Southern writer and academic Richard M. Weaver (1910-1963) in his essay “The Older Religiousness in the South,” included in The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver (Liberty Fund, 1987), explores many of the same points summarized in my book Our Southern Nation: Its Origin and Future (AAP, 2015). These are concepts which Southern nationalists would do well to study today in reconnecting with the spirit of our people and facing the challenges of Modernity.
The major theme which underlies Wearer’s points is that “although the South was heavily Protestant, its attitude toward religion was essentially the attitude of orthodoxy: it was simple acceptance of a body of belief, an innocence of protest and schism by which religion was left one of the unquestioned and unquestionable supports of the general settlement under which men live.” Weaver points out that both Lower South Episcopalians and Upper South Evangelicals were “inimical to the spirit of rationalism.” Southerners “regarded [their religion] as a part of their inheritance which they did not propose to have disturbed.” They “clung stubbornly to the belief that a certain portion of life must remain inscrutable, that religion offers our only means of meeting it, and that reason cannot here be a standard of interpretation.” This underpinned the Southern belief that “the content of religion was settled” and meant that “the South afforded poor soil for religious radicalism.”
As Classically-minded people, both Evangelicals and Episcopalians in the South “regarded themselves as custodians of the mysteries, little concerned with social agitation, out of reach of winds of political doctrine.” The “religious skepticism of Thomas Jefferson and his “free-thinking” radicalism represented a “transient phase” in the South which “disappeared so completely in the antebellum years that it can be properly ignored in any account of the molding of the Confederate South.” By 1830, Jefferson’s example was dead in the South and the people “wanted the older religion of dreams and drunkenness – something akin to the rituals of the Medieval Church, and to the Eleusinian mysteries of the ancients.”
Socially and politically the South’s religion supported a traditionalist worldview, a bastion of conservatism in a Modernist world of chaos and radicalism. Weaver writes that “a sense of restraint, and a willingness to abide by the traditional were universally viewed as marks of the gentleman.” He continues, noting that “the Southern gentleman looked upon religion as a great conservative agent and a bulwark of those institutions which served him. Spokesmen of the South were constantly criticizing Northerners for making religion a handmaid of social and political reform.”
Note: The conservatism and traditionalism of the South’s religion was likewise found in the other plantation societies of the Golden Circle and continues to impact the region to this day.