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Methodism, the Middle Class, and the New South, 1866-1894




Bishop, Christopher Michael

Type of Degree

PhD Dissertation



Restriction Status


Restriction Type

Auburn University Users

Date Available



This dissertation explores the relationship between the Methodist Episcopal Church, South (MECS) and the middle class within the context of the New South. Both the MECS and the southern middle class emerged from the Civil War with challenges to their legitimacy, threatening their very existence. This study explores how they weathered this storm and eventually emerged triumphant. A self-styled faction of progressive reformers within the MECS instituted reforms specifically to make the church more attractive to middle class southerners. As part of this effort, the MECS welcomed laymen into church councils for the first time and middle class men dominated these conclaves. The religious affiliation and denominational service of middle class members of the MECS gave them credibility as social and political leaders. They had every financial incentive to support pro-business conservative policy, puritanical morality, political disenfranchisement, Jim Crow, educational reform, professionalization, and other initiatives. They believed that God had given them a mandate to implement in their social, political, and economic vision and demanded control over society. They insisted that they would inaugurate the New South, and bring the region into the American mainstream. Southern Methodists refused to accept regional poverty or the condescension of outsiders but their efforts to modernize the South extended beyond politics to their religious lives. Through the efforts of middle class lay leaders, the southern Methodist church evolved from an organization designed for rural evangelism into a modern denomination, with powerful boards of oversight and a permanent bureaucracy capable of implementing a middle class agenda. In addition, bourgeois southerners constructed new churches using popular architectural motifs to announce to the world that their home congregations and the MECS were permanent, respectable, and every bit as sophisticated as their counterparts in other regions of the Unite States. In both church and society, middle class southerners, morally invested in the New South creed, pushed the South toward the rest of the country in the late nineteenth century. Far from being an antimodern organization promoting regional backwardness, the MECS was on the cutting edge of a broader effort to bring the South into the national mainstream. The middle class and the MECS emerged from the war with uncertain futures but prospered during the 1870s and 1880s. They gradually became associated with one another, eventually becoming mutually supportive elements of the southern establishment. They made enemies along the way. By 1894, the Holiness Movement and Populism emerged to challenge these religious, social, and political plutocrats.