Reply to Ralph Luker


Ms. Heyrman is Distinguished Professor History, University of Delaware.

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Dear Editor:

I appreciate your offering me the opportunity to respond to Ralph Luker's article on Southern Cross, which I received from you on 9 June 2003.

Let me begin by thanking Mr. Luker, as I did in my 7 May 2003 email to him, for bringing to my attention an undercount of Methodists in 1790 that appears in the statistical appendix to that book. I have completed a final revision of my tables and submitted same to UNC press for correction in any future paperback editions. I did so in the interests of accuracy, even though the resulting changes are statistically insignificant: percentages of church members within the adult population of the South rise from 14.4% to 14.9% among whites, from 3.7% to 4.4% among blacks. (The up-tick in adherence is equally small.) If anything, the adjusted percentage for membership supports my contention that evangelical progress among southerners, both white and black, was surprisingly sluggish between 1790 and 1813.

In checking my own research against Mr. Luker's other suggestions, I find no basis for making any additional changes in the appendix. Nor do I understand how his criticisms challenge its main contention--that evangelical affinities grew haltingly among southern whites and even more slowly among southern blacks in the early Republic. Let me urge Mr. Luker again, as I did in my first email response (1 May 2003), to produce his own numbers and percentages pertaining to church membership and to submit the results to a refereed historical journal.

While on the subject of statistics, let me address Mr. Luker's concern that my tables undercount African-American membership and adherence in order to diminish the role of blacks, slave and free, in shaping early southern evangelicalism. My main aim in Southern Cross, as I explain in the introduction, is to explore the evolving religious cultures (evangelical and otherwise) of southern whites between the 1740s and the 1830s. It goes without saying that women and men of African descent--no matter how relatively small their numbers among the members and adherents of southern Christian churches in that period---played a vital role in those cultural changes, and Southern Cross accords substantial coverage to their agency throughout. (The entry for "African Americans" in the index runs nearly the length of the column.)

Now to the argument that many early evangelical preachers cast themselves as "powerful shamans who commanded skills that can only be called magical." (Southern Cross, 74). Mr. Luker alleges that my support for this contention consists of "two dubious quotations": he is mistaken. Southern Cross documents several instances in which clergymen, John Early among them, either claimed (or were reputed by others) to control the weather, to foretell the future, to heal the sick by touching them, and to see directly into an individual's heart, "detecting the darkest secrets of his or her past." (Southern Cross, 75.) While I can appreciate the merits of Professor Kurt Berends's interpretation of Early's account of stopping the rain, I believe that the weight of the evidence sustains mine. Early boasted not only his ability to change the weather (with the power of prayer) but also (without the power of prayer) to predict the future, and a few hours after the rainstorm (in the same diary entry), he complained of feeling "as much like breaking down as I ever did in all my travels," until God "blessed me with more than mortal strength and vigor."

In a related point, I argue that the early evangelical clergy sought to dispense with all competitors (such as witches and conjurors) "who claimed leverage in dealing with the supernatural" by racializing the belief in certain supernaturalisms. (Southern Cross, 74) The full citation from Charles Colcock Jones on this point reads as follows: "They [slaves] believe in second sight, in apparitions, charms, and witchcraft, and in a kind of irresistible Satanic influence. The superstitions brought from Africa have not been wholly laid aside." Mr. Luker's comment on my interpretation of this quotation states that "Jones's text simply does not say that 'superstitions' were limited to African Americans." Nor do I claim it does. What I do claim is that Jones asserted that blacks were uniquely credulous in accepting specific "superstitious" beliefs, which he designated as imports from Africa. In fact, whites adhered to many of the same beliefs and practices (a theme explored at length in the first chapter of Southern Cross), but Jones wished to represent the reality as otherwise. Again, reading farther into the source in question lends support to my interpretation: Jones concluded that while blacks could not, "strictly speaking be termed heathen [because of their affililation with Christian churches]; yet may they with propriety be termed the heathen of our land." (Charles Colcock Jones, The Religious Instruction of the Negroes in the United States [1842, repr. New York, 1969], 127-128,153.)

Finally, I'm baffled that Mr. Luker finds some of my sources insufficiently "southern. " To address all his examples: Peter Cartwright was born in Virginia, reared in Kentucky, and spent much of his career itinerating in the South's western country before settling in Illinois; Valentine Cook was born in western Pennsylvania, but raised in western Virginia and spent most of his career in Kentucky; Jeremiah Minter was born inVirginia and spent his entire career in the South; Benjamin Abbott, although based in the mid-Atlantic, frequently itinerated in Maryland. Cook and Minter happened to be in the Allegheny Mountains in western Pennsylvania when they met the devil because they were traveling to or from the South's western country.

Even more puzzling to me than Mr. Luker's objections to Southern Cross is his manner of bringing them forward. It struck me as odd that Mr. Luker began his initial email to me with: "I have owned a copy of your Southern Cross since it was first published and read it with keen interest." Southern Cross was first published in 1997, but I first heard from Mr. Luker in this email of 30 April 2003. It struck me as odder still, if he is interested in scholarly exchange, that Mr. Luker first submitted summaries of his findings to journalists (who took no interest, by the account in his HNN blog of 24 May 2003) and then submitted his article to historians (who advised him, as the same HNN blog indicates, not to publish it), and finally made contact with me in the form of a page-long summary of his criticisms but did not send his article in its entirety. Oddest of all, two days before publishing his 24 May HNN blog on peer review, Mr. Luker sent me an email which includes the following sentences: "Apart from the stats, I would urge you to rethink pp. 74-75 of your book. As you may know, I drafted an article which is fairly critical of it. I have decided not to publish the article, in large part because I think it is basically an honest book."

Christine Leigh Heyrman