The Work Ethic of the Plain Folk: Labor and Religion in the Old South
FACED WITH THE PROSPECT OF IMMINENT DEPARTURE TO SERVE IN THE Confederate army, North Carolina farmer John Fletcher Flintoff instructed his family on life and faith in his diary entry of March 10, 1864: “I desire that you live on the premises I leave you and work the land to make your support-Rember my Father was a poor man- He was not able to leave his children anything to start upon the journey of life but I leave you 217 acres of land, 7 negroes, 3 good horses, 6 head of cattle 15 hogs and wagons, house & kitchen well furnished, plantation tools, etc.-a years supply of everything-I exhort you to be industrious, kind, persevering, thoughtful, economical, love and serve God and good to each other.”1 Fortunately, the forty-year-old Flintoff saw only local service, survived the war, and lived into the new century, all the while living as he preached, by hard work and through love of family and God. As the postwar years passed, his estate grew, revealing, he believed, God’s favor in his ability to work for his children and their families and help them through their “journey of life.”
Flintoff knew hard, manual labor as a young farmhand, as a struggling farm owner, and even as an elderly patriarch content with his fields, barns, and work stock. In reflections in his diary, especially on the anniversary of his birth, he recalled his early struggles in North Carolina and Mississippi, when he worked for wages or managed relatives’ farms and plantations. Fondly did he hope that laboring for others would not be the lot of his children. As a poor boy, faith sustained him. He later urged his children to be religious and join the church when young, as he did by becoming a Methodist at age ten. Believing that education bolstered faith and opened opportunities, he attended Centenary College in Jackson, Mississippi, for two years. Back in North Carolina in 1850, he married Mary Pleasant of Caswell County and began to acquire slaves and livestock. Four years later at age thirty-one, having toiled long and hard, saved, purchased slaves, and borrowed heavily, he bought a farm and house of his own. Working beside his slaves, he performed all of the tasks necessary on a small piedmont farm: he raised corn, wheat, and oats; grew fodder for his animals; primed, topped, wormed, and harvested substantial tobacco crops; hewed logs and built houses, barns, wagons, and outbuildings; hauled logs and tobacco; and in winter made shoes for the family. And he prospered. “I want to try to make money to pay my debts. I work hard to do this with my heart raised up to God to his blessing,” he recorded in 1856. Postwar labor adjustments proved difficult; in his view free blacks would not work honestly or steadily for wages, while whites faced the rigors of excessive work from dawn to dark. He resented idleness, even when found in his dearly beloved wife, whom he feared lived too much the life of a lady. In 1890 Flintoff boasted of a good year’s work for his age and in 1891 recorded that “I am at work now in the field with the hoe 9 to 10 hours per day and am very thankful 1 am as well as 1 am and humbly trust in God for the future.”2
Flintoff’s life, steeped in faith and focused on hard, manual labor of the sort performed by slaves, reflected not one iota of the dictum that southerners derogated manual labor because it was, in the common idiom of the day, “nigger work.” Flintoff was not a planter, and he was not rich; neither was he representative of the southern rural masses since his achievements in accumulating slaves and property and passing his wealth to his children were substantial. His work ethic, however, was shared by the masses of rural plain folk from whom he had emerged-those who worked with their hands and performed field labor even though some of them also benefited from ownership of a small number of slaves. Flintoff knew hard work and believed it honorable. On the one hand, his work was not menial labor. That was drudgery performed for another or directed by another, for which the worker received minimal benefit and profited but little in the long run-work typically performed by slaves. Manual labor performed at one’s own behest and for the benefit of one’s own family, on the other hand, was admirable. Mucking out one’s barn, surely among the least pleasant farm tasks, was part of honorable work, given the right circumstances. Honorable work enabled Flintoff and his peers to attain that secure, independent existence that was the minimal goal of all. Logically a slave society might be expected to diverge significantly from Max Weber’s Protestant ethic and reject outright many of Benjamin Franklin’s precepts, but at the heart of the antebellum southern farmer, respect for hard work, independence, and the ability to provide for one’s own were core values. Antebellum southern spokesmen might celebrate the leisured lifestyle of a planter elite and proclaim the virtues of an aristocratic existence even as Yankees and a few southerners denounced lazy white “trash,” but farmers who earned their red necks honestly by steady labor, in season and out, understood the value and rewards of daily toil. Plain-folk endorsement of hard work, part of plain-folk honor, created a discordant note that was at best ill suited to those who championed a distinctly non-Yankee South dedicated to gracious living. An examination of the labor of the plain folk and their attitudes and values, however, reveals that John Flintoff’s work ethic was shared by the southern masses. Many of these attitudes resonated deep into the elite by the late antebellum period.
While the omega of historical insight into the work ethic has not been reached, the alpha originated with Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, the famous essay that inaugurated a one-hundred-year debate (or hopelessly futile academic squabble) over the spirit of capitalism and the nexus of capitalism and religion. Weber’s Protestant ethic emphasized the moral obligation to work to glorify God and the methodical use of every God-given moment of time. God called everyone to productive labor- to a world of hard, unending, physical or mental work-and the greatest of sins was idleness. Because the result of labor might be wealth and consequent idleness, asceticism became a way of life-an asceticism that rejected leisure and the spontaneous enjoyment of life.3 While critics of Weber’s thesis have dominated the scholarly melee, one recent authority maintains that “it is just as difficult to demolish Weber’s thesis as it is to substantiate it.”4 Despite partisan contention, the thesis has influenced scholarly thinking as well as popular conceptions concerning the relationship of economic progress, the valuation of work, and religious faith. Weber’s idea has been used to buttress historical images of Yankee drive and southern sloth. Although Weber intended his analysis as an objective evaluation and not as an admiring moral judgment, many antebellum Americans (and some scholars since) attached their own positive value to the key traits that Weber identified as forming the Protestant ethic.
Weber and subsequent writers located the strongest bastion of the Protestant ethic in Puritan New England and Quaker Pennsylvania, but few had anything positive to say about the moral value of work in the land of cotton and slaves. Historian Edmund S. Morgan, however, voices a dissenting view, arguing that the Puritan ethic-that cluster of values, ideas, and attitudes advanced by Weber- influenced all Americans by the time of the Revolution. Nevertheless, Morgan emphasizes “the evil effect of slavery on the industry and frugality of both master and slave . . . .” Among southerners, he holds, slavery “eroded the honor accorded work . . . .”5 But did the plain folk, whom Morgan does not discuss, suffer from the stigma on work supposedly inherent in a slave society? Both Rhys Isaac and Christine Leigh Heyrman suggest that yeomen developed immunity to slavery’s presumed debilitating effect, stressing the influence of the First Great Awakening in fostering a more Weber- like attitude in the South. Conversion to an evangelical faith encouraged, even sanctified, a simple life richer in spiritual than material rewards and thus challenged if not transformed the hedonistic lifestyle of the planter leadership.6
Although the intensity of religiosity in early New England and the concept of work as God’s calling declined as the country embraced secularization in the age of Jackson, the Second Great Awakening in both the North and South rekindled earlier faith. Simultaneously, a market revolution encouraged dedication to work and economic advancement. Many people lived with both a secular ethic and an ethic attuned to faith; sometimes an individual’s work ethic had a reinforcing religious dimension, though at other times it did not, leaving a Weberian ethic without asceticism. According to Daniel T. Rodgers, a work ethic remained “the core of the moral life,” finding its strongest affirmation among the Protestant bourgeoisie. It was “the distinctive credo of preindustrial capitalism” entrenched in “artisans’ shops, farms, and countinghouses.” Rodgers identifies four ingredients in the midnineteenth-century work ethic: “the doctrine of usefulness”; “an intense, nervous fear of idleness” (b\oth of which were “legacies of the Reformation”); “the dream of success”; and “a faith in work as a creative act.” The South, Rodgers discovers, was considered a deviant society. When the dignity of labor emerged as a distinctive feature of northern politics and culture, Republican leaders and other middle-class spokesmen savaged the South for its perversion of values, poverty and degradation of the masses, and general economic backwardness. Abolitionist criticism and Republican rhetoric best encapsulated the southern ethic: “shiftlessness and exploitation were the rule.” The South reflected “a nightmarish inversion of Northern work values, where idlers ruled and laborers stood in chains.”7
In 1967 David Bertelson’s The Lazy South pronounced judgment upon the South’s work ethic. Bertelson argues that southerners’ penchant for leisure and idleness was caused by what he labels the doctrine of “allurement,” not by the traditional suspects of slavery, climate, disease, or parasites. The virgin lands of the earliest southern colonies attracted Englishmen with the allure of fortunes to be made in the international tobacco trade. When the Old World’s demand for tobacco met the opportunity abounding in the new lands, unrestricted freedom to enrich oneself resulted in fortunes for many and created a rigid adherence to individualism with a consequent lack of community spirit that boded poorly for socially useful labor. Thus southerners were attentive to self-interest, not the common good; the inducement to work came not from within but from the promise of material reward. Virginians, Marylanders, and later South Carolinians and other southerners busily set about exploiting natural resources and labor and expanding farms and plantations; the end of labor was personal wealth and leisure, not salvation, godly community, or local or regional economic development.8
C. Vann Woodward joined this discussion in 1968, arguing for the existence of a distinct southern ethic within a Puritan world. Woodward’s southern ethic deviates from the concepts of Weber or maxims of Franklin and scores high on leisure or laziness, depending on whether one opts for “an attractive” or “an unattractive countenance” of the mythical “Janus-faced” South. With his typically telling and witty commentary on the relevant literature, especially the work of Bertelson and Morgan, Woodward offers several hypotheses in explanation of the southern leisure-laziness ethic but attributes special salience to the impact of slavery. Evidence of southern distinctiveness, in this instance leisure-laziness, was everywhere: “Where there is so much smoke-whether the superficial stereotypes of the Leisure-Laziness sort, or the bulky literature of lamentation, denial, or celebration that runs back to the seventeenth century, or the analytical monographs of the present day-there must be fire.”9
For most historians who have analyzed agriculture, labor conditions, and slavery in the Old South, the existence of a flawed work ethic-if there was a work ethic at all-is axiomatic. Some stress the leisured aspects of the South, others the lazy aspects. To Eugene D. Genovese, writing in 1965, a dominant planter elite, commanding politics and setting the tone for social life, fastened aspirations to luxury and ease upon the Old South. Even aggressive, nouveau southwestern planters, the southern Yankees, reflected merely a time lapse and not a strong work ethic; these hardworking farmers, planters to be, were only a generation removed from refinement and aristocratic graces. Genovese concludes that slavery inevitably produced feelings of contempt for all labor and especially menial labor-labor performed for another.10
Leisure and laziness surface in extreme form in the works of historian Grady McWhiney, who argues that planters and plain folk alike, as descendants of Celts notoriously unburdened by a work ethic, avoided steady labor-rigorously, constantly, and conscientiously. McWhiney agrees with one visitor to the South who concluded that the word haste was not in the southern vocabulary. Careless, unhurried farmers and herdsmen lived lavishly upon the abundance of field and forest and the labor of an ample supply of bondpeople; but McWhiney’s special interpretation emphasizes how inherited cultural traits-rather than slavery, climate, disease, or parasites-explain attitudes and values that the masses considered rational and superior.
Being lazy to Celts and Southerners did not mean being indolent, shiftless, slothful, and worthless; it meant being free from work, having spare time to do as they pleased, being at liberty, and enjoying their leisure. When a Celt or a Southerner said that he was being lazy he was not reproaching himself but merely describing his state of comfort. He suffered no guilt when he spent his time pleasantly-hunting, fishing, dancing, drinking, gambling, fighting, or just loafing and talking.11
To outsiders, an unambitious plain folk lived in squalor, but to the white rural masses, enjoying an easy living from livestock that roamed in the woods and a sufficiency of fish and game, there was no pressing need to labor as long as they possessed an abundance of tobacco, liquor, and food.
The views of Genovese, McWhiney, and many others might appropriately be called the conventional historical wisdom of the 1970s and 1980s, despite the earlier, somewhat-novel view of Frank L. Owsley and his students, who emphasized steady labor and seriousness of purpose among the plain folk.12 Much of the conventional wisdom stressed the hegemony of the planter class and popular images of gentlemen and refined ladies. Nevertheless, yeomen and community studies in the 1980s and 1990s eroded the so-called Big House interpretation of the South and enormously expanded our understanding of the values and attitudes of the plain folk. Instead of seeing them as “no account folk,” lazy hellions, a miserable underclass lacking an ethic of work and success, or the willing dupes or deferential underlings of planters, we have an image of a sturdy, industrious, self-sufficient folk, tough, proud, and fiercely independent. In fact, the republican independence of the plain folk, a desire to control their own destiny and scorn of being controlled, plays a pivotal role in every study of yeoman communities.13 The accumulation of a certain level of wealth provided the basis of independence, but the primary goal was acquisition of respectability achieved through personal independence and family self-sufficiency, often augmented by status within a religious community. Plain-folk farmers exhibited a typically American faith in upward mobility-that hard work paid over time and that it was not unreasonable to expect an increase in wealth as one approached middle age. Farming was both an honorable occupation, worthy in and of itself, and an opportunity for advancement that drew many middle-class and lower-middle-class farmers, men on the make, to the piney-woods frontier.14 Work, if not an end in itself, surely was the means to republican independence and self- sufficiency and was the major daily activity of yeomen and their wives. It was not a degrading sign of slave-like status but rather a means of differentiating themselves from slaves by achieving and maintaining independence.
This last point has not been fully appreciated because of popular misconceptions about the lazy South, the ide fixe that white society scorned manual labor as “nigger work,” and a lack of consensus among the historians conducting community studies. Some in the latter group continue to stress the importance of leisure-time activities, especially hunting, drinking, and fighting. In a fine study of North Carolina’s “common whites,” Bill Cecil-Fronsman argues that given a choice of work or leisure, North Carolina piedmont farmers came down on the side of leisure; they did what work they had to do, then stopped.15 Whether the findings of community studies of the 1980s and 1990s (which stress yeoman independence and work) will supplant the conventional wisdom of a leisured-lazy South has yet to be determined.
Clearly, the antebellum South had a troubled approach to labor and its value and exhibited no single, unified, socially approved work ethic. Dissonance is palpable. Many planters and their wives endorsed and honored values of diligence and thrift in their everyday routines, and even those who professed to value some degree of leisure did not want to be considered lazy. As in the American middle class as a whole, they were raised on maxims of work and thrift inculcated by parents, ministers, schoolmasters, editors, essayists, and other authority figures. Nevertheless, the region’s population undoubtedly included wealthy southerners who seldom performed physical labor because of the work of overseers, drivers, and slaves. The fact is that a considerable number of primary sources apparently document a lazy South. The lamentations of southern agricultural editors, who forged a prescriptive literature for planters, emphasized the lack of active and scientific farm management and the incompetence and neglect of overseers. Antebellum travel literature, replete with the exaggerated likes and dislikes of outsiders who expected to encounter the exotic, contributed to stereotypical images of laziness. For example, the most famous Old South tourist, the strongly antislavery Frederick Law Olmsted, argued that slavery destroyed the capacity to work and that the slovenly, careless work of slaves set the southern standard.16 Perhaps most important, attacks by abolitionists and Republicans, who denounced the brutalized slave drudgery that damaged all ranks and aspects of southern society, were answered by proslavery partisans and southern apologists, who glorified a superior way of life embodied by gentlemanly Cavaliers. The antebellum sectional conflict was perfect for shaping powerful mythologies of a \southern way that diverged from Yankee norms. One marvels that Woodward would stress smoke over fire.
The purpose of this essay is to reaffirm the centrality of work and its importance in the antebellum South. Most southerners experienced the harsh reality of endless physical labor, especially slaves and plain-folk families. They knew hard work. Attitudes toward work and the esteem placed upon steady labor with one’s hands provided a fault line that challenged southern unity, dividing a small but articulate and influential part of the planter elite from self-working farmers and their families-those who knew, accepted, and lived by the toils of field and household labor. Work was an essential part of plain-folk identity; here was the core of southern life.
The yeomen of the South never celebrated the mythical leisure ethic of the Old South because they were too busy working to put food on the table, maintain their homes, and structure lives that would guarantee independence and respectability. This yeomanry, the plain folk of the Old South, varied enormously in wealth and status. Some possessed only a few acres of land while others had several hundred. Though most owned no slaves or just a small number, a few grew prosperous from the labor of as many as ten or more. Whether they eked out a bare subsistence on a few acres in the piedmont or piney-woods wiregrass or accumulated land and a handful of slaves in the South Carolina Lowcountry and aspired to join the elite, the lowest common denominator among plain-folk men was that they performed agricultural field labor for all or a significant portion of the year. They were selfworking farmers.17 To be sure, upwardly mobile, slave-owning farmers performed less field work while shouldering additional supervisory tasks, but their callused hands were all too familiar with plows, hoes, axes, shovels, pitchforks, and saws. Long hours of manual labor under the hot southern sun- plowing, hoeing, weeding, picking, ditching, clearing land, and chopping wood-became the common burden of the plain folk and the subject of loud lamentations and complaints or proud boasts of toughness and achievement.18 While not always blessed, manual labor was one of the ties that bound many southern males.
Honorable work and respect for independence blurred class lines. White men and women who owned but a few slaves labored beside their bondmen and bondwomen, experiencing the lot of the field workers and domestic help-sore hands and backs, sweat-stained vision, and a nighttime weariness that sometimes precluded sleep. Even most planters, who as boys had worked with plows and hoes, walked the fields and actively supervised a labor force engaged in work they had once performed. Those in the slave-owning class who escaped the burdens of manual labor or active management-indeed they might aspire all of their lives to employ more slaves and better overseers- could not forget their origins or the fact that successful farming was the source of their profits. Perhaps the vaunted white southern unity of the antebellum period rested upon the farmers’ world of work as well as a dedication to slavery and maintenance of the racial status quo.
Most rural southerners inhabited a world of work, not leisure and play. Of the more than sixteen hundred Tennessee Civil War veterans who were questioned via mail by historians in the 1910s and 1920s, slightly over 80 percent emphasized that hard work was the common lot of the plain folk.19 These Tennessee veterans, largely of the yeoman class, gave responses in writing to precise questions about the amount of work and leisure in rural Tennessee life, the kinds of labor their parents performed, the value and honor accorded physical labor, and the accuracy of historians’ portrayal of a lazy South. Although some might belittle the significance of their testimony given the passage of years and the veterans’ tendencies toward nostalgia and self-praise, several yeomen diaries, the memoirs and autobiographies of antebellum rural ministers, and the varied sources dealing with the lives of antebellum farmwives support the veterans’ memories. Unfortunately, the diarists and autobiographers have also drawn criticism as reliable sources because, it is said, they are few in number and unrepresentative of the non-literate yeomanry. While it is good to be cautious regarding sources, it is not helpful to be hastily and unfairly dismissive. The diary- keeping farmers and autobiographers performed the same work as the Tennessee veterans, and the values exhibited by the former reflect the spirit of the age, finding confirmation in the prescriptive literature of the era, the piety and morality of southern evangelicals, and yes, the voices of the Tennessee veterans. In the end, the varied sources left by the plain folk tell a common story: endless, exhausting work was a way of life for non-elite southerners, a people who accepted hard labor, rejected leisure and aristocratic values, and discovered self-esteem and reputation in their work-related accomplishments and independence.
The vast majority of yeoman farmers across the South-whether in the Lowcountry, piedmont, backcountry, or frontier-were masters of many tasks. Survival and independence, to say nothing of material progress, depended on expertise in the varied duties of homestead farming and skillful employment of family labor as much as on soil conditions and crop prices. Success for farm families began with their household economy-planting, tending, and harvesting crops; feeding and clothing themselves; clearing forests and grubbing stumps for farmland; cutting down trees for building materials and firewood for cooking and heating; constructing homes, barns, and outbuildings; and raising animals for power, meat, and hides. Much of what they produced they immediately consumed, thus census takers would find little record of a substantial part of their labor.20 If farmers successfully marketed a small money crop or had the good fortune to sell an excess of corn or garden produce in the local town to earn money for hardware or luxury items, they faced the temptation of expanding their cash-crop activities. Eventually they might buy more and produce less of what they consumed.21
The seven-year diary of Joseph B. Lightsey, who in 1847 at age sixteen began work as a full hand on his father John’s 150-acre farm in southeastern Mississippi, details the work life of a yeoman farmer-the varied tasks, diverse crop mix, and the plodding dedication to dreary labor.22 Joseph received $10 a month and the use of five to six acres, on which he raised cotton and produce for the local market by working for himself on Saturday mornings and weekday mornings before breakfast. Because of the poor health of their father, Joseph and his brother, working alongside eight adult slaves, composed the labor force that typically worked one hundred acres in corn, twenty-five in cotton, five in potatoes, eight or nine in rice, and one in peanuts. The family also grew oats, wheat, rye, a small amount of sugar cane, peas, cucumbers, watermelons, and other garden produce. Each day Joseph recorded his work. Plowing, planting and replanting after torrential rains, hoeing and weeding, and picking corn and cotton consumed a major portion of his year, but other crops and farm duties required many days as well. Everything had to be hauled; days were spent carting corn to the local mill or market or hauling timber, firewood, or manure. Fields had to be ditched and cleared, logs rolled, and brush burned. Lightsey cut firewood and timber and split rails to make fences. Typically he spent three or more weeks in late July and early August pulling fodder.23 By age twenty-two Lightsey was a skilled and accomplished farmer, but his diary reveals that he was something of a jack-of-all-trades. He helped build a house and chimney, cover a roof, and dig a well; he repaired guns and knives, fixed a floodgate and a gate, and repaired farm implements in a blacksmith’s shop; and he built pens to catch small game and worked sporadically over a period of three years making a fish pond.24
Lightsey’s diary offers little evidence of idleness except for an infrequent admission of “knocking about today.”25 Inclement weather or sickness might keep him from his six full days of labor per week, but there were times when he worked in the rain or with a slight fever. Otherwise, only a rare trip to town for a circus, a murder trial, or a barbecue and election frolic took him from his labors. On one occasion, he recorded a community comshucking at night after a full day’s work, and increasingly he satisfied his passion for the hunt by hunting at night. Mostly, however, daily life for him meant field labor, as typical diary entries indicate: “I dug potatoes all day long,”"I hoed cotton again today all . . . day long,”"I ploughed again all day long,”"I pulled fodder all day,” and “I dropped corn again all day long.”26
For most southern farmers, life amounted to unrelenting toil. To be sure, field work slowed temporarily in late summer or early fall when crops were laid by and normally came to a halt when it rained, although outdoor labor was then usually replaced by household tasks. Work rhythms responded to the slow pace of valuable draft animals that needed to be watered and rested. Indeed, plowing mules, horses, and oxen probably received more rest than the men who trudged behind them. Nevertheless, daily work, even if delayed by rain or at a pace less than feverish, was unending. The hours were long-from daybreak to dark, and sometimes beyond. For Tennessee veterans William Denier Hardin and William Sidney Hartsfield, labor from dawn to late at night seemed a normal activity; for South Carolina yeoman James Sloan, who owned land valued at $1,000 but no slaves, night work was occasional but unavoidable. William E. Orr, whose father farmed about 130 acres nearOhita, Arkansas, recalled how his mother would take “us kids” at night to the new ground and “spred down an old quilt for us to play or sleep on while she burned the big brush piles while my father cut timber and made poplar & oak rails.”"Honesty industry and frugality with plenty of sticktooativeness never fails,” he concluded.27 Basil Armstrong Thomasson, a poor, non- slave-owning farmer in the North Carolina piedmont, even worked on the day of his wedding. “Clear and hot,” he recorded in his diary. “Bound oats till 10 o’clock, then put on my Sunday [best?] and went over to Mr. Bell’s and got married!”28
Everyone worked, the young and the old. In early- nineteenthcentury rural America, children were economic assets, and many an aging farmer boasted of the tender years when he plowed his first furrows. “I was in the field dropping corn when I shed my first two teeth April before I was six in November,” recalled Jeptha Marion Fusion, the son of a non-slaveholding farmer and blacksmith. It was not uncommon for young boys to become plow hands at eight, nine, or ten years of age and to begin working as full field hands in their early teens. The fact that school terms were irregular, being built around periods of peak labor, proved to be a signal indication of the importance of labor over all else. Girls rivaled boys in assuming adult tasks at an early age; they were simultaneously apprentices to their mothers and full work hands in sewing, washing, cooking, gardening, and all the myriad and unending tasks of running a homestead. Entry into adulthood was associated with participation in the household economy.29
Children of substantial slaveholders frequently performed field labor, either because additional hands were always needed or because actual labor was the best instruction for future farm management. Many parents insisted that the virtue of hard work was a lesson all should learn. T. J. Howard, the son of a farmer who owned ten slaves and two thousand acres, boasted how his father “was opposed to idleness and trained his boys to work and the necessity for it. We were taught and required to do every kind of farm work the slaves did and consider it an honor in stead of disgrace.”30
Work did not cease with old age but only with sickness and infirmity. William C. Anderson, who had farmed and worked in a hotel in the South Carolina piedmont, expressed annoyance at being a consumer rather than a producer, and at age seventy-six he sought full-time employment. James Sloan worked into his eighties. For William Woodall, a poor farmer in Halifax County, North Carolina, work served as therapy for a troubled soul and mind. To his brother he confessed that “difficulties and trials” had harassed him almost to distraction and madness “but for my close application to hard work.” Yet what was good for his mind had a debilitating effect on his physical health, for later that year he reported that his hard work and exposure to the sun had laid him low with “Neuralgea, Dyspepsia and all their horrid consequences.”31
Yeomen, of course, did not work every God-given moment of their lives, but aside from church attendance, most respectable social or quasi-recreational activities were work-centered. Hunting and fishing, a genuine pleasure to most, provided food for the table. Self-working farmers and their wives joined neighbors and kin in house- and barnraising, corn-shucking, rail-splitting, log-rolling, wheat-threshing, and quilting.32 The grandson of one of the South’s famous preachers recalled that amusements of the 182Os and 183Os were conducted with an eye to something useful: “The young people had their cotton-pickings, and at these there would be a good deal of mirth and gayety, but a large quantity of cotton picked also. At the quiltings they would have a lively time, chatting, joking, and courting: but there was a pretty quilt to show when all was over. House-raising and log-rolling involved so much hard work, that one would think they could not have been regarded as holidays, but they were nevertheless.”33
Although self-working farmers were the most public and visible half of a plain-folk culture that emphasized hard work, women played a vital role in the success of yeoman establishments. Unfortunately, not everyone has understood this point, then or now. A few farmers apparently placed a premium upon field work to the detriment of inside work, trivializing work within the house. Several of the farmers’ accounts cited herein elaborately record the activities of outdoor work and the products of fields, orchards, and pastures but neglect the activity of the household.34 Nevertheless, it is easy to argue that women worked as hard as, if not harder than, men. The daily drudgery of maintaining a large family that owned no slaves meant that farmwives, aided by their children, labored full-time as cooks, cleaning women, washerwomen, gardeners, and essential hands for raising poultry and running a small dairy and perhaps a household manufacturing concern. In addition they carried, gave birth to, and cared for children. With good reason, a few sons saw the labor of their mothers as slave-like. Their work was the same, and their pay (shelter, clothing, and food to maintain their health) was the same. Their labor, however, was willingly performed, for they worked in their own houses and for their own children and husbands and took pride in tidy kitchens, bountiful gardens, fancy preserves, and warm and attractive quilts.35
Few labor-saving devices eased their toil; they toted heavy pots, skillets, and water buckets and sweated over wood-burning stoves and fireplaces to prepare meals, make bread and biscuits, preserve food for winter consumption, and heat water for laundry. “The kitchen was the nerve center for farm activity,” asserts historian Claudia Bushman. “Workers prepared meals there; dishes and preserves, candles and containers, pots and supplies of all kinds filled the shelves. The women compounded medicines, tried out tallow, made candles and soap, and washed dishes in this stressful and crowded atmosphere.”36 Washday was grueling; women worked outdoors, often in extreme heat or cold, spending hours “soaping, boiling, beating, and hand rubbing until the clothes became reasonably clean.”37 Women made and repaired clothes by spinning, weaving, knitting, and sewing flax, wool, or cotton. Seventy-seven-year-old Tennessee veteran William C. Dillihay recalled that his “mother did her washing and cooking as well as other household duties including weaving coverlids and clothes for the family. Such work as she did would be a cu[r]iosity to women today. I sleep under two of her coverlids that was woven by her 65 years ago.”38 Many women even worked in the fields when necessity dictated the use of additional hands, and when husbands became incapacitated or died, women became full-time field workers. Zachary Taylor Dyer, a poor farmer from Giles County, Tennessee, after the death of his father learned about the world of work from his mother, who taught him “to plow, hoe, to spin, knit, weave, sew, milk, cook, wash, fill quills, make-up bead [bed] and anything that came to hand and I can do it now thank God for such a mother.”39 Women also sold garden produce, eggs, milk, clothing, quilts, fancy sewing, and other items produced at home, and the proceeds from their expertise, diligence, and frugality might amount to the most sizable portion of a farmer’s cash income. The independence of frontier and upcountry yeomen, in part, reflected dependence on wives and children, a conclusion also reached by Stephanie McCurry for the yeomen of the supposedly aristocratic South Carolina Lowcountry.40
With sweaty brows and dirty hands, southern farmwives were admired as paragons of industry. “Hard work to the end” epitomized “a female life well lived,” as is illustrated by a Mrs. Henry Boughton of Virginia, mother of nine. Without slaves or servants, Mrs. Boughton did the cooking, washing, milking, sewing, and mending for her entire family and also took in weaving and sewing to increase the family’s income. Often in delicate health, she eventually “succumbed to breast cancer after suffering for four or five years.” Virginia planter Bernard Walker “greatly respected this” industrious and energetic person, whom he praised as a woman of enormous worth and integrity despite her position “in the lower walks of life.”41
Agricultural newspapers applauded plain-folk mothers and wives for well-kept homes, kitchens, and gardens, praised their decorum and manners, and heralded their efficient work, which stood in distinct contrast to the uselessness of fashionable ladies.42 The Baltimore American Farmer even argued that “women were ‘more happily circumstanced’ than men because ‘the important and fatiguing advocations [sic] of men necessarily impose seasons of inactivity. . . .’ Women, on the other hand, need never cease their labors; while visiting or ‘resting’ they could do their practical sewing.”43 One Tennessee veteran in particular captured the image of the farmwife ideal: “Mother was very industrious,” he fondly remembered. “Clothed her family by work. Spun and wove cloth, carded her own wool. Knit all the socks and stockings worn by the family. I never seen my mother sit down and be idle and do nothing. Always had work in her hand. I had the best mother.”44 Given the contributions of farmwives (and also children, who were apprentice farmers or homemakers), it may be that historian Eugene D. Genovese’s rule about slave labor, that “all hands” must “be occupied at all times,” is as appropriate for slaveless yeoman households as for the slaves on plantations.45
Because the middle and upper-middle classes in nineteenth- century America knew household chores to be exhausting, those who could afford domestic help, in both the North and South, seldom skimped on hiring or owning extra hands to ease women’s domestic burd\ens. In the South, with some notable exceptions, yeoman families with a small number of slaves assigned a slave or two to the most onerous household tasks. Often working side by side with their slaves, these farmwives experienced firsthand some of the drudgery of domestic slavery.46 Fortunate as they were to have domestic help, it arrived encumbered with the task of slave supervision, which was then added to their own demanding physical chores.
In the world of the plain folk, a woman’s reputation rested on a well-kept home and steady production of ample clothing and food. For men, the hard work of daily life-even more than the no-holds- barred, eye-gouging fight or the drunken frolic celebrated by many southern historians-established a man’s reputation and tested his virility, toughness, and independence.47 Neighbors were judged by their industry: farmers won recognition for steady work, the earliest crops, the largest yields, or the straightest furrows while farmwives received praise for well-kept kitchens, productive gardens, and accomplishments in sewing.48 It has become something of a clich that southern yeomen, whether solidly middle class or poor, joined the South’s circle of honor because they were free and white in a slave society, but much more was involved in establishing reputation and status. To be free was one thing. However, enjoying the full benefits of freedom required independence, and that necessitated work. The external world of honor-status and reputation- was derived from struggles to achieve and maintain independence, but honor was also matched by an internal world of values-the farmers’ self-esteem-that was predicated upon survival and triumph in a world of unrelenting toil that tested a man’s skills, steadiness, and toughness and a woman’s stoic regard for faith, production, and labor and sacrifices for family.
“[W]e were working people,” proclaimed T. L. Johnson; “A working man stood as high in the commun[i]ty as any body.” The Tennessee veterans believed that honest workers were “the bone and seneou [sinew]” of the country and that honest toil-”respectable and honorable”-was essential “to good citizenship.” Being a willing worker “was a mark of distinction”; a man who worked industriously stood high in his neighborhood society. “[I]t was the hard enerjetic [sic] people was the respected ones,” pronounced Joe C. Brooks, a poor farm boy from McNairy County, Tennessee.49 William Anderson Wilson, the son of a slaveless farmer and mechanic, boasted, “I worked on the farm and did every kind of work . . . and never [k]new what idleness was and can say the same for my three brothers and all the rest of the family-can all so say that the man or woman boy or girl who did not do their part was a rare exception.”50
Many Tennessee veterans stated emphatically that they worked as hard as slaves and labored beside them in the fields as well. George A. Rice, from Decatur County, even implied a certain rough equality of condition among whites and blacks when he wrote of his early life:
Plowed oxens and horses, also hoed, and during summer months hauled barral staves 16 miles with 4 yoke cattle on Linen . . . wagon 4 trips a week. . . . Father taught school and worked on farm, seeing after us boys and nigars slaves. Mother cooked on fire place used pot racks, scilits kettle etc and spone and weaved cloth to make all of everyday clothing also cut and made our cloths. . . . [W]e all worked as hard as our slaves and give the same to eat we got[.]
John H. O’Neal and Peter Donnell recorded similar experiences. “My father had 7 boys 6 of them older than myself,” and “We all went to the field, same as the Negroes . . . .”"I worked . . . with the darkes-plowed howed mowed-cut wheat oats split rales don anything the darkes don.”51
The diary of Basil Armstrong Thomasson provides a fine example of the way in which one yeoman developed a strong self-concept and a prescription for a happy life from years of hard labor. A young farmer working sixty improved acres in Iredell County in the western piedmont of North Carolina, Thomasson each day recorded accomplishments in field, barn, and orchard and not infrequently affirmed his prescription for a successful life. Although poor-his farm and livestock were valued at only $200 in the 1860 census, and there were periods when food was in short supply-Thomasson was a Ben Franklin-and Bible-quoting farmer who waxed poetic about the benefits of home sweet home and the delights of farming. All work was honorable, he believed; all must work who wished to be happy. He advised his fellow man to be “industrious, honest and frugal”; “Make a good, and proper use of your time, reader, if you wish to be ‘healthy, wealthy and wise.’” Six days a week he labored hard, but Sunday was a day of rest for the soul and improvement for the mind. He rejected idle chat, lived frugally, and avoided borrowing because it threatened his independence, and he criticized the use of liquor, tobacco, and coffee but indulged in the purchase of books and agricultural newspapers for self-improvement.52
Thomasson usually rose before dawn and attended diligently to the varied tasks confronting a self-working farmer. “Ploughing is hard work,” he admitted, but he lived by the motto that if something was worth doing, it was worth doing well. On occasion his need for cash forced him to experiment with other occupations, such as clerking, school-teaching, and carriage-making, but he always returned to farming as the occupation that best offered secure returns.
I fear tho’ that trade would not pay as well as farming. Dr. Ben. Franklin said, “Keep thy shop and thy shop will keep thee.” The bible says, “He that tilleth his land shall have plenty of bread.” Now I believe I had rather risk the Bible and the farm; tho’ the man who keeps his shop may live well, but the man [who] tills the soil will be certain to have bread to eat.53
Thomasson scorned leisure and luxury, and as historian Paul D. Escott concludes, he appears to have been more like the conscience- driven, self-regulating Yankee than the honor-seeking, self- regarding southerner depicted by Bertram Wyatt-Brown in Southern Honor.54 In all economic decisions, Thomasson “sought independence, respectability, and progress rather than the values of aristocracy,” and his self-sufficiency enabled him to avoid entanglement in the vagaries of the cash-based market economy. Still, like other yeomen he could never achieve complete independence since a shortage of labor and cash necessitated swapping work with family and friends to secure additional hands for essential farm tasks such as harvesting, log-rolling, and erecting barns and outbuildings. Here Thomasson amassed significant moral capital; a reputation for steady and efficient labor was a vital, marketable commodity. Although other yeomen seldom kept diaries, Thomasson was unusual only in his rigid notions regarding liquor, coffee, and tobacco; his dedication to labor and independence, concern for his work reputation, and avoidance of idleness echoed among the southern plain folk.55
The pride in work resonating throughout plain-folk society did not exist in the abstract, for it was coupled with a belief in upward mobility as the product of industry and economy. Here was a very practical reason for daily labor. Most Tennessee veterans believed that the hardworking, industrious poor could save to insure a competence, perhaps to buy a farm, a business, or a slave or two.56 W. A. Duncan, the son of a non-slaveholding farmer owning but fifty acres, readily affirmed how poor folks, if they were good workers and managers, could purchase a small farm or go into business even if they started with nothing.57 Of course, mobility might not always be upward, but Tennessee’s veterans and farmers expressed faith in their society and its rewards. W. J. Tucker of Maury County, a farmer and veteran whose father had owned no slaves but could claim solid, middle-class status, reflected how “It dos seem that the rich boy in many cases would loose and became poor, while the poor boy had become rich. Many cases in my knowing that way. The hustler gets these[.]“58
In the same breath that common whites praised the virtue of hard work, they used contemptuous, pillorying terms for those who shirked honest toil and a full day’s labor, labeling them worthless, mean, trashy, or trifling. “A man who did not work was not considered much account,” said Edwin M. Gardner. “[I]t was a bad county for fops,” declared George W. Samuel, while Thomas M. Patterson noted that a lazy person sometimes slipped into his community but did not last long, moving on to Arkansas to hunt and fish. Isaac Nelson Rainey emphasized that “The loafer, rich or poor, was despised.”59 Drones, vagabonds, bums, deadbeats, deadheads, nobodies, damned rapscallions, and baser specimens of the community were some of the other unflattering terms applied to the able-bodied who did not work. Folks expressed strong views on this subject: “if a man didnt work neither should he eat”; the few that would not work were “not respected and hated by rich and poor”; and “a man that did not work either with his hands or his head was not regarded as a man atall.”60
Many Tennessee veterans took umbrage at the myth of southern laziness, especially when reminded in the questionnaires that “certain historians” believed white farmers avoided heavy field labor. “[H]istorians are verry rong when they say whi[t]e men would not work,” declared J. L. Walton, while R. T. Mockbee accused such historians of ignorance or willful falsification. A farmer and tanner from Rhea County, Edward Gannaway labeled “certain historians” either “natural born” fools or likely candidates for the penitentiary “for malicious lying.” Mississippi-born Gentry Richard McGee, whose parents owned an eighty-acre farm and six slaves, recalled how he and all of his acquaintances did all of the \usual farmwork. “The historians who say Southern white men did not work before the Civil War belong to the Annanias Club,” he concluded.61
When plain folk admitted idleness in their communities, they most often had in mind a small minority of disreputable, poor people or a few rich planters and their kin, sometimes described as effete fops or dandies. An essayist in the Jonesborough Tennessee Farmer cast scorn upon “a wandering tribe of work-haters,” serious pests to any community, who roved about under the pretense of getting jobs, but it was the job of eating, not work, they sought.62 It is noteworthy that Tennessee veterans seldom mentioned the South’s stereotypical white trash, but when they did, their scorn was stinging. A few veterans attributed the South’s reputation for laziness to these worthless, “whiskey drinking degenerates” and thugs, the wild and reckless few who would not work. These low-down people had no status; they had sunk so low that slaves would not associate with them, and it was the slaves, white farmers insisted, who were most likely to call them poor white trash.63 The verdict was inescapable, concluded a Tennessee veteran from a modest home that had known its share of both hard work and foxhunting: the white trash brought “opp[ro]brium upon themselves by being too lazy to work and too thriftless to save.”64 Fortunately, trashy whites were few, perhaps one in twenty, ventured G. W. Park, son of a modest farmer who owned no slaves.65 Moreover, hardworking farmers, slaveholders and slaveless alike, saw idleness (and the poverty stemming from it) as an individual flaw, a failure of character, and not a stigma of class or an unfortunate result of slavery or slave competition.
Tennessee veterans more often located the South’s idle people among the wealthy rather than at the lower end of the social scale. A few poor farmers, perhaps out of envy, claimed with considerable extravagance that slave owners enjoyed leisurely lives because poor folk, whites and blacks, did all of the work of their communities. Drones in the planter class spent their time in hunting, fishing, and riding around the country.66 A writer in the Jonesborough Tennessee Farmer contrasted the honest industry of the farmer with the activities of an elite of brainless dandies, useless females, and social butterflies.67 Even a working planter directing his slaves might be criticized. A classic incident from Hinds County, Mississippi, in the 1830s reveals the resentment directed toward planters who failed to soil their hands or work up a sweat while slaves and whites did hard field work. In this incident, the father of Susan Dabney Smedes, a wealthy planter who had moved there from Virginia, came to the aid of a neighbor by loaning twenty slaves to help clear a grassy field. The farmer showed little appreciation for this neighborly kindness, complaining that “if Colonel Dabney had taken hold of a plough and worked by his side he would have been glad to have his help, but to see him sitting up on his horse with his gloves on directing his Negroes how to work was not to his taste.”68 The farmer was angry because of the colonel’s refusal to join him as an equal and no doubt resented the implied superiority in the planter’s distancing himself from the farmer, especially when the planter’s instructions to his slaves might by implication be aimed at the farmer himself. Such feigned superiority (consciously adopted or otherwise) could easily offend working people while simultaneously affirming and justifying the self-esteem of those with callused hands, red necks, and sturdy backs.
Although idleness among large slaveholders-most of them active managers who had once worked in the fields and who currently worked their own sons-was not the rule, wherever it surfaced it was denounced in no uncertain terms. Perhaps 2 percent were idle, estimated Joel L. Henry, but they were fools if they did not believe honest toil was respectable. A few rich men’s idle sons, labeled “worthless curs” by William Grant, did not amount to much. “Some persons never worked,” reported Thomas Jefferson Howard, but “they became vagabonds and died in misery and want” following the war.69
Much harder to bear than the simple knowledge of idleness among some of the wealthy was the occasional hint that idle slaveholders and rich folk derogated the hard work of the yeomen. Contrary views about the nobility and significance of labor-especially on the part of the wealthy-surfaced infrequently among Tennessee veterans, a situation understandable in a democratic society of isolated communities in which large landowners and slaveholders wanted and needed the votes, popular acclaim, and economic support of the masses. The wealthy who disparaged honest toil, asserted Zachary Taylor Dyer, had more “money than brains.” R. H. Mosley, the son of a non-slaveholding farmer in Williamson County, Tennessee, and one of the few who revealed considerable resentment of wealthy slave owners whom he claimed did nothing, accused the rich of viewing farming as a “low” calling and referring to poorer folks as clodhoppers.70 Perhaps a bit more common among the elite was the attitude that while manual labor was not in itself disreputable, it was a sign that the person who spent a lifetime in field work “lacked brains, education, or money.”71 Still, this view was not expressed often.
In general, most plain folk recognized the important contributions and labor of slave owners and others who might do little actual physical work. Those who earned an honest living through farm management, mental labor, or community service as doctors, lawyers, or preachers were held in high esteem. Idleness was the culprit, and it drew strong condemnation. When wealthy, slaveholding planters revealed themselves as busy, productive, and knowledgeable about crops, draft animals, farm implements, fertilizer, and the myriad difficulties of running a farm, the plain folk could easily accord honor and respect to active farm management.
In light of the esteem associated with hard work, a sense of guilt sometimes troubled those self-working farmers who failed their communities as paragons of diligence. One example of a self-working farmer, John Osbourn (or Osbourne), stands in distinct contrast to Lightsey, Thomasson, the Tennessee veterans, and the others cited here because he would just as soon go on a drinking spree as complete a day’s work. Osbourn typically labored alongside a small number of slaves on his three North Carolina farms, but in numerous diary entries, he confessed to drinking too much and gadding about and indicated his intention to reform. Rather than pride in his frolics, he showed a sense of guilt and clearly understood his duty and what would win respect.72 Similarly, the Reverend William E. Hatcher recalled the acute embarrassment and pain that his childhood stubbornness and renunciation of dirt farming caused his father, “a stalwart old farmer” who worked a small plantation with a few slaves and primitive equipment. The hardworking father, who could foresee none of his offspring’s future success in the pulpit, believed his young son was “grievously and unpardonably lazy.” What was God’s purpose in creating a son so devoted to idleness? With a sorrowful mien, Hatcher’s father reached his conclusion-that God created him “to starve, as a warning for all idle boys that may come on later.”73
Unending physical labor structured the lives of plain-folk families most of their waking hours, but for many the world of work was inseparable from a religious faith that supported, justified, and commended daily toil. When Richard Enos Sherrill, a Tennessee veteran and the son of a modestly affluent slaveholder, recalled his youth, he boasted of working “on the farm did all kinds of work plowed hoed any thing come to hand all the neighbors in our neighborhood did all kind of farm work[.]” Was honest toil respected? “[Y]es, it was,” he responded, “we lived in a Christian . . . community 2 miles from Old ‘Mt. Carmel Church’ widley known strickly Blue Stocking Presbyterian.”74 What Sherrill alluded to- the connection between labor and evangelical faith-the Reverend Watkins of the “Old Pine Farm,” a South Carolina country minister who served four rural congregations while farming three hundred acres, made explicit: “Faithfulness to secular engagements is a part of religion, and in observing this we render an acceptable service to God. . . . one may serve God in his field, his storehouse, or his workshop.”75 In Georgia’s Cherokee territory in the 1830s, Zillah Haynie Brandon also affirmed the role of faith in everyday toil. Brandon cheerfully endured struggles and hardships because she felt sustained by Him who “from the heights of heaven”"stooped to listen to my complaints and number my tears.” In her memoirs she confided, “My health seemed entirely impa[i]red, yet I was compelled from unavoidable circumstances to perform from year to year, that amount of labor sufficient for three able hands, in order to maintain a character, as Christian and mother to which I felt I was justly entitled.”76
The spirit of Wesley, Calvin, and Luther survived in the antebellum South, and yeoman farmers, as ministers, deacons, and elders, along with farmwives, who outnumbered men in church membership, testified to the links among hard, steady labor in field and household, evangelical faith, and a belief in a simple way of life joined to a gospel of work. Such lives were highly esteemed-in fact, sometimes praised as almost saint-like. For example, eighty- one-year-old David Shires Myers Bodenhamer, originally of Giles County, Tennessee, lauded the self-sacrificing qualities of his tireless mother, who rose early and worked “willingly and diligently with her own hands.” The thirty-first chapter of Proverbs, which he loosely quoted, captured her essential nature: “She layeth her hands to the distaff andher hands hold the spindle . . . the hum of industry [is] in her home and in the kitchen garden, poultry yard and cow lot there is busy work. . . . The Sabbath is kept sacred . . . the Bible is first in her home. . . . Her children rise up and call her blessed.”77 In describing Republican culture in the North, Eric Foner noted that “the moral qualities which would ensure success in one’s calling-honesty, frugality, diligence, punctuality, and sobriety-became religious obligations.” Such words would be applicable below, as well as above, the Mason-Dixon line. 78
It had not always been so, not in the colonial world of the gentleman planter; but by the late eighteenth century, the dissenting churches of upstart Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians challenged the dominance of the established Anglican and elite culture. The ascetic, church-based social and religious lifestyle of many plain-folk communities clashed with an aggressive, worldly, hedonistic culture of honor stereotypically associated with the planter elite. Unfortunately, popular images of a violent South and enduring myths of moonlight, magnolias, and mint juleps reveal that too much attention has been directed toward the power, prerogatives, and pleasures of stereotypical planters. Among the more-numerous plain folk of the antebellum period and even within the ranks of the planters, an evangelical lifestyle influenced daily activity, although it never vanquished the extremes of male excesses on the dueling grounds or in the gaming pits, barrooms, and brothels. Evangelicals, who had begun as dissenters, modified many of their pristine practices and values to enter the mainstream by the 1830s, with the result that most people lived under the sway of religion, regardless of whether they attended church or participated in church activities.79 Although it may be true that only one-fifth to one-third of all antebellum southerners were church members, mostly Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian, congregations were two- to-four-times larger than the actual number of church members. In certain areas of the South, evangelicalism had spread to a majority of households.80 “To a remarkable degree,” concludes John B. Boles, “evangelical religion shaped the mentalit of antebellum southerners, rich and poor, slaveholder and nonslaveholder. By 1830 the ‘Solid South’ was more a religious than a political reality.”81 Even in Lowcountry South Carolina, the bastion of southern wealth and class- consciousness, evangelical churches, which were essentially yeoman institutions, set the tone of society.82
Ministers were revered community leaders called to serve in the rural South more often because of their faith and personal characteristics than their education or theological training. Although the level of education steadily improved among the clergy, itinerant, poorly trained lay preachers, especially among Baptists and Methodists, often filled rural pulpits on a rotating schedule of Sundays as they traveled from one isolated crossroads church to another. As late as 1860, lay preachers outnumbered ordained preachers among Virginia Methodists.83
Whether lay preachers or ordained ministers, most rural preachers relied upon outside work, at least in part, to support themselves and their families since congregations were poor and salaries inadequate or even non-existent.84 In frontier regions of the South, it would not be unusual for farmer-preachers to do the heaviest of farm labor and to hunt and fish for food.85 In lieu of a salary, many ministers received free-will offerings, usually an amount as uncertain as it was inadequate, but some backcountry evangelical congregations and ministers believed in principle that preaching the Lord’s word should not require financial remuneration of any sort. The experience of Reuben Davis’s father, a farmer-preacher of limited means with only a pioneer’s rudimentary education, provides a case in point. A well-respected Baptist minister, he busied himself “during the week . . . with ordinary farm labor” and would never accept compensation for services to the church. Such, he considered, was “serving the Lord for hire.”86
Highly respected bi-vocational ministers displayed strong faith and strong character, setting examples of proper deportment and the ennobling discipline of work. For such preachers, work was both necessary and honorable. One minister, whose “heart was set on” the work of the church, still “considered his duty to his family paramount, remembering that the sacred volume placed those who did not provide for their families lower than the infidel himself.”87 The Reverend Watkins titled his autobiography The Old Pine Farm because he labored there diligently, raising corn and livestock to support his family and secure the means to tend to his four congregations. Although his house was essentially two log pens and two backroom sheds, with a passage through the center and a piazza in front (an architectural style common among the plain folk), he boasted that its neatness, cleanliness, and furnishings “marked the refined taste of the preacher and his family.” The operation of his farm, he believed, was “conducted in a manner creditable to” his industry and good judgment.88 The Reverend William Capers, a future Methodist bishop, also expressed pride in his achievements in field and pulpit. The son of a Lowcountry planter, he came to know the hardships and struggles of a circuit-riding minister after his father’s sudden death left him without an inheritance or financial security. Later, with a family to support, he secured a church and then turned to the task of earning an income.
The house ready for occupancy, I became too much interested in the field to be only a manager, and betook myself to the plough; which having done, I must prosecute it diligently for example’s sake. . . . I had never done an hour’s work in a field in my life