The Language and Uses of Religion in George Balcombe

The Language and Uses of Religion in George Balcombe

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The Language and Uses of Religion in George Balcombe


In his 1836 novel, George Balcombe, Nathaniel Beverley Tucker presents the Southern Elite male discourse on religion. Throughout the novel, the speeches of Balcombe and William reveal that they use language that refers to God, but more often they embrace Enlightenment ideals such as reason and self-reliance. Several passages speak directly to the elite idea of God’s love, God’s intended ways for men and women to love one another, and God’s ordained roles for women and slaves. Many other portions of the text reveal differences between the ways in which elite men, non-elite men, and women talk about God and value religious faith.

Evangelical piety posed many challenges to the patriarchal order of early 19th century southern society, so it is no surprise that elite men prioritized attributes other than Christian faith and that religion took on different meanings for people with different levels of status in the social hierarchy. Lindman and Wyatt-Brown describe the assimilation of evangelicalism into the existing social order and the changing definitions of honor between the time of the revolution and the 1830s. Lyerly’s descriptions of the religious experience of Methodist women and slaves provides a context for understanding how the role of religion differed between elite men and other groups. These historians’ works enrich the reader’s understanding of Tucker’s presentation of the white elite male discourse on the role of religion in the antebellum period.

Balcombe and William indicate their sense of God’s presence in their lives throughout their dialogues. In their first conversation, Balcombe excuses William’s faux pas by waxing lyrical that men must make mistakes in order to learn virtue, and concludes that “it is God’s plan of accomplishing his greatest end, and must be the best plan” (v1, 9). While this reference to God’s power seems sincere, other references appear more careless, such as the phrase “God forbid” (v1, 9), which these characters use throughout the novel. William’s remark that “My talkative host now gave his tongue a holyday, while his teeth took their turn at work” is an almost whimsical appropriation of religious terminology to describe mundane events. Often in their dialogues, “God” is interchangeable with “Providence” - in one place, William speaks of “God’s providence” (v1,266). They personify Providence and attribute to it most circumstances in their life, in phrases such as “the pleasure that Providence sends me” (v1,17).

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These men use language of “God,” but it seems for them a cultural artifact rather than an expression of Christian faith. Balcombe reveals his education, not his faith, by alluding to other religious cultures, such as “Brahma” (v1,186), Moore’s “god of day” (v2, 191), and Native American beliefs (v1, 266). The elite men in the novel never mention “Jesus” or any other particularly Christian ideas. They mention dependence on God only in the sense that he provides for their lives, not that their soul relies upon his salvation. They don’t always invoke religious language, nor do they mention piety among the many virtues that distinguish Virginian men (v1, 22-25). Some aspects of their value system, such as humility and generosity, are consistent with Christian teachings, but they seem to use religious arguments to support their cultural values rather than see the Bible or other forms of religious teaching as truth to which they should make their lives conform.

William admires Balcombe’s “hardiness of thought and freedom of speech,”(v1, 25), and Balcombe clearly outlines his philosophy, which basically amounts to “God helps those who help themselves.” He more elegantly expresses this idea by saying “ ‘Put not thy trust in princes nor in the sons of men.’…Let us take care that each event has its due influence upon our own hearts, and if we do not suffer them to deceive us, our trust in Providence will not deceive us” (v1, 265). He explains his views as “such philosophy as an educated man, brought up in a Christian society, learns in a life of solitary danger, where he must think his own thoughts, supply his own wants, and make his hand guard his head” (v1, 265). Elite men like Balcombe learn from their experiences and validate themselves by their intellect, self-restraint, courage, loyalty, and honor rather than their adherence to religious authority.

Balcombe looks to God for justification for aspects of elite southern society that reason fails to justify, such as the unequal distribution of wealth and the oppression of women and slaves. Balcombe presents the issue of the morality of the stratification of wealth to William as follows: “The rich, we are told, are the stewards of God’s benevolence. And surely so it should be; for how else shall we reconcile to the principles of universal justice any claim that you could set up to the possession of more than you want, while the necessaries of life are denied to others?” He goes on to explain the proper uses of the power that some have over others, and the purpose of the hardships that the wealthy face: “Who endowed you with those qualities, which might have been spoiled by unchecked prosperity, but which matured by training…may qualify you to resume the rights of your fathers, with the capacity and disposition to be the protector, and guide, and comforter of your dependants, and not their luxurious, insolent, and heartless oppressor? My dear William, in the armory of God’s displeasure against the vies and follies of mankind, there is not one shaft too many, nor is one of them misdirected” (v1, 262). Tucker presents elite white men as bearing not only privelege, but responsibility for protecting “God’s commandment and God’s established order of domestic society” (v1, 279).

Balcombe describes God’s love for humans in terms of the love of parents for their children, which he calls the most hallowing of our affections” and “that stream of descending affections which must have vent.” Tucker presents Balcombe’s ability to translate his earthly values into religious truths by saying: “ ‘May it not be,’ continued he, in a more thoughtful tone, ‘that [children] are implanted in our hearts to enable us to comprehend something of the love for us which is avowed by God himself, by the great Kind above all gods, for us helpless worms?’” (v1, 70-71). This is perhaps the most effusive religious imagery Balcombe uses in the entire novel. It reveals the great value he places on familial affection, but also reinforces the connection between love and dependence within a universal hierarchy.

The men look to God to justify their relationships with women and the construction of gender roles. When William is puzzled about the nature of Ann’s affections for him, Balcombe instructs his protégé: “Look into your own heart, and you will find it there. A woman’s love for the man she loves best is always the exact reflection of his love for her…This is that union of the heart which God effects, and of which he has said, ‘let no man sever.’” Thus God’s design is invoked as justification for men defining the terms of relationships with women. God’s will is also invoked to justify women’s roles as housewives. Balcombe says that men of honor should “prefer the plain housewifely girl, who reads her Bible, works her sampler, darns her stockings, and boils her bacons and greens together” (v1,278).

The novel portrays women’s religiosity differently from men’s limited use of religion to justify social values. Lyerly notices the that “the differences between the language of white men and women are …stark” and recounts that women experienced Christian faith in a much more personal, sensory way than men did. In George Balcombe, women make more direct references to the fact that humans depend on God than men do. Men see this not as a threat to their independence but as an acceptable way for women to speak, and women also refer to men’s values. William and Balcombe admire Bet’s farewell to her husband, “God is with you…go, my husband, go, and in His strength and in the strength of innocence and courage, and the resources of your own mind, baffle and confound your enemies, as you have always done” (v1, 272). Mary Scott’s letter is filled with references to God, most notably her assertion that “My words are all spoken in the presence of God…God has heard me without being invoked” (v1, 143) She rationalizes her misfortune as something she deserves when she claims that “God is just, and wise, and good. Pride needed to be rebuked” (v1,133) These examples show that Balcombe’s female characters don’t use the sort of sensual imagery that Lyerly’s Methodists use, probably because elite women had a more reserved piety; Bet and even Mary Scott would never be found at a camp meeting. Though they are a bit more effusive than their male counterparts, the religious language of the women in Tucker’s novel is still not explicitly Christian, and it is very reserved compared to the evangelicalism that was popular among other classes of southern society.

The language and uses of religion among non-elite white men differs from that of both elite men and women, and varies by individual. Keizer’s language contains frequent casual references to god, such as “Lord knows,” “Lord bless you,” and “I God,” but he’s hardly a conscientious Christian. Lindman argues that for non-elite men, evangelicalism was a route to upward social mobility, and both Lindman and Lyerly give examples of white men who valued Christian faith. The “good old man” Mr. Jones testifying about his walk with Montague after a campmeeting uses sincere language and values his spiritual life as evinced in his practice with Montague of “uniting in prayer to the throne of grace…where no eye but God’s could see us” (v1, 232). Tucker presents the elite males as respectful of the colonel’s piety, but disrespectful of Montague’s “grimace and sanctimonious deportment. Balcombe’s laughing scorn at Montague for wanting to postpone their meeting in order to observe the Sabbath is not aimed at the practice of honoring the Sabbath, but at Montague’s scruples in light of his character (v1, 213). Tucker’s men of honor are skeptical of those who claim Christian piety but might be using Christian institutions as excuses to behave outside the societal system of honor.
Lyerly asserts that Methodist “experience transcended race, class, and gender.” George Balcome presents evangelical piety as afflicting the elite white males only in rare and less respectable cases like that of Montegue. Lindman asserts that “the growing presence and power of evangelical religion reshaped the perfomance of white masculinity in Virginia society by the late eighteenth century. A new manhood based on acts of piety, sobriety, and non-violence tied to leadership in church and at home challenged traditional masculinities rooted in leisure activities such as drinking, gambling, fighting, and fornicating.” Tucker’s characters are certainly performers in the “new” manhood, with the exception of leadership in church. Perhaps if his characters had remained in Virginia, or had lived in towns where the church was a well-established social instution, they would have held such leadership positions. On the western fronteir, however, religious events were rarely stable and well-organized, and piety was not necessarily connected with other noble attributes.

Evangelicalism shaped African-American culture in profound ways by creating communities, validating slaves’ families and souls, and making blacks equal to some extent with whites, among other effects. Lyerly describes the way in which religion offered blacks “daily spiritual interaction with God through which they could psychically distance themselves from enslavement.” Tucker doesn’t say much about the daily religious experience of the slaves in his novel, which may reveal that he and his characters, as white elite men, were unconcerned about the religious lives of blacks so long as their slaves were hardworking and faithful. The novel ends remarkably with slaves saying “We been all mightly willing, sir, to have Mass; George for master,” indicating that white elites considered their slaves’ acceptance (whether real or imagined) of their place in “God’s hierarchy” very important.

George Balcombe presents antebellum southern discourses on religious language and the value of religious belief and rhetoric from the viewpoint of white elite males. The language and opinions of the main characters reveal a tension between Enlightenment Ideals and an older view of the universe as a spiritual hierarchy with God in control and white elite men the uppermost earthly beings. Tucker’s characters generally prioritize honor and other attributes over Christian piety, but their system of honor is one that has been tamed by evangelicalism over the generation or two before the novel’s setting. Non-elite white men, women and blacks valued personal religious piety more than elite men did, (though non-elite men cover a greater range than the other two groups), and used religious language differently. The elite characters Tucker creates engage God so far as it reinforces their own philosophy, culture, power, and values.


the prompt: "George Balcombe presents the elite, male, southern view of a number of subjects we have studied...select one of these topics and describe, using specific references to the text, Tucker's view (or views) of it. Then, using any relevant nonfiction readins we have done, give historical context to the subject you have selected. This could include but is not limited to, alternative descriptions of the subject, a discussion of the subject's historical development and circumstances, an analysis of the utility, accuracy, or flaws of the elite view. This paper requires you to be concise and use details selectively. In outlining Tucker's view of any of these subjects, you will be describing one of various antebellum white southern elite discourses. you will then analyze it. the paper should be 6-8 pages.

Notes: Tucker’s characters generally prioritize honor and other attributes over Christian piety. Their language and opinions reveal a tension between Enlightenment Ideals and an older view of the universe as a spiritual hierarchy with God in control and white elite men the uppermost earthly beings. The elite characters Tucker creates engage God so far as it reinforces their own philosophy, culture, power, and values. Their acknowledgement of God is not explicitly Christian – they never mention Jesus, and they mention dependence on God only in the sense that he provides for their lives, not that their soul relies upon his salvation. They do not have any particular respect for organized religious activities such as camp meetings and Sabbath services, and they generally leave the practice of religious faith to women and slaves.
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