Loading ...
Sorry, an error occurred while loading the content.

Schweiger on Stowell, _Rebuilding Zion_

Expand Messages
  • H-Net Reviews
    fyi--aj wright ... H-NET BOOK REVIEW Published by H-AmRel@h-net.msu.edu (February, 1999) Daniel W. Stowell. _Rebuilding Zion: The Religious Reconstruction of
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 30, 1999
      fyi--aj wright

      ----------------------------Original message----------------------------
      Published by H-AmRel@... (February, 1999)

      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
      his book.[1]

      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. [2] 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.[3]

      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.[4]

      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.


      [1]. Eric Foner, _Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution_,
      (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1988).

      [2]. 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).

      [3]. Richard J. Carwardine, _Evangelicals and Politics in Antebellum
      America_, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993).

      [4]. Frederick A. Bode, _Protestantism and the New South: North
      Carolina Baptists and Methodists in Political Crisis_
      (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1975).

      Copyright (c) 1999 by H-Net, all rights reserved. This work
      may be copied for non-profit educational use if proper credit
      is given to the author and the list. For other permission,
      please contact h-net@....
    Your message has been successfully submitted and would be delivered to recipients shortly.