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Daniel W. Stowell. _Rebuilding Zion: The Religious Reconstruction
of the South, 1863-1877_. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Viii + 278 pp. Tables, notes, bibliography, and index. $64.00
(cloth), ISBN 0-190510194-4.
Reviewed for H-Amrel by Beth Barton Schweiger, Richmond, Virginia
Reconstruction: The Unfinished Story of a Revolution
At the 1998 meeting of the Southern Historical Association, a
distinguished panel of historians considered Eric Foner's
_Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution_ on the tenth
anniversary of its publication. Responding to commentator Ivar
Bernstein's charge that his book ignored religion, Foner replied
that while religion was a critical part of mid-nineteenth-century
American life--Democrat and Republican, Yank and Reb--he did not
think that serious attention to the subject would alter the story in
Daniel W. Stowell's _Rebuilding Zion_ was 'Exhibit A' in Bernstein's
case against Foner. The first contemporary study devoted entirely
to religion in this troubled period in the South, Stowell's careful
institutional history of Protestant churches does not in the end
compel this reader to disagree with Foner. But this book does
suggest that a mature scholarship of religion for this period-one
built of social, cultural, political, and theological history on
Stowell's institutional foundation-can recast our understanding of
this turbulent era.
"Religious reconstruction" Stowell writes, was "the process by which
southern and northern, black and white Christians rebuilt the
spiritual life of the South" after the war (p. 7). He tells a
straightforward tale of three groups-white northern Christians,
white southern Christians, and black Christians, north and south.
Each of these groups (Stowell equates "Christian" with
"evangelical") interpreted the war differently as God's providence,
and it was the "competition among these three visions that
determined the shape of religious reconstruction in the South" (p.
Not surprisingly, white southerners viewed defeat as God's
chastening of his beloved children, while white northerners viewed
it as God's final judgment on slavery. Black people, northern and
southern, agreed that the South's defeat marked God's judgment, but
they understandably focused on it as a providential deliverance from
slavery. The process of religious reconstruction thus entailed
three different tasks: white southerners defiantly rebuilt
denominations dedicated to sectionalism, while white northerners
undertook "mission" work in the South in the quixotic hope that
former Confederates would see the error of their ways.
African-Americans, north and south, meanwhile achieved stunning
success in building their own churches and denominations across the
Stowell has written a solid history of religious institutions from
religious sources that can stand alone. But if religious history is
to challenge the literature of American history, it must engage it.
The institutional story that Stowell pursues is most easily plotted
against the "public" political and economic story that has dominated
histories of Reconstruction until very recently.  In the end,
Stowell finds that the contours of religious reconstruction
conformed to those set out in post-revisionist studies. And as
post-revisionists declared the failure of political and economic
reform, Stowell declares that religious reconstruction failed. It
did so, he argues, because "evangelicals did not forge bonds of
gender, class, or denomination that transcended the cleavages of
race and region" (p. 8).
This assessment deserves careful analysis. Stowell defines
"religious reconstruction" as a process of rebuilding southern
"spiritual life." Yet he argues that its failure can be measured in
institutional terms: the antebellum denominational schisms
prevailed. But by whose standards did religious reconstruction
fail? Surely not by those of African-Americans, whose churches and
denominations could hardly be judged an inferior alternative to
integrated ones. White southerners, meanwhile, disdained the very
idea of reunion with their northern "brethren." Moreover, what
would the country have gained from united white Methodists,
Presbyterians, and Baptists? Stowell implies that denominational
unity could somehow have blunted sectionalism and perhaps even race
prejudice. Yet even northern denominations were eager to segregate.
Here Stowell runs square into the dilemma that all historians of
Reconstruction--Dunning school, revisionists, and
post-revisionists--have faced: how do we decide what these people
were capable of? More crassly, what shall we blame them for? How
does one read this era without retreating into some crude
determinism that concedes that political, social, and religious
equality across racial lines, on any terms, was doomed in 1865? By
terming religious reconstruction a failure, Stowell implies that
there may have been a moment of unfulfilled possibility in which
northerners and southerners could have worked together in biracial
churches, but that is not clear.
More troubling, however is the suspicion that religious
reconstruction simply did not matter. Stowell asserts that
"religious reconstruction profoundly affected the lives of
individual Christians," (p. 184), but it appeared to have most
profoundly affected those who led the institutional churches. And
why do all of these church assemblies and associations matter, apart
from their obvious relevance to an ambitious clergy partial to
bureaucracy? Stowell valiantly weaves several individuals into his
story of these assemblies, but in the end, they get lost. By
contrast, Foner's story is compelling because he made his readers
care deeply about his protagonists-former slaves and free blacks.
Stowell's protagonists are denominational bureaucracies, and here he
encounters the perennial problem of denominational history: the
passionate and persistent people devoted to building religious
institutions are often muffled, if not choked off completely, by the
lifeless pens of recording secretaries.
Perhaps Foner was right, then: Reconstruction was a secular event;
politics was cause, religion was effect. Even Stowell appears to
grant this at one point, noting that sectional fervor determined the
failure of denominational reunions north and south (p. 161).
Elsewhere in his book, however, Stowell offers some pithy evidence
to the contrary. Most compelling are the voices of people across
the country who repeatedly declared that religion shaped politics.
In the fall of 1865, the _New York Times_ impatiently awaited the
Northern churches to declare their policy towards the South, "for
its political as well as its religious" consequences. No "political
scheme or policy for sectional concord can prosper" without peace
between the churches, the _Times_ explained. (pp. 53-4). "The
Negro votes the Bible," AME minister and editor Benjamin Tanner
declared in 1870 (p. 150). People on all sides seasoned their
political speech with religious metaphors, most famously in southern
conservatives' insistence that the end of Republican rule be called
"Redemption." And what of the starkly political intent of northern
"missionaries" to a heavily Christian south, whose "mission" was to
convert baptized men and women to right denominational policy, which
they declared to be "pure religion"? All of this suggests that the
tangled relation between antebellum religion and politics explored
by Richard Carwardine continued through the Civil War and beyond.
Equally insistent were those who declared that politics had no place
in either pew or pulpit, that a pure religion refused to stain
itself with partisanship. Many of these were white southerners,
though not all: the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, for
example, declared that religion should be free of any political
motives and was blasted by other black clergymen for doing so. All
three of the groups Stowell examines repeatedly staked an exclusive
claim to "pure religion," making it one of the most politically
loaded terms of the day. A Unionist Methodist pastor and editor
declared his allegiance to religious patriotism and his disdain for
politics in the pulpit in the same breath (p. 158). Even more
intriguing were declarations from politicians themselves. As
Frederick Bode has demonstrated in North Carolina, southern
politicians often insisted that pure religion had no part in
politics precisely because they did not want preachers telling them
what to do. And silence--most famously the notorious silence, which
Stowell reaffirms, of the public church on racial violence--is
manifestly political. If historians have long recognized that
southern denials and southern silences were overtly political, they
have not fully investigated their meaning.
In _Rebuilding Zion_, Daniel Stowell has written the first of what
one hopes will be many fine studies on this subject. Scholars have
long taken for granted the agency of religion in the Second
Reconstruction; it is time that they carefully considered its place
in the first.
. Eric Foner, _Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution_,
(New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1988).
. Laura F. Edwards, _Gendered Strife and Confusion: The Political
Culture of Reconstruction_, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press,
1997); Peter W. Bardaglio, Reconstructing the Household: Families,
Sex, and the Law in the Nineteenth-Century South (Chapel Hill:
University of North Carolina Press, 1995).
. Richard J. Carwardine, _Evangelicals and Politics in Antebellum
America_, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993).
. Frederick A. Bode, _Protestantism and the New South: North
Carolina Baptists and Methodists in Political Crisis_
(Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1975).
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