JSR Critical Conversation: Lynching and Religion

Emily Suzanne Clark

Over at the Journal of Southern Religion we have decided to launch a new type of publication that Doug Thompson and I are calling "Critical Conversations." It's our attempt to merge the flexibility of an online journal with the timeliness of a blog. It's something that Doug has been wanting to do since coming onboard the journal staff. At last year's AAR, Doug, Ed Blum, and I talked about how much we love Donald Mathews's 2000 JSR article "The Southern Rite of Human Sacrifice." In that article Mathews wrote about lynching and southern religion and discussed the meaning of the ritual for both white Christians and black Christians. The article was truly ahead of its time and remains incredibly relevant today. When #Charlestonsyllabus starting trending on Twitter a few weeks ago, several people mentioned "The Southern Rite of Human Sacrifice," including myself and Doug as well as Anthea Butler. (But we all know that Prof B's tweet make bigger waves than mine or Doug's.)

Over the next few weeks, new reflections will be added to this Critical Conversation on the 15th anniversary of Mathews's article. Currently up on the website is Ed Blum's introduction and Amy Louise Wood's reflection. We're grateful to Ed for editing this collection for us. In his introduction, he shows how incredibly timely this conversation is. As the author of the award-winning Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940, Wood's piece identifies Mathews's article as an important "revelation" she encountered while writing her dissertation. She then takes us through the article and why she has found it both helpful and problematic. The entire conversation is being published in Volume 17, which is our first rolling release issue.

We can extend the conversation here too. I'm sure "The Southern Rite of Human Sacrifice" has been influential far beyond the participants of the conversation at jsreligion.org. In my own work on race and politics in 19th-century Afro-creole Spiritualism, white violence plays an important role. New Orleans was no stranger to white terror and post-Civil War events clearly prove this. In the 1866 Mechanics' Institute Riot (more properly identified as a massacre) a white mob attacked a group of black Republican delegates and killed nearly 40. After 1874's so-called Battle of Liberty Place the White League temporarily took over the city and imposed their own government. The spirit guides of the Afro-creole Spiritualists I study responded in kind to both these events. The self-proclaimed martyrs of the Mechanics' Institute Riot frequently appeared and validated their deaths as important steps for black rights. And Saint Vincent de Paul offered assurance during that temporarily White League rule. As in Mathews's powerful writing, both white and black responses to Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era matter and need to be part of the story. After the Battle of Liberty Place, the White League installed Confederate Colonel D.B. Penn as state governor, and he asked all assembled to go to church and thank God for their victory. That next day, the spirit of a former Confederate soldier appeared to the Afro-creole Spiritualists and he confessed that he was crying in the spirit world for his past offenses. He admitted that he was wrong to protect "the proud oligarchy of race."

White supremacy is an important part of southern religion, but Confederate flags are only part of the story. Southern religion includes black experiences, multiple understandings of what constitutes the sacred, the practices of Christians, Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, and more. In his lynching article Mathews helped us see beyond the Lost Cause, and the JSR continues that scholarly trajectory today.


Curtis Evans at: July 25, 2015 at 8:18 AM said...

Glad to see this attention to Matthews's work. I have spent a great deal of time pondering its implications as I have revisited the topic of lynching in a chapter of my current project. I would also add that Matthews's older "Religion in the South" is still worth rereading and visiting again and again. In my opinion, it is one of the most profound reflections on Southern religious history up to the Civil War.
As to lynching, I have assigned (for my Race and Religion in 20th Century America) Matthew's "Lynching is Part of the Religion of our People" alongside the first few chapters of Amy Wood's Lynching and Spectacle. My students also read Du Bois's "Litany of Atlanta," along with other texts. These are difficult topics, but they have always provoked good discussions. So I am glad to see attention to this important and yet troubling aspect of Southern (and national) history.

Tom Van Dyke at: July 25, 2015 at 5:42 PM said...

Are there any scholarly demurrals from Mathews's essay


and argument? Absent any direct quotes from anyone actually involved or approving of lynchings, or any direct link to the Christian religion, passive voice constructions such as this found in the penultimate paragraph

That the religion of those who lynched black men through public acts of ritualized punishment exalted an engine of torture as a symbol of their faith suggested this line of inquiry.

lack necessary rigor as either history or theology.

I suppose "religion" could be used as an umbrella term for something, but it's of limited utility.


Gavin Campbell at: July 26, 2015 at 3:37 AM said...
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Gavin Campbell at: July 26, 2015 at 8:01 AM said...

Full disclosure: Don Mathews was my graduate advisor some 15 years ago.

Claiming that Mathews' essay lacks "necessary rigor as either history or theology" is a wild overstatement. One may agree or disagree with the conclusions, or have an ambivalent response, but to simply dismiss the essay suggests a timidity at engaging what the essay says, and the deeper structures of belief and ritual Mathews urges us to contemplate. Certainly there are "demurrals" from the essay, as there are from any scholarship, and I'm sure Mathews welcomes them. But a "demurral" that merely rejects the essay as sloppy scholarship is neither helpful nor illuminating.

Tom Van Dyke at: July 26, 2015 at 1:15 PM said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom Van Dyke at: July 26, 2015 at 10:04 PM said...

But a "demurral" that merely rejects the essay as sloppy scholarship is neither helpful nor illuminating.

Thx for your reply but that's unfair: I gave my reasons. Further, my objections are formal. The thesis that lynching accused black rapists was some how "religious" is what we're questioning here.

Mr. Mathews's essay contains no direct quotes from either the lynchers or from the Christian religion. Correlation isn't cause.

All these crackers were Christians, however, everyone involved from head to toe was putatively Christian. Mine is a formal objection that Dr. Mathews made an allegation but didn't prove or even argue that

[Christian] religion > therefore > lynching. The thesis is boldly stated

The Southern Rite of Human Sacrifice

and locutions and premises such as

That the religion of those who lynched black men through public acts of ritualized punishment exalted an engine of torture as a symbol of their faith suggested this line of inquiry.

should first be questioned before they're granted as self-evident.

With all due respect, if you know how to parse a passive voice sentence, that "the religion of those who lynched black men" suggested any line of inquiry to anyone is pure nonsense.

NB: These objections are formal.

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