Protestant Churches and Economic Development in Antebellum Mississippi

A Paper to be Presented at the
Southern Historical Association Annual Meeting
New Orleans, Louisiana

10 November 1995

T. Lloyd Benson

Furman University

Protestant Churches and Economic Development in Antebellum Mississippi

It is a well-known fact that the Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian churches of antebellum Mississippi were united in their opposition to liquors and spirits. There was one spirit, however, (more widely consumed than any other in America) in which all churches indulged, and even encouraged their members to enjoy, if quietly and in small doses. That concoction, the spirit of capitalism, was capable by turns of making Mississippians dazed, frenetic, and angry. What may be most interesting, however, is how often this particular spirit left the main Protestant churches of the state speechless. My story today about the Protestant Churches and economic development in antebellum Mississippi, then, is one of paradox, ambiguity and surprising silence. It is also one which charts significant changes in attitudes as the era progressed.

One would expect Mississippi's Protestant churches to talk a great deal about industry, enterprise, covetousness and greed. Both the Presbyterians and Baptists, in particular, were inheritors of a long Calvinist tradition of praising the value of hard work and fretting over its dangerous fruits. The famous struggle of the seventeenth century Puritans and their eighteenth century Yankee successors to define a moral economy in New England is one of the key episodes in American history. While historians have debated whether or not the New England churches encouraged capitalism, most scholars would agree to its central place among church concerns. There is also a large (and growing) body of historical scholarship on the early nineteenth century that points to the strong relationship between revivalism and economic transformation.

A second potential source of agitation for Mississippi's churches can be found in the peculiar and distinctive economic attitudes of the South. More than a few Southerners considered industry and commerce to be pejorative terms. Others followed pro-slavery polemicist George Fitzhugh's lead in blaming the perceived corruption and degeneracy of the North on its fascination with industry and commerce. To this many white Southerners appended the notion that manual labor was something best left to black slaves. To be sure, individual Southerners could be as eager for industrial development as any Northern capitalist---the frequent exhortations of DeBow's Review in favor of Southern industry are a well-known example, and others abound. Southern intellectuals delighted in depicting their region as one of the most economically progressive in the world. Yet even the most ardent apologists for Southern economic development had to confront the suspicions inherent in backcountry republicanism and slavery-based agrarian conservatism.

Given this context, then, it is surprising how little the church leaders of Mississippi said about economic development. Despite (or perhaps because of) their voluminous output on the issue of slavery, church leaders in the state addressed other economic and developmental issues sparingly. What they did say and do, however, reveals much about how rapidly the economic attitudes of both church leaders and their congregations evolved over the period. This paper's two-fold task is first, to try to explain this quietude, and second, to outline the patterns of development.

It is useful to begin this exploration by pointing out that the impact of churches on early Mississippi was surprisingly small. Indeed, before the 1830s most congregations in the state struggled just to survive. Methodists, who comprised the state's largest denomination, reported just under ten thousand members in 1833. A few years later the state convention of Regular Baptists reported less than five thousand members, and the Presbyterians only fourteen hundred. Distressed by these numbers, one Presbyterian report bemoaned the state's "general indifference and apathy in regard to the interests of the soul." Although denominational statistics and census data from this period are too inaccurate to make any precise conclusions, the general impressions of these church leaders appear to be accurate; it seems likely that fewer than one in four of the state's free adults were church members.

A look at specific communities underlines this point . In Yalobusha County, for example, where Regular Baptists were the largest denomination, local congregations reported 359 members in 1842, a decade after the area first opened for white settlement. This number represented just 13 percent of the county's adult free population. Likewise, as late as 1850 in Jasper County, where one in every three churches was Baptist, the denomination's five local meetings reported a combined total of only 120 members, representing less than 6 percent of the county's adult free population. Even in the state's largest towns the churches often struggled. "In Jackson and Natchez," said a report of the Mississippi Baptist Convention, "our churches are still small and need the sympathies and aid of our brethren to enable them to take the stand which the cause of Christ demands. They are still destitute of houses of worship and cannot erect them without assistance from abroad."

It was in the context of this struggle for existence, coupled with the cycle of flush times and panics that rolled over Mississippi in the 1820s and 1830s, that the state's churches began to formulate their economic attitudes. As early as 1821, one Baptist association called in its circular for fasting and prayer to combat the area's apparently widespread obsession with material goods and neglect of church affairs. Their catalog of the consequences of wealth is a classic inventory of the activities associated with Natchez Under the Hill and other raucous frontier districts. Said the circular:

First of all, may we not suspect covetousness as one of the aggravating sins of the age. This is the root of all evil....Where avarice is the ruling passion we cannot expect the fruits of vital religion...Out of the covetous heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, blasphemies, lies, false witness, evil speaking, and suchlike, for which thing's sake the wrath of God cometh on the children of disobedience.

The panic of 1837 and the subsequent failure of Mississippi's banking system confirmed to religious leaders that God had carried through on this promise. Said the State Baptist Convention in 1838: "who can tell, but that God has visited us for these things---to give a timely check to our avaricious desires." For the State's Methodists, the panic was not only a chastisement, but also an opportunity for redemption. Most importantly, the church called upon its members to exercise almost Victorian self-restraint in their business affairs. The spirit of capitalism had flown too freely, and it was time to make amends. "The nation has been perfectly intoxicated upon this subject," reported the Methodist Annual Conference in 1838. "We hope the church will set the example of returning soberness--that its members will make every reasonable sacrifice to pay their debts, and in the future to avoid debts as an enemy to themselves, the church, and the country."

It is evident from the same Methodist report that this call for self-restraint was poorly received both in and out of the religious community. In what they described as "one of the greatest wants of the church," they called for a reappraisal of social attitudes about material wealth. Church members should display through their own example, in the Conference's words "how truly respectable and really rich in all that makes life comfortable, a family may live without much of this world's goods." The clear implication of this statement is that most Mississippians regarded this world's goods as one of the most important signs of respectability, and that this standard had even infected the church.

Evidence from local church records, though fragmentary, also suggests that such appeals weighed but lightly on the shoulders of members and elders. Among the minutes of the Montrose Presbyterian Church of Jasper County, for example, are a variety of discipline cases involving misbehavior by members, including incidents of profanity, drunkenness, fornication, and blasphemy. From 1841 to 1849, however, there was not a single accusation of excessive covetousness, unfair business dealings, or failure to live a simple life. The one case of even borderline economic overtones involved a member who was censured for hog-stealing. There was a similar absence of such disputes in the minutes of the Palestine Baptist Church in Hinds County during the 1830s despite an otherwise sharply divided congregation. The one statement that church members did agree upon was that "carnal parades, festivals, dinners, and balls" were too worldly for members to participate in.

Not that the churches were completely uninterested in the affairs of the world themselves. Nothing galled church leaders more in this period than the contrast between their own meager incomes and the extravagance of the big spending planters and speculators. Overwhelmingly in this period, church critiques of "worldly" economic behavior were coupled with statements calling for larger and more dependable contributions to pastors and ministers. A Baptist `circular letter entitled "The Reciprocal Duties of Pastors and Churches" put the matter plainly:

Those who increase in riches, who join house to house and lay field to field, with their yearly gains, often complain of their poverty, and have nothing to give their pastor. This kind of parsimony may provoke the lord to shut the windows of heaven, and send, as its just reward, penury and want.... Does he command the rust and rot, the whirlwind and the storm, and send armies of the locust and the caterpillar to do his pleasure? And will he suffer that root of all evil, that covetousness which is idolotry, always to go unpunished? He will not.

To see how these pronouncements intersected with the behavior of church members it is instructive to compare the geography of industry in Mississippi with the geography of its churches. Statistics on occupations from the 1840 census along with information about manufacturing capital and religious statistics from the 1850 and 1860 censuses give a general indication of the relationship between denominational attitudes and economic development in the period. I compared the relative appeal of the three main Protestant denominations in the state's various counties to the proportion of the population employed in industrial activities and each county's per capita investment in manufacturing. The results suggest both significant differences among Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians, and also some important changes within churches over time, particularly among the state's Baptists.

For this latter group, there was relatively strong, (if non-linear) relationship between those counties in the state that were predominantly Baptist, and counties that had low levels of capital investment and manufacturing employment, and high proportions of goods made in, rather than outside the home, especially in 1850. What is even more striking is that this wasn't simply a consequence of the common assumption that Baptists dominated frontier districts with a naturally low industrialization rate. Indeed, Baptist-dominated counties were also among the most densely-populated in the state, in terms of free population. It seems more likely that these were communities whose relatively low interest in industrial development coincided neatly with their theological tastes. In other words, the Baptist appeal, particularly in the early decades, was strongest in areas that remained consciously outside the state's plantation-dominated market economy. When Baptist leaders condemned the corruptions and worldliness of speculators and the wealthy elite, it was a message that resonated very well with the small farmers of northern and eastern Mississippi. For these Baptist-dominated communities, the Calvinistic message of predestinarian fatalism must have been more important than any Calvinistic demand for a calling.

Comparison with strongly Methodist counties reinforces this point. Presumably, both denominations appealed to the same kinds of frontier communities. In fact, the state's Methodists, because of their centrally organized and funded system of circuit-riders, often were more successful in the back-country than were their Baptist counterparts. In contrast to the Baptist situation, however, there was no strong correlation between Methodist dominance and those counties most outside the market economy. Indeed, there was a small but significant positive association between Methodist predominance and manufacturing investment.

A look at the membership rolls of one church, Grenada First Methodist Church of Yalobusha County, Mississippi, provides a partial answer. The majority of the male members of this church were skilled craftsmen and businessmen, and few were unskilled laborers. The female members who could be located in the census worked mostly in the household, though there were also a few skilled laborers, and at least one member, Harriet Sims, distinguished herself as the town's most astute real estate trader. Because Grenada was a relatively small town in a largely rural part of the state, farmers and planters from the nearby countryside also joined their town brethren in the congregation. If Grenada First Methodist was typical, (and there is no reason to think it wasn't), it suggests the appeal of Methodism to the "middling sorts" of each community. In a nice correspondence with the Methodist definition of salvation, determined acts of economic free will could bring people into this class, but few were so prosperous that they could avoid the fear of falling back into poverty and depravity. For women especially the threat of destitution posed by widowhood or the uncertainties of the female labor market must have rendered the support offered by the church essential. Here especially the Methodist call for the rejection of luxury and the celebration a new standard of respectability must have found a welcome audience. Even on the frontier it must have appealed to those communities which were most anxious to take advantage of market opportunities.

It should be no shock to anyone that the Presbyterians were most successful in the parts of Mississippi that were most settled and had the largest manufacturing output. The denomination's demand for a carefully educated, licensed, and paid leadership practically guaranteed its strength would come in those places that could most afford it. It may also be significant that a significant number of the state's Presbyterian ministers had been born or educated in the North. A look at the occupations and property of the elders of the two Presbyterian churches in Natchez, Mississippi, provides yet another reason why the Presbyterians were the state's least vocal opponents of covetousness. Among the nine elders in 1861 were four merchants, two skilled artisans, a planter, a physician and a tax collector. These nine men averaged around ten thousand dollars apiece in real property and twenty-eight thousand dollars in slaves and other personal property, placing them squarely in the city's economic elite, and substantially better off than their Methodist counterparts in Grenada.

As important as these differences between the churches were, the changes in denominational attitudes during the 1850s may be just as critical. By this last decade of the antebellum period the mainstream Protestant churches had established themselves in every county and were in a position to take a leading role in influencing popular economic attitudes. The development of railroads in the state helped this process by opening new areas of the state to market influences and allowing the domestic missionary efforts of the state's urban churches to penetrate farther into the countryside. In every denomination the modernists used these changes to establish their preeminence. At the same time, increasing tensions with the North caused church leaders in Mississippi to rethink the role of commerce and industry in Southern society.

Perhaps the most dramatic changes took place among the Baptists. Despite an antimarket legacy, by the end of the decade Baptist leaders had come down firmly in favor of industrial development. Exemplifying this change was the case of Drury Sumrall, a Baptist minister from Jasper County, Mississippi, in the state's Piney Woods region. Although he served several congregations in one of the state's most isolated areas, Sumrall chaired a major community effort to get a railroad line built to his county. Although this effort was ultimately scuttled by the coming of hostilities, it did represent the triumph of a new approach among Baptists.

Leading the charge in this direction was the state's denominational organ, the Mississippi Baptist, published in Jackson, Mississippi. Despite its expressly religious focus, the paper was friendly enough to commerce to regularly publish agricultural and mercantile prices from the New Orleans, Mobile, and Memphis markets. But beyond that, the paper committed itself to the position that promotion of commerce and industry were essential to the region's survival. In 1859, for example, the newspaper's editors celebrated the Southern Agricultural Implement Factory in Jackson and its proprietors in explicitly sectional terms:

Dr. Phillips has, by establishment of this factory, not only added to the prosperity of Jackson, but has rendered essential service to his state and to the whole South. Politicians may talk of Southern independence till the end of time, but never make a step's progress in that direction, without such actions as this. These gentlemen...are doing more towards Southern independence than the empty resolves of forty legislatures.

Not content with extravagant praise for the owners, the editors continued this article by indulging in a praisefest for workers and a defense of their inclusion of this material in a denominational paper. The piece is revealing both of where Baptists had been and where they were going. Wrote the editors:

All honor to the sturdy, industrious and intelligent mechanic. With him and the planter is the great conservatism of Religion and Patriotism. Let no reader assume the Pharisee unwittingly, and say this article does not belong in a religious journal. It is one of the chief effects of religion to encourage industry and honor the laborer. His reward is not alone in his pecuniary compensation.

The paper's enthusiasm for the Southern Implement Manufacturing Company, its workers, and its owners was understandable; not only was its proprietor, Martin W. Phillips, one of the state's foremost industrialists, he was also a leader in the state Baptist convention. A noted agricultural reformer, Phillips established the factory as an outgrowth of his attempts to improve farming techniques in the region. Although Phillips's neighbors generally considered him an eccentric, the factory itself received good press in Mississippi. His involvement in Baptist affairs included serving in various offices within the state convention, a stint on the board of Mississippi College, and duty as a delegate to the Southern Baptist Convention. More than any individual, Phillips embodied the church's new direction. That Phillips' industrial reforms coincided neatly with the movement for Southern independence was a fine bonus.

Not everyone agreed that an aggressive strategy of Southern industrialization would best serve the region's interests, however. A stark contrast to the attitudes of the Baptist leadership came from (of all places) the state's New School Presbyterians. Always a minority of congregations in Mississippi, the New School faction had nevertheless managed to sustain slow but consistent growth during the late antebellum period. Even more remarkably, they had also participated fully in the New School's national meetings. A strongly-worded antislavery proclamation passed by the national assembly in 1857, however, drove Mississippi's New Schoolers to secession from their Northern counterparts. A preamble and resolutions from the State Synod showed their clear rejection of all modern innovations, including the uninhibited spirit of capitalism. They wrote:

The present is eminently an age of progress and reform. Men and measures are constantly moving and being moved. Parties and Sects and Communities, in Church and in State, are striving for the mastery, urged on by the restless and resistless spirit of the time....To a careful discerner of the signs of the times, this is but the natural result of the causes and influences at work for fifty years past. Freedom of thought and of speech, free trade and a free press, free schools and a free church, all wide awake, fast and forward as the spirit of the tempest---may not be expected to be estopped by the eternal barriers which guard the distinctions of right and wrong.

Like many Baptists, then, Presbyterian leaders had been led by their encounter with the sectional conflict to rethink their economic and social attitudes. Such an astonishing and paradoxical reversal of polarity by both groups defies easy explanation. One possibility is that the main Baptist constituencies, being predominantly less well-off than Presbyterians, had more to gain from commerce and growth than they would lose. Presbyterians, in contrast, stood to have their once-solid economic territory corroded away by the rushing currents of the times. At any rate, the diametrically opposite responses of the two denominations to the external pressures of sectionalism bears further investigation.

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Taken as a whole, evidence about the economic attitudes of the mainstream Protestant churches in antebellum Mississippi points to several conclusions. First, it is important to note that these churches had a surprisingly small impact on economic behavior in Mississippi, especially in the early years. Given our habitual association of the South with evangelicalism, such a point deserves to be underscored. The contrast with Puritan New England, where church debate over economic issues was central to the culture, is especially informative. Still, these attitudes were not without their consequences in the state. A second point that bears remembering is that the attitudes of Mississippi evangelicals about economic growth were neither monolithic nor static. The Methodists, in particular, could encompass a variety of attitudes within their fold, and the gyrations of both the Baptists and the Presbyterians show how important a variable time really is in this context. Finally, it seems useful to suggest that the evolutionary patterns of these attitudes are themselves good indices of other kinds of economic and social change within the state. The political dimensions of this, in particular, are still in need of further exploration. The spirit of capitalism changed Mississippians, and their churches played a role in that transformation.