February 13, 2013

The big flip flop

This blog is gearing up for a major series looking at the thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson (along with the usual links and comments about current events). But to understand Emerson's world it is probably important to understand a huge flip-flop that happened in this country's religious history between the 1600s and the 1800s, the effects of which are still with us today.

Here's what I mean. If one had to generalize today about which parts of the good old USA are most prone to theological rabies, the South would win hands down.

It didn't used to be that way. I refer the interested reader to the 1997 book Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt by Christine Leigh Heyrman.

Short version: in the late 1600s and for much of the 1700s, New England rather than the South was the region of religious conservatism and theocracy. Think Salem witch trials and guilt ridden Puritans. In much of the South, the dominant religious was a kind of lax Anglicanism (to which this author subscribes). Alas, the Anglican church in American suffered much during the Revolution, since clergy were required to swear an oath of allegiance to the British monarch. The loss of Anglican clergy left the field open to traveling Baptist and Methodist revivalists.

Too bad, I say, but that's just me.

The weird thing is that by the 1830s or so, much of New England Puritanism had morphed into a fairly laid back Unitarianism, while the South became a bastion of not only political and racial but also religious conservatism and dogmatism.

It was in that Unitarian milieu in New England that blossomed from the embers of Calvinism that Emerson first began his career. Ironically, he was too radical in his vision even for the Unitarians, a feat which would be hard to replicate today.

THE RESOURCE CURSE is discussed here.

STATE OF DENIAL: right here in WV.


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