Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on December 5, 2002 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of North Carolina Museum of Art and Davidson College. The essay was previously included in an illustrated catalogue for the exhibition Reverend McKendree Robbins Long: Picture Painter of the Apocalypse, (ISBN #1-890573-02-7) held January 22 - March 1, 2002 at Van Every/Smith Galleries, Davidson College and April 7 - August 25, 2002 at North Carolina Museum of Art. Images accompanying the text in the exhibition catalogue were not reproduced with this reprinting. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you have interest in obtaining a copy of the exhibition catalogue, please contact North Carolina Museum of Art through either this phone number or web address:



 

Apocalypse South

by Charles Reagan Wilson

 

In a "Sermon on St. Peter," recorded around 1950, Reverend McKendree Robbins Long (fig. 1) preached on the need for revival during a wicked time. "A great Southern preacher once said,'There are plenty more Pentecosts in the sky,'" Long noted, but he added that while that might be true for "mere revivals," the times required a new kind of awakening, "the foundation of faith in terms of infinite power." He feared that "not a handful really believe we can have one," but he insisted on the need to look beyond "the apostasy about us" and to rely on the "loving-kindness of the Lord" to bring about a revival. Long had been a revivalist for almost three decades at that point, but he realized he faced new, unsettling times in the 1950s. His sermon came not long after the Soviet Union exploded its first nuclear weapon, bringing thoughts of end times to believers rooted in biblical authority. He would soon begin painting his series of works based in the Revelation to John, using his artistry to try to alert the world to the imminence of doom without repentance.

People who had known the young McKendree Long would have likely been surprised that he had spent his life preaching an evangelical-fundamentalist faith and that he would now use his artistic talents to deliver the apocalyptic message that he visualized. Long, and the Southern region from which he came and in which he preached his gospel, traveled a long road from the post-Reconstruction era of his birth into the atomic age. Long was born into a world whose people had every expectation of Victorian-era certainty and stability. His father was a member in good standing of the commercial-civic elite that emerged in the South after the Civil War to direct its fortunes into a New South period that would promote progress for the region. Long grew to become a creative artist, trained in the formal techniques of Western art. Eudora Welty once described herself as a "privileged observer" of life who made art, and that description fits Long as well. He attended art schools, studied overseas in London, Amsterdam, and Madrid, and became accomplished, if not as recognized as he wished. He came to maturity as modernism emerged as the driving artistic movement in the early twentieth century. But modernism was the problem for him, suggesting a morally confused and turbulent outlook that led ultimately, in the 1920s, to his rebellion, to his drastic change of course into evangelical ministry and eventually into using his artistic abilities to express a profound vision of end times (fig. 2).

Long remained very much the Southerner throughout his changes, but they indicate the complexity of identity for those in the South as it entered the modern world. The post-Civil War South, though, had its own turbulence, and the twentieth-century South inherited social attitudes, economic realities, and political arrangements that would be the backdrop for Long's religious and artistic development. Reconstruction had been a violent and unsettling time, with intense conflicts among newly freed African Americans, defeated Confederate whites, and Northerners bent briefly on attempting serious changes in the region's social system. The 1890s witnessed economic disaster and renewed political conflict, centered on the Populist rebellion, with its attempt to raise economic issues and make them more central than the racial issues that had emerged as the dividing line in Southern life after the Civil War. The Populists failed, though, to overturn the political establishment, thanks to considerable intimidation, electoral chicanery, and outright violence. Out of these dramatic developments came a restricted electorate, a racially segregated society (fig. 3), and the triumph of a New South ideology that sought economic development, segregated but harmonious race relations, improved education, and sectional reconciliation with the rest of the United States. McKendree Long came to maturity as the South entered the Progressive era of the early twentieth century, and Progressive reformers made considerable impact in the South, bringing governmental reforms, educational improvements, scientific realism, and business efficiency to government and public policy -- making a society that surely seemed closer to modern ways than only a few decades earlier. Long was the talented son of a well-off and respected family, a mainline Presbyterian -- the religion that was the driving force behind many of the successful business people of North Carolina. He was well positioned to play a leading cultural role in this New South.

The change from a middle-class, Victorian sensibility into a modern one was part of the context of Long's decisions on religion and art. Like other places in the Anglo-American world that Victorianism influenced, the South of the late nineteenth century prized order and stability, and the accompanying regional ideology of New South commercial-industrialism lauded progress and the rational. The supposed line between civilization and savagery was clear to Victorian Southerners. There was a right and a wrong, and Long would have grown up seeing "culture" as a vital part of the South's attempt to maintain a civilized life despite the catastrophe, for white Southerners, of Confederate defeat. The Lost Cause sacralized the Confederacy in memory, and young McKendree Long surely heard stories of the war from his Confederate veteran grandfather. His mother exemplified women's role in nurturing cultural activities in the region, among which was her active role as a founder of the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

Writing in 1941, Piedmont journalist Wilbur J. Cash could talk of the mind of the South, suggesting the sense of unity that grew among whites out of the experiences of Confederate defeat and racial solidarity in a biracial society. The term "Solid South" expressed this unity and continuity with the past, expressed especially through the dominance of the Democratic Party in the region. The South gained a common identity from its folk culture, which rested in the long persistence of rural living and small town ways for most Southerners, and an enveloping poverty after World War II that touched countless families and familiarized all social classes in the region with its miseries, breeding a unifying hope for economic development that would ease the desperate experiences of all too many Southerners.

Long pursued his dream of artistic achievement in this Southern society through the first two decades of the twentieth century, but religion came to focus his discontent in the 1920s. Not coincidentally, the pace of social change in the region increased perceptibly in that decade. Cities and larger towns now played a leadership role in the region, harboring an expanding middle class of business people, professionals, and white-collar workers. Rural areas now seemed like places of hicks and hillbillies, not the repository of virtuous living (fig. 4), which earlier Southern spokesmen had once idealized (fig. 5). Urban consciousness came to epitomize the fashionable in the South, and many Southerners came to see "progress" resting with the promotions of the Chamber of Commerce and the Rotary Club.

As though in reaction to these signs of a quickened embrace by Southerners of materialism, a politics of morality also appeared in the 1920s, and it came to sweep up McKendree Long's plans for his future. Defenders of moral values in the region identified them with evangelical Protestantism and rural and small-town life. Rural-based politicians emerged in a factionalized, disorganized political system focused often around charismatic personalities, such as Huey Long in Louisiana and Eugene Talmadge in Georgia. They reflected Southern fears that powerful economic concerns from outside the region were reshaping it, disregarding regional ways and local popular will. This political fundamentalism was more than matched by religious fundamentalism. The two fundamentalisms often overlapped, in fact. Support for prohibition of alcoholic beverages was a virtual crusade of Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and other orthodox Protestants, and many Southern evangelicals deserted the Democratic Party in the 1928 presidential election because of discomfort over Al Smith, the big city, Roman Catholic presidential nominee who opposed Prohibition. Mainstream Southern churches experienced conflict over denominational control between liberals and fundamentalists, and the anti-evolution movement found fertile ground in the region, with the Scopes trial (fig. 6) in the summer of 1925, a dramatic illustration of the conflict between traditionalism and modernism in the region. It was no wonder that H. L. Mencken coined the term "Bible Belt" to describe the South in the 1920s.

McKendree Long abandoned his artistic dreams in the 1920s, amidst the conflict between traditionalism and modernism in the South, becoming first a Presbyterian minister and later a Baptist revivalist. While his socially prominent family would likely have been startled at this turn of events, Long was embracing a long regional tradition. Evangelical Protestantism had dominated the South since the Great Revival of the early nineteenth century, and Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians were the region's religious establishment, judging by cultural and moral influence. Evangelical religion prizes religious experience over other aspects of faith, offering a tangible way to deal with the burdens of sin and guilt that its Calvinist-inspired view of human nature often inculcates as well. Believers can claim God's freely given grace and rest in the assurance of salvation. This appeal of certainty, the blessed assurance of redemption, has always been a compelling quality of evangelicalism for people in times of social change and individual stress. Conviction of redemption often brings a commitment to personal morality and aspirations toward an upright life and work for the common social good (fig. 7). The Bible was the icon of faith for evangelicals like Long, the authoritative source for inspiration and daily living.

Evangelicalism wants to share the faith, placing a premium on proselytizing, and Long's decision to become not just a minister but a revivalist must be seen in this context. Southern culture has been an expressive one, and Southern life has long included a familiarity with evangelical Christianity. In Long's day, roadside signs cried out "Jesus Saves" and "Get Right with God" (fig. 8), and homes and the airwaves were filled with the singing of gospel songs, a common body of which united evangelicals in many specific denominations. Traditional Southern culture was an oral one, producing talkers -- whether storytellers, lawyers, singers, or preachers. Advocates of the gospel not only preached but also witnessed, one-to-one, to lost souls. Evangelistic campaigns were familiar to Southerners of the 1920s, among the major rituals of regional life (fig. 9). Frank Dixon, a northern observer of the South in 1900, noted that Southern Baptists had regarded "evangelism as the be-all and end-all of religion," and his observation held true long afterward. Methodist Sam Jones was the most famous Southern revival preacher of the late nineteenth century, establishing the model from which Long drew for city-wide, interdenominational services in Southern communities. Mass revivals became even more popular in the 1920s than before. Southerners could have heard not only Long preach but such well-known traveling revivalists as Mordecai Ham and Billy Sunday (fig. 10) and lesser knowns such as J. C. Bishop, the "Yodeling Cowboy Evangelist."

Long came to his role as revivalist slowly. While studying art in London, he attended services at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, an evangelical-fundamentalist haven founded by one of the most famous Baptist ministers of the nineteenth century, Charles Spurgeon. Long was rebaptized in 1912, reaffirming his Christian faith, but with a new evangelical focus. He returned to North Carolina after that but worked as a painter, proselytizing for Southern cultural advancement more than religion. He advertised an exhibit of his work in Raleigh as that of "McKendree Long, Southern Painter," and he told the audiences viewing his work that the region needed a first-class museum and greater understanding of high art.

Gradually, as the dramatic conflicts of the 1920s developed, Long turned to evangelicalism in charting a new course for his creativity. After announcing his decision in the mid-1920s to become an evangelist, he preached high-profile revivalistic campaigns, such as the seven-week revival at Lumberton, North Carolina, in 1930. The Charlotte Observer reported that the campaign resulted in 675 professions of faith and repentance, "placing him in a class with the best of the nationally known evangelists of the last twenty years." The revival began in Lumberton's downtown Methodist church, moved to the grade-school auditorium when it grew in numbers, and relocated to a large tobacco warehouse, where it became a true community service. The Observer concluded from the revival that Long was "launched upon a career of great usefulness and success as a minister. Revealingly, the paper also noted the town's financial generosity toward Long, providing substantial contributions when it became clear he needed support. This generosity came despite "boll weevil conditions existing and mills running only on part time" in Lumberton. Long also noted that he sold sixteen of his paintings locally, earning the equivalent of two months of a preacher's salary.

Long went through a personal crisis of sorts shortly after this revival, writing in November and December 1930 of facing a decision whether to continue his revivalistic work or turn once again to art. He noted in his journal that he prayed God would help him discern what to do. "I was assured after this prayer," he wrote, "in which God's presence seemed to fill both the room and my own soul that I should know this, too, by Christmas, 1930." He hoped that God would allow his ministry "since the whole evangelistic ministry is well-nigh on the rocks, through Modernistic persecution, and, alas, indiscreet methods by the evangels themselves in some cases."

By this time, the Great Depression had struck hard at the South. Even before the Depression, the South faced serious economic problems, with chronic overproduction of its staple crops and an abundance of landless sharecroppers and tenant farmers (fig. 11). Its leading industry, textiles, faced dim prospects in the late 1920s, from increasing competition and overproduction, and bad conditions were made worse by the collapse of export markets and declining incomes once the Depression began. On one day in 1932, authorities sold a quarter of the agricultural land in Mississippi; in the same year, a quarter of the labor force in Birmingham was unemployed. Such extreme conditions swept across the entire region, which Franklin D. Roosevelt pronounced "the nation's No. 1 economic problem."

Long noted in his journal, December 17, 1930, that eight banks had failed in North Carolina the previous day. "Want is a lean angel," he observed, "but the only one which can guide this land to betterment of soul." He confessed that it was "mournful indeed to hear men of the street, my brothers, and men of the artisan class, my brothers, and men of the professional class, my brothers, all, affirm that it is 'revivial [sic] or revolution,' in this our land." He concluded that "the very thought should rive all men to prayer and fasting." The only solution was "to pray for a revival."

Long continued his preaching throughout the coming decades. World War II was even more disruptive of the illusion of stability and permanence in Southern life than the Depression had been. New Deal farm programs had taken land out of production and forced sharecroppers and tenants to leave the land, while the war gave jobs and higher income, promoted industrialization, and concentrated population in urban areas. Newcomers came in huge numbers to train in the South, and Southerners left the region as part of overseas military forces. These years of the 1930s and 1940s nationalized Southern life as never before. Such technological innovations as the automobile, airplane, electricity, and agricultural machinery changed everyday life, and higher incomes nurtured a consumer culture that made national goods easily accessible in once isolated and provincial places. Political centralization and bureaucratization came to characterize the region's public policy, with an accompanying decline in regional and local control.

The South was very much a part of the nation's burgeoning prosperity after World War II. The region moved closer to the mainstream of American economic prosperity. The economy continued to diversify, and federal dollars flowed into the South in a steady stream. By 1960, only ten percent of Southerners worked in agriculture, and between 1940 and 1960 the region's population went from sixty-five percent rural to fifty-eight percent urban. The most distinguishing feature of Southern culture, its Jim Crow segregation laws, remained in effect at the end of the war, but white Southerners soon faced organized and eloquent challenges to its racial customs from its own African Americans in the region and from the federal government. The "Solid South" in which Long matured must have seemed like another world by this time.

When McKendree Long decided in the late 1950s to paint a series of visionary religious scenes, drawing especially from the biblical text of the Revelation to John, he did so having lived through dramatic events in the wrenching transformation of the traditional South into a modern society. The process was not complete by any means, and traditional culture abided in the region, with his embrace of millennialism as a main theme for his new visionary paintings a good example of his continued absorption in the region's traditional evangelical faith.

Millennialism is the conviction that human history will end in a golden age. Chapter 20 of Revelation predicts a thousand-year earthly reign by Christ, during which evil and human suffering will end and a utopian society will emerge. Christians have believed that Christ's Second Coming (fig. 12) may occur before the millennium (premillennialism) or just afterward (postmillennialism). Millennial symbols helped to form the notion of the United States as a Redeemer Nation with a special destiny in human history, perhaps the site of Christ's return, and they spawned sectarian movements and evangelical reform movements and revivals. Americans, North and South, saw
the Civil War as the possible beginning of the millennium ("Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord").

After the Civil War, postmillennialism became an easy, progressive outlook accompanying the New South ideology, justifying gradual reform and development. But more relevant to Long's later attitudes was the strident premillennialism that grew in the South as part of the Fundamentalist movement of the early twentieth century. This movement included a dispensational aspect, which drew from biblical prophecy to divide human history into epochs, culminating in the Second Coming. Ever since then, American evangelicals with a strong biblical literalism, like Long, had read the signs of human history for indications of end times. The 1950s and 1960s, when Long painted his visionary scenes, must have seemed like years verging on end times, indeed. The South had witnessed dramatic economic and social changes through the twentieth century, and those middle decades of the century would see the overturning of the Jim Crow laws, an event accompanied by violence, unrest, and anxiety about the post-segregation South among the region's people.

Even more dramatically, the end of World War II saw the beginning of the nuclear age, with the explosion of the first atomic bombs. The Cold War added an on-going, unresolved conflict with the Soviet Union and the dreaded Communism that symbolized atheism to Christians (fig. 13). American popular culture soon spread fears of imminent doomsday and internal subversion. The early 1950s saw the publication of books designed to bring comfort to troubled minds, with such titles as How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, Peace of Mind, and A Guide to Confident Living.

The South did not easily embrace this popular psychology of "confident living." Evangelical-fundamentalists, especially, dwelt in the soul-terror of doomsday, seeing newly relevant biblical meanings in the threat of nuclear war or communist dominance. Billy Graham (fig. 14) was the exemplar of post-World War II revivalism, a preacher whose own experiences can, perhaps, shed light on McKendree Long and his turn toward apocalypticism in the early 1950s. Like Long, he was a North Carolinian, and he also grew up Presbyterian, joining the Southern Baptist Convention in the late 1930s. Graham preached the fundamentalism that Long embraced: "If by fundamentalism you mean a person who accepts the authority of the Scriptures, the virgin birth of Christ, the atoning death of Christ, His bodily resurrection, His second coming, and personal salvation by faith through grace, then I am a fundamentalist." In 1945, Graham began work as an organizer for Youth for Christ, a group that fought juvenile delinquency and Communism. He soon staged his own revivals, becoming a national figure because of his attacks on Communism and calls for nationwide revival. He preached that communists were the "agents of Satan, and the struggle between Communism and capitalism was a 'battle to the death' between Christ and anti-Christ'" (fig. 15).

Graham's sermon on September 25, 1949, expressed evangelical-fundamentalist beliefs at a crucial point in history. Two days earlier, President Harry Truman had announced that the Soviets had exploded their first atomic bomb, crystallizing the potential for nuclear conflict. Graham believed that God had spared the United States from the worst impact of World War II because He must have hoped to "still use America to evangelize the world." In this new, terrifying circumstance, God was "giving us a desperate choice, a choice of either revival or judgment." "An arms race," he preached, "unprecedented in the history of the world, is driving us madly toward destruction!" The world was "divided into two sides" Western culture, founded in religion, and Communism, against all religion. Revival would occur if people recognized the signs of the times, repented of their sins, prayed, and had faith. Graham combined the traditional revivalist's call for individual repentance with the doomsday possibility that the nuclear bomb now symbolized in the 1950s (fig. 16).

Southern gospel music dramatized such sentiments through songs that used images of nuclear war to remind listeners of the need to "get right with God." The popularity of these songs indicated a Southern world-view that McKendree Long must have shared, attuned to seeing modern developments through the lens of traditional belief. Kentucky bluegrass singer Jimmy Martin, for example, in "God, Guide Our Greatest Leader's Hands," asked divine guidance for national leaders so they would understand "that a war with these mighty destructive weapons could destroy us all upon this earth and land." Martin sang of "living in the days the Bible tells us," days "with hate and evil destroying each other's nations." He portrayed graphic imagery of the end of the world, picturing the time when people would "feel this old earth begin to tremble," they would "hear the mighty roaring in the sky," and they would see "a blinding flash of fire and destruction." His solution was to "pray for a great worldwide revival," rather than allowing countries to "see who's the strongest man."

"The Great Atomic Power," by the Louvin Brothers (fig. 17), white gospel performers from north Alabama, conveyed the uncertainty of the time. They personalized it, asking if hearers feared "this man's invention that they call atomic power" They asked, "are we all in great confusion, do we know the time or hour" when a "terrible explosion may reign down upon our land, leaving horrible destruction, blotting out the works of man." The song evoked the Rapture, the sweeping up of God's faithful before the terrible battle of Armageddon, when it asked; "Will you rise and meet your Savior in the air?" It would be a time when "fire reigns from on high." The Louvin Brothers' solution to this terrible fate was to "be prepared to meet the Lord" and to offer "your heart and soul to Jesus," who would be a "shield and sword." If one abided in Jesus, "you'll never taste of death, for you'll fly to safety and eternal peace and rest," even if "the mushroom of destruction falls in all its fury great." Such a juxtaposition of ideas and images from the Bible and from contemporary nightmares perfectly captured the times that led Long to undertake his paintings of end times.

These Southern gospel songs could have been the sound track to McKendree Long's paintings of millennial scenes from Revelation. He himself wrote hymns (fig. 18), many of which spelled out similar sentiments of end times. One hymn, written March 5, 1950, talked of men with their "lethal weapons, which furnish Hate its play!" He intimated his anticipation of Christ's return, writing that "rival despots" might rule for a day, but God still reigned on high, holding despots in derision "and soon will make it known!" Referring even more overtly to the new atomic age, Long continued:

 

Though fission, fusion, both unite to make their monstrous bomb,
Though universal Death may threat from out hell's fearful womb:
To make men live, or make men die, lies only in Christ's breath,
Who, rising from the dead, brought back the keys of Hell and Death!

 

The Lord would return, "in flaming wrath they'll see," and He would punish "man's iniquity." The age might be new and threatening, but the old-time evangelical solution was the same: "Let hydrogenic bombs be piled as high as Everest's wrack," Long wrote in his hymn. "They'll be the jest of Jesus Christ, when Jesus Christ comes back!"

The years when Long painted his scenes of Revelation saw other Southern visionary artists turn also to the last book of the Bible for inspiration in understanding the terrible nuclear threat that imperiled humanity. Harrison Mayes, a coal miner form Middleboro, Kentucky, made massive concrete signs (some 2000 pounds) in the 1950s and 1960s, most of them saying, "Jesus Is Coming Soon" or "Get Right with God." In the mid-1950s, Sister Gertrude Morgan received a divine revelation in New Orleans and started dressing completely in white as a bride of Christ. She began to paint for the first time, believing that God moved her hands to evangelize the world through her paintings (fig. 19). She always painted biblical stories and scenes, but soon she concentrated on images from Revelation and her visualization of New Jerusalem, the utopian paradise that Revelation says will follow Christ's return. Howard Finster, the most renowned of visionary artists, painted works (fig. 20) which combined traditional biblical beasts, devils, and quotes from prophetic books with images of guided missiles, airplanes, naval vessels, and space ships -- all suggesting a specifically 1950s imagining of end times.

Reverend McKendree Robbins Long's paintings from the Revelation series show the stages of civilization's decline and its salvation through the fires of the Apocalypse. In his epic painting Apocalyptic Scene with Philosophers and Historical Figures, Long depicts Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini in the lake of fire and brimstone, while Descartes, Darwin, and Einstein observe (fig. 21). Few images could better represent the terrors, and perhaps some hopes, of the twentieth century that Long had lived through. A Southerner reared on the post-Civil War memory of the Civil War, he had lived through dramatic changes, which had drawn the South into a global nexus. He still found comfort, though, in dwelling in the word of the Lord as he knew it. The Apocalypse portended doom for the wicked, but it would be followed by paradise for the righteous (fig. 22). All of his considerable artistic talent and religious passion went into imagining glory that would redeem the faithful.

 

Notes

For background on the twentieth-century South, see Pete Daniel, Standing at the Crossroads: Southern Life in the Twentieth Century (New York, 1986); and Dewey Grantham, The South in Modern America (New York, 1994). For evangelicalism and fundamentalism, see George M. Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1991); and Joel A. Carpenter, "Evangelical Protestantism" and Donald G. Mathews, "Evangelicalism," in Encyclopedia of Religion in the South, ed. Samuel S. Hill (Macon, Georgia, 1984). For background on millennialism in the twentieth century, see Paul Boyer, When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1992). For background on the South's visionary artists, see Roger Manley, Signs and Wonders: Outsider Art Inside North Carolina, North Carolina Museum of Art, (Raleigh, 1989); Tom Patterson, Southern Visionary Folk Artists (Winston-Salem, 1984); University Art Museum, University of Southwestern Louisiana, Baking in the Sun: Visionary Images from the South; and Alice Rae Yellin, Passionate Visions of the American South: Self-Taught Artists from 1940 to the Present (Jackson, 1993). The primary sources consulted for Long's work include: Long's "Sermon on St. Peter," c. 1950, recorded at Troutman's Radio Service, Statesville, North Carolina; handwritten notes by Long's daughter, Caroline Avery; programs from exhibitions of Long's paintings; revival flyers and church programs from Long's revivals; the text of thousands of hymns Long wrote; accounts of Long's revivals and exhibitions in the Charlotte Observer; excerpts from Long's journal, especially dated entries for November 8, December 8, December 17, 1930, and January 7 and February 17, 1931; and hand-drawn illustrations entitled "Bible Notes. Revelation," with an outline of dispensational epochs.

 

About the Author

Charles Reagan Wilson is Director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, Oxford, Mississippi.

 

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