Thompson on Harvey, 'Southern Religion in the World: Three Stories'

Paul Harvey. Southern Religion in the World: Three Stories. George H. Shriver Lecture Series in Religion in American History. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2019. xii + 104 pp. $19.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8203-5572-6

Reviewed by Douglas Thompson (Mercer University)
Published on H-South (April, 2021)
Commissioned by Bennett Parten (Yale University)

Printable Version:

Paul Harvey’s George H. Shriver Lecture Series in Religion and American History comes to us in print as Southern Religion in the World: Three Stories. The ninth of such lectures given at Stetson University, Southern Religion in the World undertakes an ambitious project, exploring how religious experiences and theologies that formed in the American South migrated onto the world stage. The “three stories” part of the title references the group biographies of five individuals that appear as a framing device throughout. Though distinct from one another on the surface, the five biographies, through the commonalities among them, illustrate Harvey's main point: that there is a “southern religion” and we can measure its impact on the “world” beyond the region. His approach provides a step in breaking free from the conservative/progressive binary that histories of southern religion (read: Protestantism) often address. He presents actual people who were shaped by and who actively shaped their religious experiences into a framework that shows how believers create religion and then protect those creations as true or authentic. This group biography reveals how theology develops in conversation with practice.

The introduction creates the thread that pulls the three lectures together in their published form. Harvey’s opening note points to an irony that the region most influenced by “a globalized, transnational movement of peoples from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries”—that is, the Atlantic slave trade—became seen as “provincial.” The focus of these lectures is to point out that “despite its provincialism during the era of evangelical dominance and racial proscriptions, the kinds of expressions coming from the American South have long since gone global” (p. 1). We might ask, how did the formation of religion within a racial caste system move onto the imperial stage? What might mystics tell about the South? What happens if we stop looking at systematic theologians and preachers but pay attention to those whose experiences have been shaped by “hard religion” (p. 88)?[1] These kinds of questions are what Harvey explores through his “three stories,” taking us from Frank Price’s Presbyterian internationalism to Howard Thurman’s cosmopolitan spiritualism and the crossover theology of Pentecostalism within rhythm and blues and rock ’n’ roll through the lives of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Johnny Cash, and Levon Helm.

The subject of the first chapter, Frank Price, played a role in nationalist movements in twentieth-century China as a Presbyterian missionary, a role highlighted by his close relationship with Chiang Kai-shek. Harvey describes Price in a Wilsonian-internationalist light, emphasizing Price’s orientation to see the Gospel as a purveyor of social good. As a snapshot of southern religion, however, Price does not reveal much about the influences of southern thinking. Born in China to missionary parents from southern Virginia, Price attended Davidson College and Yale Divinity School. He trained at the periphery of southern Presbyterianism’s racialized theology. Are the liberal dispositions Price exhibits—writing a book in the 1950s titled Marx Meets Christ—part of the southern Presbyterian tradition or an orientation formed from his time in China, or some combination of both?

The chapter on Price is fascinating because it allows us to see the depth of theological thinking regarding Chinese nationalism as it relates to America’s presence there. Harvey reveals much about Price’s own personal stake in China’s movement onto the twentieth-century world stage. But if we are to understand the role of southern religion's (southern Presbyterianism’s) impact on Price’s thinking, there is not much connective tissue. The chapter suggests that there is much more to examine before we can know how much southern religion affected events in China. But this issue is why Harvey’s lectures matter: we need to have an understanding of how definitions of religion function. Price’s denominationalism was important to his work, so rather than offering a theological perspective on Chinese nationalism or Wilsonian internationalism, Price may help us understand, instead, how denominational structures affect state and international apparatuses. Religion in this case is the created order Price made, and his grounding in southern Presbyterian denominationalism reveals something about how denominationalism played out in the twentieth-century American South.

Even more marginalized but in some ways the key figure in the collection, Howard Thurman presents a complicated picture of the American South. Born in West Palm Beach, Florida, and raised in Daytona, he came under the influence of Black Baptist churches but for personal reasons held them at length. The formative years of his young life occurred while he was a student at Morehouse College and while he engaged in activities within the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). As Harvey points out, Thurman was a seeker. Beholden to no particular version of Protestant Christianity, Thurman felt comfortable enough to try different approaches to God and God’s work in the world. His interest in the mystical form of Christianity made him a quietist but not a quiet minister. His sojourn to San Francisco, Harvey asserts, revealed Thurman’s cosmopolitan sensibility and his willingness to push beyond denominational/Christian boundaries. Thurman’s writing career also made him active on the speakers’ circuits. Jesus and the Disinherited (1949) became a nexus point for how quietism showed an activist spirit but not specifically in Thurman.

Harvey published his biography of Thurman, Howard Thurman and the Disinherited: A Religious Biography, in 2020. The biography offers much more about the mystic than the lecture could contain. The chapter in the book under review, however, does a good job of outlining parts of southern Black Protestant traditions that Thurman held on to as he moved beyond the region. But again, it becomes less clear what southern religion forms made Thurman who he was versus his ability to pull into his created theological system a variety of pieces from lots of traditions, including non-Christian ones, to make him the spiritual mentor of the modern civil rights movement. Harvey points to the power of Thurman’s mind for adaptation: Thurman “sought to recover the essential religious core of human experience and inculcate democratic habits of spirituality grounded in self-reliance” (p. 64). As a mystic, however, Thurman would have developed that patience far outside the American South. So, is he southern simply by birth or did Thurman carry something essentially southern beyond the region and transform it into a form those in the South could recognize? Harvey suggests that a story Thurman often told about an enslaved Black minister who had told his congregation “You are God’s children,” wiping away all other claims on them as less than human by the dominant white society, helps explain the essential nature of southern religious experiences for African Americans (p. 60). This core aspect of Thurman’s ministry meant that when he moved beyond the trappings of southern Protestantism and its inherent racism, he could rebuild a theological system from that central truth that all humans are beloved. Anything that helped amplify that message regardless of its origin could be used. Again, the helpful piece of this chapter is not about southern religion as a thing itself but the very nature of how religion gets constructed based on personal experience and how it engages with traditions. In this case, we do not learn what about southern religion carried Thurman but about the malleability of religious thinking to engage the world around a person.

The final chapter is the most intriguing because Harvey abandons traditional pieties and addresses the most lasting influence of the region on the global stage: Pentecostal influences on rhythm and blues and its progeny, rock ’n’ roll, through Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Johnny Cash, and Levon Helm. While Harvey chose the geographic proximity of Cotton Plant (Tharpe), Dyess (Cash), and Turkey Scratch (Helm), Arkansas, the hard-scrabbled experiences each had in those places supplied the elements that allowed them to bridge the chasm between gospel and rock ’n’ roll through expressive forms of American Protestantism. Tharpe’s guitar riffs remain a staple of rock today; Cash’s struggle to face his demons and succumb to them again and again through his music defined at least three distinct generations of fans and disciples; and Helm, the least explored, channeled his own experiences through the “southern” songs in his most widely known music venture, The Band.

Music does appear to be the one area where the influence of southern Protestantism is most clear. The gospel music tradition, born from enslaved people’s experiences, gave expression to the hope of the Gospel message that this world was not the final expression of God’s divine plan. But the development of the Blues, Saturday night expressions of life lived on earth, is what gained a worldwide following. Musicians who could call on the Gospel shaped generations across the globe to learn guitar and piano, and play in bands that tapped into the angst of life, whether hopeful or not. But even as Tharpe, Cash, and later Helm play a significant role in rock ’n’ roll history, they do not remain widely known for their specific theological orientations, with a slight caveat for Tharpe’s ministerial status or Cash’s more public expressions of southern evangelical culture. Their southernness appears to disappear the farther they move from the geographic gravity of Arkansas and embrace innovation in a variety of forms.

It is this point of adaptability that I think is most helpful moving forward. Rather than see religion in static terms of theology or denominationalism, the group biography reveals how people encounter and experience the world as they move through it, shaping a religious sensibility that explains their relationship to the world. The complicated process means we will learn more about southern religious sensibilities and their continual adaptation.

This move from local to national and international is where Harvey’s work captures the powerful impulse within religious experiences. He does not describe a movement, though all five people may have played various roles in different types of movements. He lets their lives speak for themselves as they each moved beyond the confines of place—that most coveted of southernisms. What the book reveals is not so much a way to understand southern religion as a way to think about religion as a social arena of contested norms. If Tharpe does not necessarily diverge from her Pentecostal roots, there was a group of Europeans who saw in her not the power of the Gospel but the power of the guitar and its ability to speak to the human experience. Similarly, Cash’s “Christian” recording phase (1970s and early 1980s) is not nearly as defining—or as well known—as his work with Rick Rubin and the six-volume American Recordings, and Price’s experiences in China with Chinese nationalists in the midst of revolution says as much about him as his southern Presbyterianism. Thurman’s brilliance, moreover, is not found in his Florida Baptist roots but in his ability to synthesize various parts of traditions into a coherent vision of a beloved community before Martin Luther King Jr.

What if we have been looking for southern religion in the wrong places from the beginning? Also what if our need to interrogate southern religion and find it lacking was also the problem? Harvey does not give us a definition of southern religion as much as point out how to examine it. In Price, Thurman, Tharpe, Cash, and Helm we have examples of lives lived and choices made based on their specific experiences with southern Protestantism, or at least versions of Protestantism developed in the region we call the American South. In Harvey’s analysis, however, we have five people who bent and adjusted their traditions to make sense of the world they saw and experienced. They are neither captive to the cultures within which they lived nor are they unaffected by the forces within Protestantism of their time. All of them would qualify as cosmopolitan under Harvey’s analysis because they could work beyond their limited experiences to incorporate other points of view into their religious orientations.

In closing, a final thought told through a story: at about the same time that he met Billy Graham, Cash was invited to the White House and a Senate subcommittee to discuss prison reform. In April 1970, Cash appeared in Washington for prison reform Senate hearings and a short set performance in the White House. The three songs he sang—“What Is Truth?,” “Man in Black,” and “A Boy Named Sue”—demonstrate the level of his willingness to identify with the marginalized and downtrodden. While Cash would later say none of the song choices were political, the context of those songs suggests that his religious sensibility was political but not necessarily to a political end or part of a larger political movement. He believed that a form of redemption could come on earth if prisoners were treated like people rather than garbage. Much is made of the song choices Cash had been asked to play—“Okie From Muskogee” and “Welfare Cadillac,” as well as “Sue”—but the telling is almost always framed in relation to whether Cash intended to dismiss the powerful impulse of right-wing messaging against antiwar and Black activists. Cash said he simply did not have enough time to learn the songs that were not his.[2] He, however, could have sung any of his songs, including “I Walk the Line” or one of his many earlier hits. Cash did not, and the ability to channel his most direct challenged authority in “What Is Truth?” and “The Man in Black” to speak about power of the common person as child of God worthy of dignity sounds similar to Thurman’s core assertion that we are all children of God. The event at the White House may say as much about Cash’s religious sensibilities as his politics, but to divide the man between the two categories strips him, and us, of human complexity. We do not separate our religion from our daily lives, so we may be better off thinking about religion as part of the human experience, formed and reformed by each successive event in historical subjects, as much as in sermons or theological systems, or even in guitar riffs and song lyrics.

Human imagination, expanded and stunted by social arrangements, tries to make sense of the world within which each individual lives. Harvey’s group biography shows us how to reconstitute these pasts as people navigated their known reality with the parts of traditions that they had been handed. The reshaping of southern religion as it moves not only in the region but also across the globe should give us more contradictions of those created and lived theologies than any tight narrative of systematic renderings of southern religion might give us.


[1]. John Hayes, Hard, Hard Religion: Interracial Faith in the Poor South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

[2]. Johnny Cash with Patrick Carr, Cash: The Autobiography (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), 211–12.

Citation: Douglas Thompson. Review of Harvey, Paul, Southern Religion in the World: Three Stories. H-South, H-Net Reviews. April, 2021.

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