Protestant Minister Kills Catholic Priest, but Where's the Religious History?

As promised a few posts ago, I'm delighted to introduce you to our new contributor, Janine Giordano, who introduces herself further below and provides some reflections on Sharon Davies' new book on race, religion, and a murder in Birmingham in 1921.

Greetings from Illinois! An advanced graduate student in the History Department at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, I'm excited to be a new contributor to the blog!

While I look forward to teaching 19th-20th century US Labor and Political History, Gender and Religion, World Religions, and bending the ear of anyone else who will talk with me about the past, I spend most of my time working on my dissertation,
Between Religion and Politics: The Working Class Religious Left, 1886-1936. My interest here is in how left-leaning working class Christians, especially the broad alliance of Christian Socialists during the height of the organized labor movement, navigated between churches and labor unions in their movement to critique the Christian foundations of unbridled capitalism. Though I rarely permit my historical subjects much room for hesitation, this is my usual response when asked if I, too, am a Christian Socialist. The movement has a deeply inspiring but terribly complicated history. Many of my thoughts these days consider the tenuous and moving boundaries between religious and political convictions, both within our Churches and within our political discourse. Thank you all for your welcome!

Protestant Minister Kills Catholic Priest, but where’s the Religious History?
by Janine Giordano

The summer of 1921 in Birmingham, Alabama, Ku Klux Klan member Edwin R. Stephenson shot and killed Father James Coyle, the Irish Catholic priest who had married his daughter earlier that day. Eighteen year old Ruth Stephenson had not only decided, months earlier, to convert to Catholicism, but she had without her parents’ permission married an older, Catholic man, who called himself Spanish and traced his heritage to Puerto Rico.

Stephenson’s lawyers, among them Hugo Black, the future Supreme Court justice, would successfully move the white, male, probably-all-Protestant Birmingham jury to acquit Stephenson from the crime of murder because he acted in self-defense. After all, argued Black, “A child of a Methodist does not suddenly depart from her religion unless someone has planted in her mind the seeds of influence!... There is such a thing as imprisonment of the human will by influence, vice and persuasion. When you find a girl who has been reared well, persuaded from her parents by some cause or person, that cause or person is wrong” (Davies 275). Father Coyle’s influence was considered vile enough to excuse Stephenson from shooting him while on his own front porch in the middle of the day.

What made Catholicism so compelling to Ruth Stephenson that she was willing to forsake her parents and secretly elope? What moved Edwin Stephenson to shoot Father Coyle rather than his unwelcome son-in-law, Pedro Gussman? Why would Stephenson refuse to admit on the witness stand that he hated Catholics? In Rising Road: A True Tale of Love, Race, and Religion in America, legal historian Sharon Davies’ dramatic retelling of the trial of Edwin Stephenson for murder, it was not just religious ideas that were so important to Ruth, and not just Catholicism that felt so threatening to Stephenson and the Birmingham justice system. Anti-Catholic propaganda had circulated widely in the years leading up to the trial, but unless it were in aggravated self-defense, it alone would not move the jury to acquit a man for murder. What would move these white male Birmingham jurors were the fears of miscegenation and the desire to “protect” young women from exercising the freedom to tarry on the borders of the color line.

Catholicism for Davies (and perhaps Edwin Stephenson) functioned as an identity rather than a conviction. Ruth’s conversion was a stand-in for Protestant rebelliousness in the early twentieth century South, not a well-weighed decision about who God is and what the Church ought to look like. This conflation of religion with power-laden categories of identity: either dominant or minority, hegemonic or subversive, is not uncommon among scholars of race and ethnicity, a field within which Davies readily identifies. However, Davies’ failure to explore the religious landscape of 1921 Birmingham renders her subtitle, A True Tale of Love, Race and Religion in America misleading and ultimately disappointing to scholars of twentieth century religion. To be fair, we will never know for sure what compelled Ruth to become Catholic, nor will we know why Edwin chose Coyle as his scapegoat for his daughter’s rebellion. Davies gleaned as much as she could from the court record. But for many of us, the version of this story buried in the court record is not the begging story that needs to be told.

It is now our responsibility to make sense of this murder in terms of the religious landscape of 1921 Birmingham. How aggressively did Catholics proselytize among Protestants in the late 1910s and early 1920s, and how common were conversions? How did Catholics’ understanding of race differ from those of Protestants, and would this have been a motivation in Ruth’s decision-making? What would Catholicism offer to an eighteen year old woman that Protestant Christianity did not? How would Father Coyle have understood the religious heresy of Edwin Stephenson? Davies’ fantastically crafted courtroom drama is a page-turning, provoking, stellar read fit for every reading list, for it reveals yet another example of the depth of white Protestant, male control of the legal system. The subtitle may be misleading, but if it weren’t for the subtitle, we might have missed a deeply interesting story.


Phil said…
Welcome, Janine! Look forward to continuing the conversation here at the blog and hearing more about your work.
Kristen said…
Congrats on the book review, Janine. I hope this is a good forum for your thoughts!
kp said…
I've often wondered myself why many academics are quick to treat religion not as a conviction but as an identity. Part of it that all things that can be claimed as "identity" have been trendy for years (actually, upwards of three decades now). But part of it also, I think, is that identity is almost always necessarily rooted primarily outside of oneself, something that we may be able to shape in small, subtle ways, but is mostly imposed upon us from the outside and then internalized. Conviction, on the other hand, has much more of an air of self-sufficiently considered and chosen opinions; it's a rather Romantic ideal of a person rising above society and independently selecting their own course. The (excessive?) preference for the former may to some extent lie in the hope of finding patterns across society; patterns in conviction are harder to work with b/c they are by definition (at least semi-)independent, whereas identity, while sometimes quite slippery, has its root in solid contextualizing evidence. But part of me is also convinced that the preference for the former has its roots in the increasing inability of academics in the humanities to control their own fate. Feeling increasing pressure to conform and be limited within their own identity-forming contexts of the academy (no, my above naming an at least thirty year old pattern as supposedly "trendy" was not an accident), they have a hard time imagining anything else for any of the human subjects that they study.
Kelly Baker said…
Janine, thanks for the note about the book. I'll add it to my long list of summer reading. How interesting that this story is often left out of Klan histories too. I'll have to include this in my ms.