Matthew Hunter Price, ‘Methodism and Social Capital on the Southern Frontier, 1760-1830’, PhD Dissertation, Ohio State University, 2014 History

04Feb15
Abstract, This dissertation explores the formation of social capital and middle-class culture on the revolutionary frontier. As a lens, I use Methodism, an evangelical movement rooted in the British colonial period that flourished in the American Revolutionary Era and by the Civil War accounted for one in three American church members. Methodism was more than the fastest growing major religious movement in early American history. Combining social theory with manuscript, print, and demographic sources, I argue that Methodism, by circulating itinerants and founding religious societies, was a powerful force for creating social and political capital. My study is the first to appraise Methodism’s role in the development of settler colonialism in the Old Southwest and the southerly regions of the Old Northwest. My research uncovers practices of social exchange and epistolary culture among Methodist men and women (who were the majority of members) to explain how Protestant Christianity transitioned from a discursive role—as a justification for indigenous dispossession—to a technique for possession. Methodism engendered social networks, disseminated knowledge, and aided pursuits of land development and commerce among middling settlers. These benefits of religious association were valuable social and economic resources, and they preceded the formal evangelical politics of the late antebellum era. They were the soil from which grassroots evangelical political power grew.

My research makes three main contributions. It intercedes in the debate on social capital in American society from a historical perspective. Addressing a dearth of historical analyses of social capital formation, it also provides a major assessment of social networks within the most dynamic popular movement of the first half of the nineteenth century. Whereas popular supporters and critics of the social capital thesis often align according to their philosophical embrace of communitarianism or individualism, I show that these categories are historically inseparable, as Euro- American settlers built societies in the West and reaped the benefits of individual and collective social capital to lay the foundation for a middle-class order. Second, my approach bridges an impasse in the historiographical debate on the Second Great Awakening: that is, whether popular evangelicalism democratized American culture. Scholars on one side of the debate have marshaled evidence of anti-elite ideology while others have focused on divisions according to race, class, and gender. Through Methodism I argue that evangelical networks allowed white middling settlers to weaken existing social hierarchies at the very time that they built new ones. Finally, my interpretation centers religion in the search for the origins of the southern middle class, a field currently among the most energetic in southern history. Rather than democratization or its opposite, the Methodists laid the foundation for the emergence of a nineteenth-century middle class of settlers who molded southern and western society according to their principles.



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