Religion and Reconstruction



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Religion in the Civil War and Reconstruction era has been the subject of a good number of important historiographical interventions, notably including Harry Stout's recent Upon the Altar of the Nation (the link takes you to Grant Wacker's review of the book in Christian Century) and Mark Noll's The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (the link goes to the substantial review in the Journal of Southern Religion; and a symposium featuring several lengthy reviews of this book, including my own, will be coming out in Fides et Historia soon -- based on a author-meets-critics session at the ASCH last January).

On Stout, Wacker concludes: Because Christians did much, and perhaps most, of the fighting, we might say that the volume also represents an inquiry into how Christians in particular ordered and disordered their moral lives during the Civil War. The short answer is that they lost their way. They rarely asked if their own interests were different from God's. If we judge them by their self-professed standards—which is the only fair way to judge—they failed themselves, their nation and their faith.

The war, naturally, tends to draw the attention, but I want to draw greater attention to the work on religion during the Reconstruction era.

The question remains, of course whether incorporating religion into the dominant political narratives changes the story, or merely adds a dash of salt. Beth Schweiger's thoughtful review of a pioneering work in this area, Daniel Stowell's Rebuilding Zion, begins this way:

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.

She concludes: 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.

Ed Blum has taken up that challenge in his now-standard Reforging the White Republic. That work has, quite properly, received its share of attention and awards, but I want to draw greater attention to a volume of essays that probably has not gotten as much attention: Vale of Tears: New Essays on Religion and Reconstruction -- the link goes to a review from H-NET.

The question remains, for Reconstruction as for many other topics, whether "serious attention will alter the story" in our books. That's the task for American religious historians of our generation. Where do you see the greatest challenges, or most hope, in the question of whether "serious attention will alter the story." Or is that too much to ask of one historical "variable," such as "religion," especially considering no one agrees on exactly what that term means? Random and perhaps not-very-deep thoughts.

2 comments:

Edward Blum at: October 8, 2007 at 1:07 PM said...

I haven't read it yet, but James Moorhead (whose amazing _American Apocalypse_ should still be read on these topics) reviewed Reforging the White Republic, Upon the Altar of the Nation, and The Civil War as a Theological Crisis for the Journal of Presbyterian History.

David at: October 8, 2007 at 3:29 PM said...

The West is one region of the country where scholars have struggled to incorporate religion into the narrative. Susan Johnson once noted that for gender to be significant to the West scholars needed to connect it with race. A similar observation is made in connection with religion by the editors of Race, Religion, Region: Landscapes of Encounter in the American West (2006). It seems that to make religion relevant to the wider narrative, whether in the West, South, etc., religious historians must connect it with wider issues.

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