Antebellum Southerners on Orthodoxy
For the most part, the attitudes we find towards the Orthodox Church, typically referred to as the “Greek Church” among southerners, were either negative or ambivalent. There were some individuals, particularly George Fitzhugh, who praised the Orthodox Church, but for the most part southern attitudes towards Orthodoxy were informed by either a prejudice against anything that seemed Catholic or were filtered through an Enlightenment lens. Much of what southerners knew of Orthodoxy was through Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon took an unfavorable view of the eastern churches and wrote of the rise of Islam thusly:
More pure than the system of Zoroaster, more liberal than the law of Moses, the religion of Mahomet might seem less inconsistent with reason than the creed of mystery and superstition which, in the seventh century, disgraced the simplicity of the Gospel.
Southerners consistently praised Islam and Muhammad for limiting the influence of the Eastern Churches. C.A. Woodruff, who wrote for the Southern Quarterly Review, judged Islam “more pure” than the “depraved” Orthodox churches that were existing in the Near East. Those churches had fallen into “gross superstition,” through the “idolatrous introduction of images as objects of worship,” and the “deification of saints and martyrs.” An article in the Southern Quarterly Review on Peter the Great contrasted the “self-control” enforced by Islam with the “merely nominal” Greek Christianity adopted by the Russians. John Fletcher, a New Orleans Orientalist and author, also credited Muhammad and Islam with limiting the influence of the “degenerate” Eastern Church, even though he argued that Islam adopted the “errors” of the Eastern Churches to mollify Greek Christians. Just what these errors were, Fletcher does not say.
An article that appeared in the 18 April, 1846 issue of the Southern Quarterly Review described the condition of life in Palestine and Jerusalem in particular, with a great deal of attention given to what the author considered the “nominal” Christians of the Eastern churches. The author ridiculed the descent of the Holy Fire at Pascha as a “farce” and compared the gathering of the faithful in the rotunda of the Holy Sepulchre as more akin to a heathen ceremony or an Indian war dance. “Of the iniquity of the bishop, who thus annually deceives these deluded pilgrims, it is not necessary to speak,” he writes.
The article is an indictment of the worship and lifestyle of eastern Christians, and the author wonders how such a brand of Christianity could ever attract anyone: