Apocalypse and the Millennium in the American Civil War Era: An Interview with the Editors

Paul Putz

On March 23, 2010, Paul Harvey posted a call for papers on this very blog for a conference at Rice University on "Millennialism and Providentialism in the Era of the American Civil War." The papers presented at the conference that October formed the basis for an anthology titled Apocalypse and the Millennium in the American Civil War Eraset to be published this November by LSU Press.

I'd imagine that this collection will be of great interest to many RiAH readers. The roster of contributors is fantastic (names below), and not just because it includes the ubiquitous Ed Blum. There are a wide range of subjects through which the themes of apocalypse and millennium are analyzed, ranging from African American Baptists to Spiritualists to James Fenimore Cooper's The Crater to the aftermath of the U.S.-Dakota War.  As Mark Noll writes in the foreword, the essays are especially helpful in illustrating "the wide scope of providential belief and the great diversity in applying that belief," during the Civil War Era. According to Noll, this is a work that both benefits from the recent surge in religious studies of the Civil War and also "propels that advance with its own substantial contribution." 

In case Noll's endorsement and the mere presence of Blum do not convince you to check out the volume, I asked the editors (Ben Wright and Zach Dresser) to briefly discuss the book. Both Wright and Dresser were doctoral students at Rice when they organized the project. Dresser received his PhD earlier this year, and is now a visiting assistant professor at Virginia Tech. Wright is wrapping up his dissertation this fall, but not before he ensures that his CV makes all other graduate student CVs wholly inadequate in comparison. More on that below.

Can you discuss how the idea for this anthology developed?

BW: In the spring of 2009, Vernon Burton came to Rice to give a talk on The Age of Lincoln, his outstanding synthesis of the nineteenth century.  When I read The Age of Lincoln I noticed how millennialism kept popping up.  In fact, nearly every cultural history of the Civil War era kept emphasizing millennialism or at least providential thought, but for different reasons and in different ways. Mark Noll illustrates how the theological crisis of the Civil War accelerated millennial anxieties. Harry Stout tracks the way that millennialism imbued clergymen with violent bloodlust, accelerating the unthinking decision toward total war. Chandra Manning unfolds the abolitionist millennialism of the Union army, and Vernon Burton found millennialism as a core component of postwar Christian nationalism.  Millennialism is all over the historiography, but it’s doing all of these different things.

I naively knew that this idea was important but I was frustrated at the seeming disparity of these interpretations.  I discussed this with Vernon and he encouraged me to keep digging, in fact, he suggested that I just found a dissertation topic.  Well, I already had one of those—I work on religion and antislavery prior to 1830—but I did want to explore this further.  So I decided to outsource it to other scholars by putting on a conference.  I clearly needed help, and Zach was the obvious choice.  A far more rigorous intellectual historian than I, Zach was essential from the very beginning.

ZD: When we started planning the initial conference, I had been thinking about religion in the Civil War era for a few years and was beginning to formulate a dissertation on that broad topic.  James Moorhead’s early work demonstrated the centrality of this apocalyptic eschatology in the northern clerical interpretation of the war, but no one had followed up to see how deep this interpretation of God’s place in the sectional conflict ran.  It also made sense to include providentialism as a related theme. To understand nineteenth-century visions of how God works in special human events, we also have to track how people interpreted God’s presence in the everyday.  As it turned out, this mix of providential and millennial thought and action created a very good conference, which made the decision to work on an edited volume very easy.

We also had a great community of Civil War era and American religion experts at Rice to help us in organizing the conference.  It’s impossible to overstate how important a supportive department was for getting this project off the ground.

What are the primary contributions this collection makes to the study of religion in the Civil War?

ZD: I think the central argument of this volume dovetails with what scholars of American religious history are saying across the board: religion matters deeply. It’s not epiphenomenal. Especially in the nineteenth century, much of what people did had religious underpinnings, both actions and ideas included.  The volume also advances one of my projects, which is the related assertion that theology matters, too.  Theology isn’t just the work of cloistered seminarians debating arcane matters of doctrine. Average pastors and parishioners have theologies, and people create those ideas in dialogue with the world around them.  This volume shows the power of one set of theological concepts in shaping people’s engagement with the world around them.

BW: The volume centers around three essential questions, all of which have their own interesting historiographies. Essays by Ryan Cordell, Robert Nelson, Nina Reid Maroney, and Joseph Moore explore the role of millennial thought in shaping American reform movements (or in Nina’s case, antislavery in Canada).  Zach and Jennifer Graber evaluate the religious impact of violence and defeat, and finally Charles Irons, Scott Nesbit, and Matt Harper analyze the religious continuities and change wrought by emancipation.  Each of these essays makes a powerful contribution, but I’ll highlight the first and last chapters: Jason Phillips opens with a boldly innovative methodology. He proposes that historians study expectations of future, or cultural prophecy as he calls it here, as a corollary to the study of historical memory. Ed Blum concludes the volume with a sweeping synthesis of postbellum America, tracking crises in providential confidence among freedpeople, Native Americans, Mormons, dispensationalists, trade unionists, and more. If our volume succeeds, scholars of the Civil War will no longer be able to write histories that dismiss religion, and scholars of religion will come to understand the mid nineteenth century as a moment of unrivaled change.

You and Zach were both graduate students when you put this volume together. What effect, if any, did that have on the process of getting it published?

BW: It seems like you are asking the same thing I’ve heard from many friends and colleagues: “how the heck did you pull this off as a graduate student?!” We have to begin by admitting that we had a tremendous amount of help.  As Zach mentioned, we cannot overstate how important it was to have a supportive department. Caleb McDaniel was an important encouragement, and advanced graduate students including and especially Luke Harlow shaped the project from the start. Mike Parrish, the series editor for LSU, participated in the conference and immediately recognized the potential for a volume.

It seems to me that graduate students should have a special voice in the discipline. I’ve often heard it acknowledged that a historian will never know as much about their field as they do immediately following their comprehensive exams. I know that the subsequent years of dissertation research and writing has narrowed my focus. For all the narrow elitism in the profession, there does seem to be a functioning meritocracy in academic publishing, and anyone who has quality ideas, regardless of their status can and ought to participate. This might be an appropriate moment to mention that Rice graduate students are planning another conference and volume on the topic of race and nation in the Atlantic World. They are far more organized and connected with publishers than Zach and I were and have a website you can view at http://raceandnation.wordpress.com/.

What projects are you currently working on?

BW: My dissertation, which I am finishing this fall, centers the discussion of early American antislavery on shifting understandings of religious conversion.  I have an article drawn from that dissertation in a forthcoming anthology entitled Reconsiderations and Redirections in the Study of African Colonization (University Press of Florida). I’m also the co-editor of an online American history textbook that we are getting off the ground called The American Yawp that you can see at americanyawp.com (now soliciting contributors!).  I’m also creating a website for the NEH and Library Company of Philadelphia on the abolitionist movement that is aimed at K-12 teachers.

ZD: I just defended the dissertation in July, so I’m taking a break from that and working on an article I began in grad school. I’m analyzing Jefferson Davis’s religious life and looking into how religion factored into his political career.  After that I’ll get back to revising the dissertation, which is a study of white southern ministers in the Civil War and Reconstruction South.  My main contention there is that religious leaders created practical theologies designed to address the difficulties of defeat and Reconstruction. These theologies looked a lot like liberation theologies, in which the South appeared as the chosen, oppressed people of God and the North as the ungodly oppressor.  However, these messages weren’t just Lost Cause complaints; white ministers charted a path forward, offering their congregations hope.

**UPDATE: For more from Wright and Dresser on the book, check out this video interview posted at The Civil War Monitor. 


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