Evangelical Christianity had much earlier beginnings than historians have traditionally recognized, which suggests a more direct link to an international Protestant awakening and refutes a common belief that the deep South had grown spiritually lethargic and indifferent during the colonial era, according to a recently published book by an Emory & Henry College history professor.
Although evangelical Christianity has long been the dominant religion of the American South, historians have traditionally described it as a comparatively late-flowering development. Dr. Thomas J. Little, an associate professor of history, reconstructs the history of religious revivalism in his book The Origins of Southern Evangelicalism: Religious Revivalism in the South Carolina Lowcountry, 1670-1760, which is published by the University of South Carolina Press.
During the late 17th century, according to Little’s book, a heterogeneous mixture of Protestant settlers made their way to the South Carolina low country from both Europe and elsewhere in the new world. Plantation proprietors made vigorous efforts then to recruit nonconformists to their overseas colony by granting settlers considerable freedom of religion, a tolerance that ultimately attracted substantial numbers of settlers from varying Christian denominations.
Little argues that pluralism engendered religious renewal and revival, which developed further after Anglicans in the colony secured legal establishment for their church. “The Carolina colony emerged at the fulcrum of an international Protestant awakening that embraced a more emotional, individualistic religious experience and helped to create a transatlantic evangelical movement,” Little said.
The common historical perspective on Southern Evangelicalism has suggested that the tradition was spawned in the 19th century and grew out of a mostly American experience to form what is called the “Bible Belt.” Little said the misperceptions about the history of religion in the South have been perpetuated out of a general lack of research related to Southern history as compared to the history of the northern United States.
“The writing of history often follows the popularity of certain subjects,” Little said. “For much of our history, the public has been largely drawn to our nation’s origins through a traditional perspective of the northern colonies and leaders from the north. Much of southern history, including the origins of southern religion, remains unexplored.”
Little recently appeared on the radio show Religion for Life, hosted by John Shuck. The 30-minute show airs weekly on public radio stations across the country. An archive of the broadcast featuring Dr. Little is now available.