Monday, September 21, 2009

Just finished reading - Subduing Satan: Religion, Recreation, and Manhood in the Rural South, 1865-1920 by Ted Ownby

So which is it? Is it the reverent and evangelical South, or is it the impulsive and violent South? Well, it is and has almost always been both. In writing Subduing Satan author and professor Dr. Ted Ownby of the University of Mississippi has produced an interesting and easy to read social/religious history that most anyone interested in Southern history can appreciate.

In Subduing Satan, Ownby covers a lot of territory. He divided the book into three sections that cover the thoughts expressed in the subtitle. The first part, "Male Culture," explores the "sinful" Southerner. To do so he explains that most of the impiousness of Southern men usually occurred away from home, family, and church. The second part looks at Southern "Evangelical Culture." And, the third and final part shows that even the South was not immune from the "Change and Reform" that came with the technological inventions of the early twentieth-century.

Southerners often found their worlds to be worlds divided between an earthy heaven and hell. In the field, on the farm, and in town on Saturdays and on court days Southerners, (especially men-due to age old double standards) found outlets of vice. Competitions in drinking, fist-fighting, and card playing, and circus entertainments brought out the worst in many men on Southern main streets. Blood sports such as betting on cock fights and dog fights, and manly agricultural contests such as corn shuckings, fodder pullings, and log rollings were often fueled by spirits in liquid form and held on farms and fields, and on plantations.

Spirits in the heavenly form were the domain of Southern homes, churches, and revival tents where women were expected to be the guardians of virtue, and where men were expected to aspire to better natures. No matter the denomination, Sundays were meant to be days of praise, worship, quiet rest, and visiting with friends and family.

As the years rolled on into the early twentieth century, ideas and change came to the South. Inventions such as the telephone, phonograph, the automobile, and moving pictures brought changes to sinners and saints. How to deal with these modern conveniences and their potential to increase sins found in courting, dancing, and entertainment worried many evangelical Southerners. Southern churches had long disciplined their members for unbecoming behavior, but during the early twentieth-century fewer and fewer churches could be found formally correcting their member's misbehavior. Ownby contends that, "No longer satisfied to separate themselves from the sinful excesses of non evangelical behavior, they now tried to stamp out many sins altogether. By giving up church discipline, evangelicals were not giving in to the world but redefining their place in it."

Although Ownby touches on race at a few places in the book, his focus and discussion is clearly on white Southern culture and society. To me this seems somewhat strange because even though Southern society was segregated more and more during these years, whites and blacks were interacting in diverse ways in many of the places that are studied in Subduing Satan. Regardless, the book is very informative and well supported with strong research. I heartily recommend it.

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