It's In the Blood: Religion in Reconstruction and WW I

by Ed Blum

I live exactly 0.92 miles from the beach. I know this is the precise distance because my dumb running watch always tells me how far I’ve gone and how slow I am (how can I be at 10 minutes already?!?). Recently, as I labor up and down the boardwalk of Pacific Beach, I’ve been listening to the sly lyrics and driving rhythms of AFI, an alternative band that was the hit of 2006. My favorite is “Love Like Winter.” It pulsates through my eardrums as I bop along the beachfront. It’s a fun song, and I won’t even try to explain the lyrics (“For of sugar and ice I am made, I am made” … perhaps the narrator is suggesting that he is a snow cone). It’s the repetition of one line that grabs me: “It’s in the blood, it’s in the blood, … She wanted love, I taste blood.”

For some reason, these lines have led me over and over to reflect upon two new books in American religious history: Derek Chang’s Citizens of a Christian Nation: Evangelical Missions and the Problem of Race in the Nineteenth Century and Jonathan H. Ebel’s Faith in the Fight: Religion and the American Soldier in the Great War. Both books deal with blood – but in very different ways. Chang examines missions among African Americans and Chinese Americans in the years after the Civil War and finds that religion had much to say about notions of what’s “in the blood.” Ebel joins American soldiers on the battlefields of the Great War and looks at how they religiously responded to the blood soaked worlds around them. Both books continue to demonstrate how religious history is leading the way in revisions of American history writ large.

Chang’s work takes us into the world of Baptist home missions on the East and West coasts of the late nineteenth century. He details the efforts and ideologies of the American Baptist Home Mission Society (ABHMS) as they reached out to newly freed African Americans in North Carolina and Chinese Americans in Oregon. Chang suggests that white missionaries and supporters of missions linked faith and citizenship in a concept of “evangelical nationalism” where an American identity was built upon Protestant (or perhaps Christian) faith. Underneath this seemingly-open nationalism, however, were assumptions about “evangelical” and “American” that were rooted in race and class. If African Americans or Chinese Americans were to become members of the nation, then they must conform to certain white demands. They must express adoration for white guidance, embrace the norms of middle-class domesticity, and accept some form of second-class citizenship because of their alleged racial differences and inferiorities to whites.

Chang also narrates a counter story, where African Americans and Chinese Americans recast and re-envision their place in the nation. African Americans pushed for their own models of leadership and for control over their institutions. Chinese Americans, and particularly several Chinese Christian missionaries, expressed confidence and authority. As communities, African American and Chinese American Christians enacted their place in the nation by occupying space and performed their spirituality through community songs and events. Perhaps heavy in ideas and light in evidence, Chang’s Citizens of a Christian Nation is a critically important book in American religious history and Reconstruction studies. First, he follows the lead of Daniel Stowell (to whom all scholars of religion and Reconstruction are indebted) in drawing more attention to the important place of faith, churches, and spirituality in the dilemmas and difficulties of Reconstruction. Second, Chang connects East to West via the ABHMS and points American historians to the importance of remembering the West (as Heather Cox Richardson has done in West from Appomattox for Reconstruction and as Tisa Wenger has done in We Have a Religion for religion; click the link for our interview with Wenger about her book).

Ebel brings us into the twentieth century and onto the bloody battlefields of WWI. He examines religion in WWI from the perspective of the soldiers and those who supported them. Ebel wants to understand (and to help us understand) how soldiers understand war. He finds that while American combat troops and war workers differed slightly in their approaches to the war, most found “redemption” in it. He brilliantly points out that “redemption” could have many different meanings. We know this is the case from Reconstruction – where redemption meant to southern white Democrats the return of their political and social rule; for African Americans, which John Giggie has detailed majestically in his pathbreaking After Redemption, “redemption” meant something very different in the late nineteenth century). For some in WWI, the war would mean worldwide redemption as God’s forces of good would defeat the demonic Kaiser and Crown prince. Or the war could bring national redemption. It could alleviate the conflict caused by massive immigration, for instance. Or for others, the war would redeem middle class and upper class men from the debilitating effects of overcivilization. Redemption could also function at the individual level, leading men to find “Truth” amid the war.

With a dizzying array of interesting points, Ebel provides a list of new avenues of study. In one chapter, he focuses upon the religious responses to the war by African American soldiers. In another, Ebel looks at the ways women understood the war spiritually. I thought the most interesting discussion in Faith in the Fight was the debate at the time over whether combat soldiers earned salvation merely by dying in battle. A “doctrine of immediate salvation for the fallen” emerged in the war, one that clearly revised evangelical approaches to salvation where faith in Christ was somehow necessary. Those interested in theology will find plenty of bloody meat here. Ebel efforts to determine the ways soldiers made theological sense of war, how they connected to liberal and fundamentalist theological trends, and how race and gender influenced religious worldviews. Faith in the Fight is an impressive book that all scholars of twentieth-century American religious history should read and that should be incorporated in all subsequent studies of WWI. (I’ve already used material from it for a few paragraphs in my current projects!)

The wheels of the American religious history bus keep rolling. Whether in Reconstruction or in WWI, Chang and Ebel show that religion can open our eyes to what’s “in the blood.”


Anonymous said…
And I wanted one more point to this post. Ebel's work adds to new-ish scholarship on religion and war, especially Steven Woodworth's terrific _While God is Marching On: The Religious World of Civil War Soldiers_ and Harry Stout's _Upon the Altar of the Nation_. Recently, Stout has called for more work on religion and war in “Religion War, and the Meaning of America,” Religion and American Culture, 19 (Summer 2009), 275-290.
Randall said…
Ed: Thanks for this post. I got Chang's book in the mail recently. Looking forward to reading it. Ebel's sounds very intriguing.

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