Redeeming the Southern Family: Evangelical Women and Domestic Devotion in the Antebellum South.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Censer, Jane Turner
Pub Date: 03/22/2011
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Spring, 2011 Source Volume: 44 Source Issue: 3
Topic: NamedWork: Redeeming the Southern Family: Evangelical Women and Domestic Devotion in the Antebellum South (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Stephan, Scott
Accession Number: 254405144
Full Text: Redeeming the Southern Family: Evangelical Women and Domestic Devotion in the Antebellum South. By Scott Stephan (Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 2008. vii plus 304 pages.)

Scott Stephan opens his study of southern women and evangelical religion by noting the North/South difference between historians who have studied women and evangelical religion. Scholars focusing on northern women have tended to investigate the ways religion empowered their subjects, while those researching southern women more often view evangelical religion as part of patriarchal oppression. While Stephan himself argues that southern evangelicals believed in male dominance in the household and religion, he also explores the parts of southern religion that enabled women to assume a larger role both within and outside the household.

Stephan's study is notable for several reasons. Refusing to be limited by sectarian boundaries, he examines white evangelical women belonging to Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches. He also seeks to combine an understanding of the religious doctrine with the knowledge of how those beliefs were applied to everyday living. Thus he not only studies how women's faith affected and informed their roles within the family, he opens by analyzing evangelical identity and how it shaped "worship patterns" and daily living. Here he gives his readers a sense of the importance of sermons, Bible reading, and church attendance to pious women.

Much of Stephan's book revolves around a persistent conundrum: women were supposed to have enormous influence yet not hold actual power. This was the case for women throughout their lives. In fact, the evangelicals generally held it to be a woman's duty to take special responsibility to help relatives attain salvation, while still acknowledging the husband/father's role as worldly and spiritual head of the family.

Perhaps the time that women's power was generally acknowledged to be greatest was during courtship. Although nineteenth-century parents commonly chided their daughters that the choice of marriage partner dictated destiny, Stephan asserts that evangelical adults, while singing the praises of marriage, were especially suspicious about courtship and its myriad temptations and pitfalls. Still, the author believes that such religiously committed couples worked particularly hard to achieve mutuality in their relationships. Even though married women were to be "models rather than enforcers of morality and piety" (101), they still took much of the blame for childrearing that went awry. Although Stephan argues that fathers could be more tolerant of children's mistakes and moral failings, his examples concern college boys. The wary reader wonders if the fathers who told their daughters that no breath of suspicion should ever cloud their reputations would have been similarly sanguine about any lapses.

The final stage of life that Stephan examines is the deathbed. Asserting the importance of the "good death" to evangelicals, the author examines how men and women searched for the necessary evidence that the departed died a professing Christian. While the desideratum was a dying person's testimony of faith, the author shows how family members came to interpret silences as pious suffering. Yet even as evangelical women reinterpreted dying behavior to place loved ones in heaven, they also exalted their roles in this stage of life.

Stephan's method is to scrutinize a small number of evangelical families through linked sources--particularly letters and diaries--to examine the experiential component of their religion. Comparing different kinds of sources allows him to see the different tones and emphases that these women adopted in their private soul searching as opposed to their correspondence. He is perhaps at his best when illustrating the efforts of ministers' wives, who generally took a significant public role. In fact, while church congregations expected the minister's wife to exhibit leadership, the women also faced special domestic challenges because their husbands were so often absent on ministerial chores. Although Stephan expounds well the outlook of ministers' wives, he also lets them form a disproportionate part of his focus group. This means that his argument, while cogent, probably is overly influenced by the most pious and spiritually active women in the South.

Jane Turner Censer

George Mason University
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