The female apostles of the South
This dissertation argues that the public religious activism of free and enslaved women was essential to the growth of mainstream Protestant denominations in the late antebellum Gulf South. Women were not just a silent majority in the pews on Sundays and religious role models at home for their children. This project focuses specifically on the Gulf South of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana where from 1825 to 1861 women transformed the region from a frontier missionary field into the home of modern Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Episcopal denominations. They served as public fundraisers, advisors, instructors, and exhorters—championing the benevolent and evangelizing causes of their churches. Slaveholding women relied on enslaved female labor to fundraise for church projects and teach Sunday school in the mission to the enslaved. At the same time, some free and enslaved black women, even after Nat Turner’s 1831 rebellion, found public spaces to speak, lead, and fund separate black churches. Women justified their activism by drawing on a combination of socially acceptable ideals including public motherhood, Christian benevolence, and the evangelizing duty of missionary Protestants. Ultimately, this dissertation maps a broader cultural geography of lived religion in the antebellum Gulf South. It adds new public spaces to the conversation, including classrooms, book depositories, benevolent societies, temperance rallies, and mission stations, and proposes a re-thinking of the southern home as more than solely a domestic space. Women turned their homes into sites of public religious practice. Likewise, planation chapels and slaveholder households were not just family or domestic spaces; they offered powerful and paradoxical identities for white women as benefactors, teachers, and oppressors. This project looks at biracial and segregated spaces, mixed-gender and female spaces, on and off plantations, and determines which spaces allowed Protestant women of color to speak or lead and which permitted white women but remained racially exclusive. This new map uncovers where Gulf South women found purpose, identity, and power through religious duty.