No Place for Mere Entertainment: Religion and Popular Culture in Atlanta (1865 to 1925) Open Access

Gannon Flynn, Kelly J. (Spring 2020)

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An existential and theological crisis immediately followed the American Civil War causing many southerners to lose their faith in institutions, including organized religion. As white working-class and middle-class southerners in the Georgia piedmont recovered from the war, burgeoning forms of Victorian popular culture offered pleasure, meaning-making, balance, and a cessation of economic, social, and cultural anxieties.

Drawing on data from contemporary journals, personal correspondence, newspapers, commissioned reports, and preserved ephemera, this dissertation uses three case studies analyze the history and formation of the relationship between popular culture and organized religion in New South Atlanta. The first case study explores how connections between religion, leisure time, and popular culture gave Atlanta’s white women more power within some traditional Victorian gender constructs, while also adding additional constraints within others. The second case argues that when white men established the Atlanta Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), they used muscular Christianity as a recruitment tool; increasingly, however, the YMCA turned to secular sports and entertainment programs for the shear enjoyment of its members. The final case study analyzes Atlanta’s 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition. It argues that although the exposition brought more lowbrow amusements and new forms of Victorian popular culture to Atlanta, the event was largely accepted by the region’s white, Protestant religious establishment.

This dissertation uses an interdisciplinary approach to open a new line of investigation in the historiography, one that combines methodologies from cultural history with theories from religious studies. By studying the spread of Victorianism into the post-Civil War South, scholars can better understand culture, religion, and culture as religion

Victorian popular culture in Atlanta established and celebrated a cultural versatility, one that could accommodate participation in both cultural productions and in the practices of institutional religion. This was especially true when the amusements allowed southerners to better understand or better engage with the new times in which they were living. More than mere entertainment or mere religion, Victorian popular culture allowed for a vibrant, complex, lived experience.

Table of Contents


INTRODUCTION: Far More Than Mere Entertainment                1

CHAPTER 1: Familiar Frameworks of Meaning [Are] Evaporating                 11


CHAPTER 2: The Nineteenth Century South: “A State of Change”                 49

CHAPTER 3: Religion and the Post-Civil War South: “Nothing Left but War”              67

CHAPTER 4: Realignment of White Family Structures: “When Papa Wasn’t Able”       82


CHAPTER 5: White Women, Popular Culture, and Religion in Atlanta: “What a Great Responsibility”                98

CHAPTER 6: Sports, Entertainment, and Manliness at the Atlanta YMCA: “Exercise for the Body, Mind, and Soul”                 132

CHAPTER 7: Religion, Entertainment, and the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition: “They Caught the Spirit of Enthusiasm”                 165

CONCLUSION                     199


Printed Primary Sources                 207

Non-Printed Primary Sources                212

Secondary Sources                 213

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