Robert Elder is Assistant Professor of History at Valparaiso University. This interview is based on his new book, The Sacred Mirror: Evangelicalism, Honor, and Identity in the Deep South, 1790-1860 (The University of North Carolina Press, 2016).
JF: What led you to write The Sacred Mirror?
RE: I noticed that most historians writing about religion in the pre-Civil War American South described conflict between evangelicalism and the South’s honor culture, at least in the period before 1830, but that they often used a relatively thin and gendered (male) definition of honor that didn’t really do justice to the complexity and depth of honor as an ethical system. If Bertram Wyatt-Brown was right, and I think he was, about the pervasiveness of this ethic in the South, then you would expect to find it influencing every aspect of evangelicalism, and that’s exactly what I found. I found that early evangelicals didn’t reject honor, but instead tried to subtly redefine it as coming “from God alone.” I found that when you take into account gendered versions of honor, especially female honor, the tension between honor and evangelicalism evaporates, which helps to explain why women joined evangelical churches in greater numbers than men during this period. I found that church discipline, which was a very public process, was a powerful site for determining honor and shame in a culture that gave great weight to communal authority and opinion. Since honor cultures place such a heavy emphasis on communal authority, and since churches throughout this period were so willing to exercise that authority, this also has important implications for our view of evangelicalism as a the religious expression of modern individualism.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Sacred Mirror?
RE: I argue that evangelicalism in the pre-Civil War South drew a significant part of its strength from the same cultural wellspring that fed honor, a deep assumption of the legitimacy of communal authority. I also argue that because evangelicalism combined a belief in communal authority with an emphasis on individual experience, it served as a kind of cultural bridge between two ways of defining individual identity, and so represented a uniquely southern version of modernity.
JF: Why do we need to read The Sacred Mirror?
RE: I think the standard way of teaching southern evangelicalism is to describe a period of early radicalism followed, post-1830, with a nearly complete capitulation to southern mores, especially honor and slavery (with important exceptions, such as the emergence of black Christianity). What I hope to do with this book is to smooth out that trajectory at both ends, and to describe southern evangelicalism from an angle that escapes the opposition/accommodation binary that has often characterized the field. I’d like to think that anyone interested in American or southern religious history, particularly the history of evangelicalism, needs to read this book. I’d also like to think that anyone interested in the transition to modernity (a much bigger topic!), the historical alternatives to modern individualism, and, of course, honor, should also read the book.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
RE: I think I can only answer the question if I change it to “a historian of the American South”. I grew up in Wichita, Kansas, but my father is from Chattanooga, Tennessee, so I was very conscious of the cultural differences between the midwest and the South from a pretty early age. When I got to college in South Carolina, I figured that history was probably one of the best ways to explore that difference and I ended up in an “Old South” course that cemented the deal. I was also fascinated by the sense in South Carolina that history mattered: people argued about it all the time, and you could literally see it around you. I don’t think I ever made a conscious decision to be a historian (I don’t even remember weighing whether or not to go to graduate school), I just became fascinated with it and kept following that fascination. That’s probably not a good model to follow in every case, but I’ve been very lucky.
JF: What is your next project?
RE: I’m just starting to work on a new cultural and intellectual biography of John C. Calhoun, the South Carolina senator who the historian David Potter once called “the most majestic champion of error since Milton’s Satan.” I’m hoping to reinterpret Calhoun in the context of the flood of recent scholarship on slavery and capitalism, southern intellectual history, and new international histories of secession and the modern nation state (not to mention recent events). The last biography of him is almost twenty-five years old, and these new histories have completely redrawn the landscape, so it seems like we need to come to terms with him again. Plus, there just aren’t enough biographies of dead white guys, so I thought I’d do my part.
JF: Thanks, Robert!