Matthew Harper is Assistant Professor of History and Africana Studies at Mercer University. This interview is based on his new book, The End of Days: African American Religion and Politics in the Age of Emancipation (University of North Carolina Press, 2016).
JF: What led you to write The End of Days?
MH: I was researching something else, what probably would have been an uninspired account of black institution building in the post-emancipation period, when I kept running across black writers’ references to the millennium or the end of days. Each time, I would make a note and tuck it away in a separate file. The small file kept growing, until eventually, it was bigger than my main file. I threw out the first project. And the more I dug into black political conversations after emancipation, the more I found talk of the end times, of God’s unfolding plan for human history. I couldn’t ignore it. I became fascinated with the experience of emancipation as a dramatic intervention by God. How did slaves imagine a social order drastically different from their own? How did they make sense of multiple reversals of fortunes in their own lifetime?
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The End of Days?
MH: Black Christians prophesied emancipation and when it occurred they became convinced they were living in the end of days when God would inaugurate a new era. In the following decades, when black southerners debated politics—be it a question of voting rights, land reform, temperance, Populism, migration, or segregation—they argued about what exactly they thought God had done and would do in human history; so we’d be hard-pressed to understand their politics without also understanding the theological meaning they gave emancipation.
JF: Why do we need to read The End of Days?
MH: In the political conversations I describe in the book, we see a lot of disagreement. Fist-fighting even, in one case. Black Christians argued about the meaning of emancipation, deployed competing biblical narratives to make sense of their circumstances, and chose quite different paths. I think it’s tempting to look at the sources, to see lots of references to biblical stories, and then to argue simply that religion helped inspire black political activism. We end up with monolithic descriptions of “the Black Church.” But if we do that, we skate right past what I argue is most interesting about religion and politics: that different religious ideas led to different political strategies.
It’s also tempting to narrate the decades after emancipation as a long descent into the dark night of Jim Crow. But the people in my book resisted that kind of declension narrative. For them, God’s work in emancipation overshadowed the work of white supremacists. Even in the 1890s, they lived in the Age of Emancipation, and I hope we can tell a story that they would recognize.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
MH: Strange as it may sound, I took a historiography class in high school, which cemented my desire to become a historian. But if you ask my mother, she’ll tell you that I was checking out African American history books from the library when I was 8. I was always curious about people. Growing up in small southern towns where schools were integrated and churches weren’t, I had plenty curiosity about religion and race. Reading stories about people and places were they only way I could get at the complexity of what I saw.
JF: What is your next project?
MH: It’s too early to give a precise answer, but I’m investigating the Baptist War in Jamaica in 1831. I’m still asking the question, how did slaves imagine a world radically different from their own? And there’s nothing more intriguing about the relationship between religion and politics to me than a black Baptist deacon leading an uprising of tens of thousands of slaves while the British Parliament debated abolition.
JF: Thanks, Matt!