Lectures on the South by Joe Morecraft, III, self-published, no date, 172 pp.
This volume contains five essays on Christianity and the nineteenth century American South by Presbyterian minister Joe Morecraft. Morecraft was a founder of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, United States and today has his ministerial credentials in the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Hanover Presbytery. This latter denomination is the one in which I also am an ordained minister.
It is over a century and a half since the end of the American Civil War and yet the political issues and indeed the history of the War itself are still hotly debated. As a Northerner myself—having grown up in Michigan—I’ve certainly been presented with one view of the conflict in the public schools, the society around me, and the media. But as one who has read widely on libertarianism, I’m well aware of the immorality of Abraham Lincoln and the U. S. Government. Having now lived primarily in the South for the last decade and learned some Southerners perspectives, I hope that I might be in a position to somewhat dispassionately consider the issues. I have no axe to grind. My ancestors were not involved on either side of the war as they were at that point basically all poor farmers still in the old countries: Friesland, Poland, Holland, and Germany. But while I’m rather emotionally disconnected from the Civil War, I must admit that I am also rather disconnected from knowledge of the times. While I’m not entirely ignorant, I will admit—unlike an all-too-large percentage of American men— to not being an expert on the Civil War.
Turning to Morecraft’s volume, the first of the five essays is “The Religious Cause of the War Between the States and the Reconstruction of the South.” Here Morecraft contends that the humanistic “Enlightenment” which led to the French Revolution in 1789 was brought to the South in the War Between the States and the Reconstruction which followed. The growing Unitarianism in New England condemned the Calvinism dominant in the South. The goal of the War was to make a secular society with a strong central authority. The continuing humanistic revolution, he argues, can only be stopped by the power of the Reformation: faith in and obedience to the Word of God. Only this can rescue us from tyranny and the meaninglessness of modern American culture. I’d like to see the main idea of this essay fleshed out a bit more. The essay is only fourteen pages in length and doesn’t explain what seems to be most critical—what makes for the distinctive Christian nature of the antebellum South.
The second essay is “How God Saved the Old South from Unitarianism.” Morecraft explains that while the North grew more and more Unitarian in the early and mid 19th century, the South remained committed to orthodox Christianity. His answer to how this happened is that the immigration to the South of (both Calvinistic) French Huguenots and Scottish Presbyterians stemmed the tide of Unitarianism’s growth and made the South solidly Christian. In addition to this factor of immigration, God used religious revivals to win the day for Christianity. Morecraft concludes that revival is needed today. I noted that throughout the first two essays it is apparent from the citations he makes that Morecraft is influenced by the writings of Richard Weaver.
The third essay is “How Dabney Looked at the World: The Worldview of Robert L. Dabney.” Morecraft well notes, “many today who profess to love the South and who have battle flag decals on their cars and trucks have no real commitment to that Biblical Christianity that was the bed-rock foundation of the Old South.” Dabney, he argues, was a thorough Calvinist and a polymath. This essay then explains Dabney’s views on a range of topics.
The fourth essay is “Benjamin Palmer: A Cataract of Holy Fire.” The essay starts with a biography and description of Palmer, his work, and his preaching. Morecraft then is back to the main point of his earlier essays. He writes, “Palmer rightly understood that the War Between the States was a religious war fought, not primarily over slavery, states’ rights or tariffs, but fought primarily by the South in defense of Christendom in the South against the war of aggression against it fought by the North, spurred on by Unitarian leaders who wanted to break the back of Reformed Christianity in the United States so as to ‘junk’ the U. S. Constitution and create a powerful, socialistic central government with the power to de-Christianize the entire nation through state-sponsored education.” (p 120) I’d be interested to know what other historians think of this view. I’m not sure that the Unitarians were so influential or that in the South was as thoroughly Christian as Morecraft believes. Surely the situation was more complicated. I suspect that Morecraft would agree with that to an extent.
The fifth and final essay is “Why the State Motto of Virginia is Sic Semper Tyrannis.” Referencing the book of Revelation, Morecraft contends that the beast from the sea is “fallen, unregenerate humanity” while the beast from the land is “the apostate church.” He then goes over a basic history of the Reformation and the Synod of Dordt and connects Arminianism with tyranny. More fully, he argues that “tyranny flourishes in those societies that reject the Reformed Faith.” Nowhere in the essay do I see an explicit answer the question of its title.
Probably the most interesting idea in these essays is the effect of humanism on the North. Certainly Morecraft is right to note that influence. And it is a good corrective to those who have overlooked that factor. But I wonder (and again I have little knowledge of the pertinent source materials) whether he has overcorrected in making more of this factor than warranted.