Southern Puritan Episcopalians

The venerable southern historian and liberal Clement Eaton wrote in 1964 that the “great change in southern religion in 1860 from that of 1800 arose from the intervening Romantic movement.” Eaton, like many midcentury historians, argued that individualistic soul care typified the South while northerners focused their religious energies in on moral and social reform. Evangelicalism—the term Eaton used to describe a certain growing Puritanical sociological disposition among low church Protestants in the era—was alien to the region. Evangelicals, argued Eaton, brought with them a moral puritanism that stultified the South and led to the rise of Revivalism. South Carolina novelist William Gilmore Simms, wrote Eaton, warned that Evangelical “asceticism injured the cause of true religion in the South.” Simms believed that cutting off religious people from amusements—dancing, horse races, theater, and even other more perceptibly respectable entertainments—forced southerners to outlet their natural activities wherever they could. Evangelical pursuit of socio-moral purity, claimed Eaton, fed the fanaticism of early Nineteenth Century revivals.

            Southern religion did become more ascetic as the Nineteenth Century progressed, but historical narratives have typically associated pursuit of moral rectitude with southern Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians. The South’s Episcopalians routinely are treated as moral latitudinarians, largely from assumptions that they were the church of the South’s landed aristocrats. Even southern Episcopalians, however, lived within the social and moral confines of Evangelical respectability in the South. Bishops like Leonidas Polk and Stephen Elliott, while not teetotalers, routinely urged parishioners to be abstentious regarding alcohol. Bishops and even most Episcopal priests warned communicants off of regular—or at least loud—participation in worldly amusements. A Maryland priest spoke for many of his brother presbyters when he recommended Sunday to be entirely set aside for religious observances. Churchgoing Episcopalians were as sabbatarian as their Presbyterian neighbors. Southern bishops—with the anomalous exception of Tractarian-influenced North Carolina—articulated soteriology in ways that were broadly consistent with Baptists and Presbyterians. Eaton and historians admitted general unity among southern Protestants on soteriology and what modern conservative Protestants have often rendered “worldview.” On some level all southern Protestants were Nineteenth Century Puritans, even Episcopalians.

            Virginia’s Episcopalians interacted with Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians more than their co-religionists in other states largely due to the rapid growth of Evangelical churches in Virginia, which significantly outpaced church growth in the Carolinas and Deep South. Virginia’s 1860 population was twice that of Louisiana, but it had six times as many churches. Virginia Episcopalians shared a worldview with their Evangelical neighbor; Anglican luminaries like John Hartwell Cocke, according to Eaton, “Puritan Cavaliers.” And so they were. Cocke in particular was archetypical. He disliked ladies—and churches—giving themselves over to opulent finery. He strictly observed the Christian Sabbath, and after 1834 became an enthusiastic temperance reformer. When Jefferson tried to install a noted agnostic on the faculty of the University of Virginia, Cocke teamed up with Presbyterian editor John Holt Rice in a newspaper campaign to pressure the ex-president to change his mind. Cocke exemplified almost every cultural or social habit modern historians associate with Puritan Calvinism or Evangelicalism, and he wasn’t an outlier among southern Episcopalians. Robert Barnwell Rhett—best known for his secessionist politics—Matthew F. Maury, and others were Puritan Episcopalians as well.

            Historians rightly decry hagiographies from Evangelical ministers that contrive theological unity in the name of a contrived unitary Evangelical theological identity, but overcorrection has led readers to perceive greater sociological distinctions between Protestants in the South than there actually were. What divided Protestants was what has always divided Protestants: confessional formulations that guided worship and differing sacramental priorities. Neither of those, however, denoted wholesale disagreement on soteriology or even sociology.  


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