Neglected Book

Mathews, Donald G., Religion in the Old South (1977).

Historians of the United States are much more generally interested in religious history than they were a generation ago. An important sign of that development is the well-deserved recognition bestowed on Christine Heyrman's Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt, winner of the Bancroft Prize in 1998. Now historians need to reach into the library stacks and read Donald Mathews' Religion in the Old South (it's still in paperback, a quarter-century after publication, from the University of Chicago Press). Mathews perfectly complements Heyrmann's excellent book. Heyrman looks at southern Christianity sociologically and culturally. Mathews looks at it theologically and culturally. Mathews gets inside the belief system, showing how black and white, male and female, Christians felt and thought the religion they professed. He offers the history of lived experience, and shows how southern believers' living of the faith comprised thinking it through as well as ritually practicing it. He thus gives us a corrective to the recent impulse in religious history to put "practice" in place of "theology." He reminds us that "thought" was not something of interest only to elites. Religion was the area of life (it still is) in which ordinary Americans were the most likely to take themselves seriously as thinkers, not just as believers or worshippers. Religion in the Old South appeared as one volume in the "Chicago History of American Religion," and historians might suspect it offers only a "survey" level of treatment. On the contrary, it contributes the very same depth that Heyrman achieved. There is no better source on the range of southern religious experiences before the Civil War. And like Southern Cross, Mathews' book is beautifully composed. Like Heyrman, Mathews pulls off the rare feat of writing fluidly (and wittily) while delivering a historically complex analysis. It's time for all historians of the United States and all general readers to be able to distinguish Methodists from Calvinists, and to register the decisive impact of the former as well as the latter group in nineteenth-century American development. Mathews, like Heyrman, provides an indispensable account of what antebellum southerners believed and why they believed it.

Recommended by Richard Wightman Fox, University of Southern California

Grew up in Los Angeles, got B.A. and Ph.D. from Stanford, have taught American history at Yale, Reed, Boston University, and USC. Wrote Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography and Trials of Intimacy: Love and Loss in the Beecher-Tilton Affair, am writing a cultural history of Jesus in America, co-edited The Companion to American Thought and other collections of essays.