A New York Yankee in Savannah's Church Courts: Adele Oltman's Sacred Mission, Worldly Ambition

On this Martin Luther King long weekend, I'm delighted to guest post this entry today from Adele Oltman, the author of one of my favorite works in African American religious history of recent years: Sacred Mission, Worldly Ambition: Black Christian Nationalism in the Age of Jim Crow, published by University of Georgia Press. This work is just out now in paperback, ready for use in your courses!

Oltman's work is revisionist in the best sense, using close research in local church records to compel a rethinking of how we conceptualize a topic in religious history. In the post below, Adele takes off from John Turner's reflections a few days ago on whether scholars should "show their cards" in terms of their personal religious beliefs/backgrounds, using this to reflect on her own unexpectedly rewarding experience as an "outsider" researching in Savannah, Georgia.

Jeff Sharlet usefully summarized Adele's work when it first appeared, in his list of best books for 2008:

Adele Oltman’s Sacred Mission, Wordly Ambition: Black Christian Nationalism in the Age of Jim Crow  (University of Georgia) blooms from a careful, revelatory reconstruction of the spiritual and economic lives of black Baptists in Savannah, Georgia into a critical mediation on the competing philosophies of late nineteenth-century black nationalism that upends the simplistic notions of accommodation and resistance through which Jim Crow-era black leadership is often described. Her impressive range of sources—including church records that were nearly destroyed in a fire—support a compelling analysis of how the sacred and secular intertwined to create a foundation from which African Americans claimed citizenship rights. But Oltman provocatively rejects the notion of a continuous line of influence from the churches she studies to those that animated the American Civil Rights Movement a half-century later. The authority of the former had to give way, she argues, before the movement could flourish.

by Adele Oltman

 After reading John G. Turner’s post (1/13), in which he quotes David Hollinger and Elizabeth Clark about whether to reveal one’s faith claim in a preface, I was reminded about the centrality of my own religious orientation when I was trying to gain access to sources for my dissertation back in the 1990s (Sacred Mission, Worldly Ambition: Black Christian Nationalism in the Age of Jim Crow). My plan was to write a community study of black Baptists before the civil rights movement. I was searching for a “black theology” (having learned about liberation theology on trips to Central America during the civil war years). In preparation for my research I took courses at the Union Theological Seminary, up the street from my university -- where I was in the History Department. When I told my professors at Seminary about my research plan, which involved knocking on church doors and asking pastors if I could see their records, they dismissed it, saying that black churches didn’t save records, and even if they had, they’d never give me – an “outsider” – a look at them.   

I had a lot of chutzpah, and I decided to try anyway. I ended up in Savannah, Georgia, knocking on church doors. And when I was asked where I was from and what my faith claims were, I told them: New York City and that I was a “secular Jew.” Already I was an outsider on three counts (including skin color). It turned out that many of the churches did have records, and I was precisely the kind of outsider they were willing to show their records to (eg, a Yankee and not a Protestant). Skin color turned out not to be an issue. This experience tells us a great deal about the machinery of public memory in the minds of people in the North and the South.

Researching black Baptist theology and life from so close to the ground uncovered all kinds of things, not much of it resembling the liberation theology I had set out to find. I came across records of church disciplinary hearings (for a range transgressions including “fornication,” moonshine distilling, backsliding, being a drunkard, attending Daddy Grace’s tent services, and for behaving in any manner “unbecoming to Christians”). I also discovered that black Baptists went to the white authorities to settle various church disputes. These same people could not vote.

Church discipline and a dogged determination to achieve church orthodoxy represented black southerners’ ventures into – and reactions against -- the realm of post-Enlightenment “modernity,” where reason (supposedly) replaces faith and sharper spatial distinctions separate the public from private in all areas of life. In their appeals to local white civil authorities to settle church disputes, emerging black middle class Christians were in fact promoting new forms of rationality that involved the removal from the public realm all appeals to emotion and desire that were associated with the popular classes. They envisaged a rationalized public space. 

DuBois wrote about black churches in the postbellum era operating like local governments, fulfilling sacred and secular roles in a world in which black people were excluded. Appealing to white authorities in civil government thus represented a step toward secularization.  By secularization I mean (in the sense that Mark Lilla writes) a separation between church and civil society, a process of laicization, where the courts move away from the churches and from enforcing biblical injunction to consider civil law that is passed by a secular legislature and judiciary. In a context of a rapidly urbanizing South these struggles represent encounters with modernity.

Disciplinary hearings and insistence on theological orthodoxy would have seemed quaint, if not unbelievable, to those activists who sat in the pews singing freedom songs during the civil rights movement. This unintentional engagement with the idea of a “long civil rights movement,” revealed structural changes that needed to occur before black churches could become the “local movement centers” that Aldon Morris wrote about.

While Turner’s point is whether the author should include religious orientation in her preface, which I didn’t; I did reveal something about my expectations and even desires, so simpatico with the black freedom struggle. The story is a cautionary tale, reminding us what we all learned in History 101 about a priori interpretations and even forcing them to comply with the empirical record if necessary.