The Root of All Evil: The Protestant Clergy and the Economic Mind of the Old South. – Review

The Root of All Evil: The Protestant Clergy and the Economic Mind of the Old South. – Review – book reviews

John M. Ysursa

The Root of All Evil: The Protestant Clergy and the Economic Mind of the Old South. By Kenneth Moore Startup. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997. Pp. x, 218. $48.00.)

This study is about the economic mind of the antebellum South and not a survey of Southern religion. Within these parameters the author succeeds in presenting an engaging, focused examination of economic issues that preoccupied the Protestant clergy, primarily what they considered the root of all evil–mammonism; i.e., “avarice, covetousness and materialism”. Startup’s study is a significant contribution to the historical debate regarding Civil War causation. Building upon James McPherson’s argument in Battle Cry of Freedom of ideological affinity between North and South, Startup declares that “nowhere was this affinity more pronounced than in the northern and southern clergy’s critique of the contemporary economic environment and the materialistic aspirations of the men and women about them.”

Southern ministers labored to restore a lost ideal, endeavoring to reclaim the garden from the sudden growth of the evil roots of mammonism that threatened to choke off the Christian flower. If these roots could at least be trimmed back and controlled, a “great good” would result. But how to identify, let alone attack, the roots in the garden? The evil roots of mammonism were difficult to differentiate from the good roots of Christian living. Materialism “usually masqueraded in the guise of caring for one’s family.” All the while the clergy themselves were dependent on material support to continue their ministry, and Southern prosperity held out the promise of establishing a true Christian commonwealth. From this confounding situation Startup demonstrates how the clergy as a whole came to more precisely define the affliction. The sudden expansion of evil roots in the garden was attributed to one source: the growth of entrepreneurial capitalism.

Eric Foner in a recent historiographical overview observed how “shared values made the Civil War itself rather difficult to explain.” While sectional affinity is acknowledged as crucial to an understanding of Civil War causation, Foner noted that what “remains a point of continuing debate” is the question of degree. Startup’s study enters this debate with an accent on sectional affinity. The problematic issue for the affinity school of thought, however, remains the issue of slavery’s morality. Did Lincoln correctly analyze the situation when he observed that half of the country declared slavery wrong and the other half proclaimed it right?

Startup believes he knows why elements of the South went to war and this moral issue is not paramount. The Southern clergy assisted in the push for war because they deluded themselves into believing that they could create a “disinterested, benign slave society”–that they could restore a thriving Christian garden. As the Southern ministers feared, however, most Southerners were not embracing the crusade “to create a republic of virtue, a garden, or a biblical commonwealth.” Instead we are told that For most Southerners the war represented “an assertion of racial and economic prerogatives.” If the affinity school of thought is going to provide a better understanding, then this begs the other half of the question: why did the North fight? Now its back to the garden to differentiate the roots.


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