Subversive Etiquette: Protestant Piety and Identity in America By Dr. Thomas Harvey

The Great Earthquake and subsequent fire of 1906 turned most of San Francisco into smoldering rubble. Hauled and dumped along rail lines reaching out from the city, her charred remains were laid to rest.  Sixty years later, a buddy of mine happened upon an old bottle half submerged in the embankment of the old track.  His discovery represented a treasure to boys eager to cast off the dreary monotony of summer for the embrace of the hot clay dust, dry weeds, and red cinder of an archeological dig.  Our excavations mostly produced curious odds and ends: a porcelain doll’s hand, a shard from an elixir bottle with instructions and cures listed, a broken pen, an exquisite wardrobe hinge, a broken mirror etched in Chinese characters. These “treasures” we squirreled away in my room much to the displeasure of my Mother. Useless clutter in her eyes, to us these bits of porcelain glass and tin, now strangely out of place, were clues to a world where they once fit in.


Such fragments fill our world. Not simply bits of metal or broken glass, at times they are ideas or behaviors once popular and common, now dated and strange like old hats and overcoats collecting dust and smelling of mothballs. For example, only seventy years ago the strictures “No ballroom dancing”, “no mixed bathing”, the avoidance of “worldly” amusements, abstinence from liquor, tobacco, card-playing, gambling, swearing, etc… set the margins for the evangelical Christian.  Today, however, most of these rules are either ignored, forgotten or have simply disappeared.[1]  Though vestiges remain of this older Christian piety, arguments to resurrect them often appear arbitrary, disconnected, and hearkening to a golden era where they once made sense. Instead, what was once a recognizable moral code now exists as fragments: taboos sometimes obeyed or shown deference to, but lacking a coherent rationale.  From whence did this piety arise and in what world did it make sense?  Further, in our own quest to establish ways of embodying our faith, what can we learn from a piety that we view as hidebound and old-fashioned, but in its day was revolutionary?


To understand the revolutionary nature of the conservative Protestant piety that gave rise to the rules above, one must turn to the social milieu of the late eighteenth century.  In what is now referred to as “The Great Awakening”, Evangelicals sought to establish order and meaning in a society suffering from dissipation, corruption, crime and violence.  “New Light” Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, and evangelical Anglicans radicalized religious observance and thereby offered an alternative and subversive view of self and society. So effective was this revolution of piety that “New Light” piety transformed the consciousness not only those who embraced it, but also those who rejected and attempted to eradicate it particularly in the mid-Atlantic region of Virginia and North Carolina.



For wealthy Virginians and Carolinians of the late eighteenth century, creation was viewed as a “vast continuous hierarchy of parts, each with its own degree of honor…. fathers were by nature of greater honor than children, men were by nature of greater honor than women, whites of greater honor than blacks, and gentry of greater honor than common planters.”[2]  Status was gained at birth, sealed at baptism, and rigorously maintained in an intricate social network of honor, deference, and patronage.[3]


Maintenance of honor was necessary in a culture where the intricate social and economic bonds were largely secured “face-to-face”.[4]  Hence, the demands of honor set the rules of right conduct. Honor bound men to the virtues of courage, hospitality, and risk taking.  Further, these were displayed publicly through daring, repartee and swagger.[5]   Naturally, slights, whether real or imagined, couldn’t be ignored and when conflict erupted, violence was the sanctioned means to assuage honor: fisticuffs for commoners, the duel for gentlemen. A challenge refused not only lowered one’s position socially, it complicated the myriad of personal and social relationships necessary to life.  Because Personal honor was deeply woven into the political, social, and economic fabric of society. Social rank was a matter of perception and social encounters which demanded display and bearing.  A man’s clothes, his countenance, his comport, even his means of transport, all reflected his station in life.  It was said a Virginian would “go five miles to catch a horse, to ride only one mile upon afterwards.”[6]


If honor and social status were shaped the character of late 18th century planter society, dances, horse-races, Cockfights, festivals, and other sundry amusements provided the stage for its display. The liquor and food at such occasions, often provided by wealthy patrons to secure the loyalty of the commoners at election time, served as an adhesive bonding society together. Herein was an identity which served both commoner and wealthy land-owner. The religious undergirding for this social arrangement was provided by the state supported Church of England.  Accordingly, the hierarchical cosmos of planter society reflected the divine order.  Salvation was a right of birth received at baptism. Wealthy planters had private pews at the front of the Church in accordance with their rank in society and the local church was run by the wealthy planters who served as vestrymen.  It was they who raised and disbursed funds for poorer commoners in need. The clergy was dependent on them for room, board, and extra stipends which bolstered their meager state salaries.[7]


Theologically, stress was laid on God’s providence and benevolence.[8]  A “sublime and elevated virtue” was encouraged as reason and equipoise were valued over emotionalism and passion.  Most often sermons were read verbatim with little emotion and drew little response. Faith and reason were viewed as one and deism was quite fashionable amongst many wealthy and educated Virginians with its appeal to nature, human reason and hierarchy.  It suited the southern aristocratic taste for order even as it de-emphasized the role of clergy, church and religious commitment.[9]



Although order, honor, equipoise and amusement were idealized in southern culture of the mid-eighteenth century, by its own estimate it was not measuring up.  The steady rise in commerce and prosperity in the 18th century did not bring social harmony.[10]  The widespread view was that the present generation lacked enterprise, hard-work, frugality, and virtue of the original settlers who had hewed their plantations out of a rugged and unforgiving wilderness.[11]  It seemed the more wealth accumulated with prosperous landed families and wealthy merchants the faster the older agrarian social order unraveled.[12]  Wealth brought with it the “temptations of pleasure” as the rich grasped after “all manner of Gratifications of their Luxury, stately Houses, Furniture, and Equipage, plentiful tales, Mirth, Musick and Drinking.”[13]  Young heirs drank and gambled away family fortunes as the pursuit of pleasure brought many wealthy estates to the brink of ruin.[14]  In a society where self-assertion and the “outward and visible signs of prosperity” demanded one ante up to maintain place, squandering wealth became southern aristocratic potlatch.[15]

Such dissolute behavior, however, was not confined to the aristocracy.  Alcohol abuse, gambling, fighting, crime and a whole assortment of ills plagued society generally.


The indolence and dissipation of the middling and lower classes of white inhabitants of Virginia, are such as to give pain to every reflecting mind.  Horse racing, cock fighting, and boxing matches, are standing amusements, for which they neglect all business; and in the latter of which they conduct themselves with a barbarity worthy of their savage neighbors.[16]


Boxing and wrestling matches often resulted in horrendous injuries such as the gouging out of eyes, or the dismembering of genitals.[17] Amongst the gentry, duels left leading members of society maimed or dead.[18]  Meanwhile, alcoholism and drunkenness plagued gentry, yeoman and slave alike.[19]


Concern over “corruption”, “virtue” and “luxury” became obsessive in the writings of Virginians of the late eighteenth century, concern rarely resulted in correction when the dominant culture needed vice to function.[20]   Dancing, drinking, horse-racing, cockfighting, card-playing, and the gambling were ingrained into the system of honor, patronage and deference necessary for social cohesion.[21]   The malignancy had become part of the social organism. Not even the church could provide relief from the dissipation. Church attendance was tepid and the vast majority of white males refused to become communicants until old age or on their death-bed if at all.[22]  Worse, clergy differed little from society in general. As one planter lamented: “it is most Common to be observed in this very disagreeable run of men, they exclaim against those very things which they are most guilty of themselves.”[23]  It is reported that “{F}ondness for cards, dice, tables, &c” was as prevalent in the clergy as with the laity.[24]


Within this troubled order, evangelical piety would take root. Nonetheless, its ideology and etiquette represented less reform than radical surgery whereby from the start it set out to subvert and over-throw the status quo.  It addressed the ills of society by offering another; one that defined society and the self very differently.



How evangelical piety subverted the culture of honor begins with its emphasis on radical conversion. Evangelical awakening did not merely replace one set of virtues and behaviors for another, but radically reconfigured the cosmological order. No longer was God the distant creator of the established social order, evangelicals preached that God’s wrath burned against the wickedness and false religion of the status quo.


Is not the general indulgence of vice, and neglect of religion, a plain evidence of the general disbelief of a divine Providence over our country? That wickedness is almost universally triumphant, and practical religion and the concerns of eternity are generally neglected is too evident to require a formal proof….  If there be much of religion in Virginia, I am sure it is not the religion of our Bibles – it is not the religion of Jesus: it is a religion that consists in swearing, drinking, quarreling, carousing, luxury and pleasure – it is a cold, careless, immoral, prayerless religion.[25]


Evangelical preachers decried the formal state church as “practical atheism”.[26]  It was atheism because their religion led to “belief that the Lord has forsaken the earth, and takes no notice of the conduct of the inhabitants; as if they had nothing to hope and nothing to fear from him; and therefore they may do what they please, and shift for themselves as they can.”[27]  Rather than a vassal state with God its aloof overseer, Evangelicals argued that the social order was hostile to God and subject to his impending wrath. Rather than a single hierarchical order supported and upheld by God, Evangelicals argued for two orders. The first was the disordered world of “customary society”, the second was a new order of society which shared a religious experience and a strict code of conduct.[28]  These two conflicting orders reveal the difference between evangelical sermons of the day and their more stolid contemporaries. Instead of providence, benevolence, comfort, virtue, and trust, evangelicals exhorted recognition of sin, human corruption, and the insufficiency of human merit before God’s judgment.  According to the evangelical Devereux Jarratt:


I had been taught by experience as well as by reading the word, to consider the whole plan of redemption, through a mediator, as founded on the lapsed state of mankind, and their utter inability to restore themselves to the favor and image of God, which were lost by the fall, by any thing they could either do or suffer.  I knew also, that they who are whole see no need of a physician, but those that are sick, and consequently that a sense of danger and misery was requisite to excite speedy and vigorous efforts for help and deliverance – I therefore judged it necessary to adopt that method of preaching, which might have the most direct tendency to make sinners feel their situation, and sensible of their guilt, danger and helplessness. Nothing short of this will properly turn the attention of the human race to the invitations of the gospel, and render a savior precious to their souls.[29]


Rendering “a savior precious to their souls” was no “soft-sell”.  Sinners dangling before the gaping jaws of hell, the fiery consumption of the earth, and the pitiful pleas of the wicked before a God unwilling to turn a blind eye to humanity’s cup of iniquity now full, were vivid images to bring dread to the listener so as to make them anxious over the condition of their soul.[30]   Salvation was only sure for those who had been awakened to their sinful condition, had struggled with sin, and had experienced conversion. Only those awakened to their sinful condition would they then “fly to Jesus”.


In a word, my plan was, first, To convince of sin. Second, of inability. Third, to point out the remedy and press the convicted to fly to Jesus Christ, and rest on him for complete salvation. And, fourth, To exhort those who believed, to be careful to maintain good works, and go on to perfection.[31]


This message repentance and salvation represented a whole new way of conceiving the self.  Rather than honor and peerage, self-realization it called for recognition of sin, repentance and conversion. “Awakening” to sin was experienced while listening to the sermon. “Struggle” was manifested through groans, shouts and weeping. “Deliverance” through expressions of joy as “the Lord…spoke peace to their souls. This he usually did in one moment… so that all their griefs and anxieties vanished away, and they were filled with joy and peace in believing.”[32]  Nonetheless, joy and ecstatic release were not the limit of conversion; conversion also signified entry into the community of the elect where the experience of the converted was affirmed and valued.[33] Thus, transformation was at once intensely subjective and communal.  It was conformed to “a pattern shaped by the experiences and expectations of others.”[34]  Joining the evangelicals meant a whole new way of life marked by sobriety, restraint, and rigid discipline.  To us, such rigidity may seem unappealing, yet for slaves, poorer freeholders, craftsmen, and women, such piety was a real alternative to the rivalry, social distance, and decadence that marked planter culture. The growth in evangelical congregations speaks for itself. During his first ten years, the total of those taking the sacrament in the Evangelical Devereux Jarratt’s parish rose from eight to nearly a thousand communicants.[35]




True conversion signified a change of social allegiance with the withdrawal from public “convivialities” such as dances, horse-races, cockfights, etc. and into the social sphere of the evangelical sect.  No longer was the convert enmeshed in the complex web of social interaction which held both commoner and gentry to their established niche in society. Rather than order as a cosmological given, evangelical social order conformed to the shared experience of conversion and the requisite conduct of the believer. This served to remove the convert from the hierarchical social, political and cosmological system that gave order to southern planter society.

In contrast, evangelicals formed congregations that attempted to “execute gospel discipline among them.”[36]  Instead of seeing the self as determined by one’s place in the given social milieu, self was defined in light of shared experience and lived discipline. Entrance into the groups was open to all including slaves, but it did exclude those that didn’t abide with the discipline. Both Methodist and Baptists found “superfluous forms and Modes of Dressing…as cock’t hatts”incompatible with Christian deportment. Indeed, the Methodists barred from societies those who didn’t conform. The First Discipline reads “Give no Tickets to any that wear High Heads, enormous Bonnets, Ruffles or Rings.”[37]


Such leveling practices had interesting consequences. Methodists had been particularly effective at attracting congregations made up of poor white free-holders and black slaves. Although moves to convert slaves were initially resisted by plantation owners, their concern became tempered by the observation that converted slaves made better workers as the “effect [of the Methodists] on the public morals of the negroes… began to be seen, particularly as regarded their habits on Sunday, and drunkenness.”[38]  Even more shocking to white planters were the conversions of their wives and daughters.  In Fayetteville, North Carolina, Henry Evans’s predominantly black Methodist congregation grew so quickly that walls had to be knocked out to make more seating room.[39]  After a Schoolmistress named Mrs. Bowen was converted, large number of white women began to attend the church, sometimes bringing along their husbands.


Emphasis on piety and experience created an ideological niche whereby converts could find value and meaning apart from class and gender.  Emotion, intimacy, mutual respect, and a disciplined order devalued social stasis.  This helps explain why evangelical congregations appealed to upper class women; the onerous aspects of patriarchal society were mitigated.  Rigid distinctions between the virtues of men and women in traditional society were not as prominent in evangelical piety which stressed the common virtues of sobriety, devotion, humility, vigilance, and self-control.  Conversion also allowed new forms of social engagement.  Strict evangelical asceticism deprecated older notions of sociability by looking askance at Balls and the theater[40] instead favoring prayer meetings and Bible studies.  Over time these would develop into benevolent societies often managed by women who socially could now exercise “spiritual authority” in ways barred to them by the status quo.[41]


This is not to suggest that evangelicals forged a brave new world where male and female, slave and free achieved equality.  Patriarchy continued among evangelicals and emancipation of slaves would have to wait till the mid-19th century. Nonetheless, this represented not so much a failure in their ideology as a refusal to fully live out its subversive consequences.[42]



The modern penchant to realize identity and meaning apart from contingent history paralleled the precipitous decline of evangelical discipline in the 20th century.[43]  Practices and virtues once central to the formation of character and identity appeared increasingly arbitrary, particular, and irrational once separated from the contingent history and culture in which they made sense.  Many who grew up when mixed bathing (men and women swimming together), dancing, alcohol, movies, and card playing were prohibited to evangelical Christians were glad to see them go.

Nonetheless, in our increasingly postmodern era wherein sources of the self are hard to come by,  the strong sense of character and personal identity achieved by 18th and 19th century evangelicals could provide springs for our own rejuvenation. For example, the ability to frame individual identity in terms of conversion.  Conversion provided a way of self-understanding that could account not only for disorder in the self, but in the surrounding society. Moreover, conversion meant entrance into a community that provided meaning and practices that enabled individuals to extricate themselves from the sins that so easily entangled.


Evangelical piety also provided “projects extended through time”.[44] Conversion was not a momentary experience devoid of ethical, social, and political consequences. Entry into this new society required agreement of shared goals along with strategies to attain those goals and standards with which to evaluate personal and communal progress. Hence, by their own rationale, the failure of southern evangelicals to carry through their intent to abolish slavery in their ranks was a failure according to their own standard; one does not need to import a standard external to the tradition for it to critique itself.


Finally, evangelical piety provided direction. Although we may wince at their images of the imminent judgment of God, it brought before the penitent the awful realization that God, not the status quo, was their final end.  The need to awaken and ready penitents according to their true end shaped their theology, preaching, thought and action.  Rather than finding one’s niche in a static society, “new light” Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists were able to envision a different order. Theirs was the world of vigilance, restraint, and self-denial rather than sociability, amusement and fashion. If such a world appears to us spartan and severe, for them the sobriety and discipline made sense, for in a transitory world where death is always near at hand, preparation for the next is prudent.


Dr. Thomas Harvey is the Academic Dean of The Oxford Centre for Mission Studies in Oxford, UK.  He authored Acquainted With Grief: Wang Mingdao’s Stand for the Persecuted Church in China. Tom is a member of the Lausanne Congress Global Diaspora Network , the European Coordinator of the Lausanne European Diaspora Educator’s Group and is a missionary co-worker with the Presbyterian Church USA. This paper was originally published by Dr. Harvey at Duke University in 1994, and was updated August, 2023.


[1]      George M. Marsden. Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth Century Evangelicalism 1870-1925 (New York: Oxford University Press,1980) pp 156-157

[2]      Schneider, The Way, p 4

[3]  Rhys Isaac. “Evangelical Revolt: the Nature of the Baptists’ Challenge to the Traditional Order in Virginia 1765 to 1775”. William and Mary Quarterly 31 (July 1974): 345-368. and “Preachers and Patriots: Popular Culture and the Revolution in Virginia”. in The American Revolution: Explorations in the History of American Radicalism, edited by Alfred A. Young, 127-156.(DeKalb, Ill.: Northern Illinois University Press, 1976) and A. Gregory Schneider. The Way of the Cross Leads Home: the Domestication of American Methodism (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1993)

[4]      ibid pp 6-7

[5]      ibid p 21

[6]      Isaac, “Evangelical Revolt” p 348

[7]      Isaac, “Evangelical Revolt” pp 364-365

[8]       Rankin, p 18

[9]      ibid pp 22-25

[10]      Jack P. Greene. “Search For Identity: An Interpretation of the Meaning of Selected Patterns of Social Response in Eighteenth-Century America” Journal of Social History, III (1969-1970), pp 196-205

[11]      ibid pp 193-194

[12]      ibid p 195

[13]      James Blair, Our Saviour’s Divine Sermon on the Mount as quoted in Greene Search, p 195

[14]      Gordon S. Wood, “Rhetoric and Reality in the American Revolution,” William and Mary Quarterly,  3d Ser., XXIII (Charlottesville: Univ. of Virgina Press, 1966), p 29

[15]      Wood, “Rhetoric”, p 28. Greene,”Search”, p 195-196

[16]      Chastellux, Travels as quoted in Colonial Virginians at Play. Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia Press, 1965. p 164-165

[17]      Isaac, “Evangelical Revolt” p 360

[18]      Rankin, p 238

[19]      Carter, pp 363, 378, 559, 722, 729, 758, 782, 937-938, 1073

[20]      Wood Rhetoric, p 29

[21]      Isaac. “Evangelical Revolt” 345-68

[22]      Rankin, p 29

[23]      ibid pp 819-820

[24]      Jarratt, p 100

[25]       Samuel Davies. Sermons on Important Subjects. Vol III (New York: Dayton and Saxton, 1842) p 287

[26]      ibid pp 283-294

[27]      ibid p 287

[28]      Isaac, “Preachers and Patriots” pp 139-140

[29]      Jarratt, pp 32-33

[30]      Samuel Davies. Sermons on Important Subjects. Vol III (New York: Dayton and Saxton, 1842) pp 186-187

[31]      Jarratt, pp 89-90

[32]      Devereux Jarratt as quoted in Isaac, “Preachers & Patriots” p 138

[33]      Isaac, “Evangelical Revolt” p 359

[34]      Isaac “Preachers & Patriots”, p 138

[35]      Devereux Jarratt, Life p 102

[36]      John Leland, The Virginia Chronicle (Fredricksburg, Va., 1790) as quoted in Isaac, “Evangelical Revolt” p 353

[37]      Gewehr, pp 260-261

[38]      Rankin, p 64

[39]      ibid. p 84

[40]      ibid p 227

[41]      ibid p 74

[42]       It is of notable that the issue was raised and that the Methodists came close in 1784 to making abolition part of their discipline.

[43]      ibid. p 191

[44]      ibid p 197

© 2024 Dennis Allen | Morgan James Publishing

Start Reading

Slices of the book featured monthly

January 2022 segement: Catch and Release Christianity