relationship between speech, honor, and identity.... For those who did not understand the thick context that surrounded the act of speaking in the South, the reactions provoked by a veiled implication or a petty slight could seem disproportionate. But to southerners these were vital matters that threatened their control over their very identities.

Women held a special place in such a culture. While a woman’s words could do as much damage as a man’s, women were neither subject to direct reprisal nor permitted to engage in violent defense of their own reputations. This mix of power and powerlessness gave rise to an atmosphere in which women were both lauded and feared. Because of their association with moral virtue, women’s words generally held credence on certain matters of honor and reputation, making a woman with a loose tongue a particularly vexing problem from a male point of view.

The records of local churches reveal both the importance that attached to speech in the church and community as well as the way that the church provided an avenue for (mostly) men to address the problem of their female detractors.
This passage is actually a central and quite representative part of my argument in The Sacred Mirror. Most histories of evangelicalism in the early American South have argued that the South’s honor culture represented one of the primary obstacles to the spread of evangelical religion in the region, especially before 1830. But these histories don’t take into account the depth and complexity of honor as an ethical system that ordered southerners’ lives and shaped their identities in virtually every sphere of life, including their religion. In this passage, I describe how men in evangelical churches sometimes used the mechanism of church discipline to address various forms of (mostly female) speech circulating in their communities. Because it was public, especially so in the democratic Baptist churches, discipline could be remarkably effective in addressing rumors or other types of secret speech that men (and sometimes women) considered detrimental to their honor. At the same time, and again because it was public, church discipline was a fraught avenue to address these concerns due to the risk that an investigation might prove the rumor true and cement dishonor and shame, as indeed sometimes happened. Either way, church discipline was unavoidably part of the manufacture and maintenance of honor in local communities throughout the South, which is part of the The Sacred Mirror’s argument that honor and evangelicalism were intertwined in ways that we haven’t previously understood.

The Page 99 Test works!
Learn more about The Sacred Mirror at The University of North Carolina Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue