Lucas Volkman is Assistant Professor of History at Moberly Area Community College. This interview is based on his new book, Houses Divided: Evangelical Schisms and the Crisis of the Union in Missouri (Oxford University Press, 2018).
JF: What led you to write Houses Divided?
LV: For some time, religious history had always interested me. During recent years historians have been improving their understanding of the role of religion in the larger Civil War era. In many ways it made sense for me further this exploration by examining the denominational schisms over slavery within the Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian churches.
While earlier historians had done fine work on the topic, the more I researched the more I realized that there was further work that was needed on this important series of events in American history. What really stood out to me was how there were a variety of facets that had not been written about extensively.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Houses Divided?
LV: This work argues that congregational and local denominational schisms among Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians in the border state of Missouri before, during, and after the Civil War were central to the crisis of the Union, Civil War, and Reconstruction. The book maintains that the schisms were interlinked religious, sociocultural, legal, and political developments rife with implications for the transformation of evangelicalism and the United States in that period and to the end of Reconstruction.
JF: Why do we need to read Houses Divided?
LV: The schisms within the Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian churches were important events within the sectional crisis during the years leading to the Civil War. But, Houses Divided moves beyond the antebellum period, and tells how the schisms played a major role during the Civil War and Reconstruction eras.
Readers will see how competing theologies over the morality of slavery helped drive antebellum events as southern evangelicals used their power to push their proslavery theology only to have northern evangelicals turn the tables during the war and Reconstruction, as they sought to construct pro-northern civil religion.
In Houses Divided I discuss how the schisms were important for their legal ramifications. As congregations divided over slavery, congregations were forced to go to the courts to adjudicate their property disputes. Combined with wartime/Reconstruction oaths, these property battles demonstrate how the schisms played a major role in the interactions between church and state.
Finally, by focusing on Missouri, readers will see a state which was uniquely torn apart by the conflict over slavery – making it an excellent laboratory to examine the schisms. Moreover, by focusing on a single border state, Houses Divided can truly examine these ruptures as local events, rather than solely through the eyes of elite national ministers. By bringing in local congregations, women and African Americans, to add to the narrative of ministers and other elites, Houses Divided truly surveys the religious landscape.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
LV: Since I was younger I had always been interested in history. While I majored in history during my undergrad, I began to be drawn more so to American history. I thought that I would have the most to contribute on the nineteenth century. Hopefully the readers of Houses Divided will think so as well after finishing the book.
JF: What is your next project?
LV: Sticking with the theme of religious history, currently I am researching a project on American Catholicism in the mid to late nineteenth century. I am particularly interested in how Catholicism interacted with the forces of Americanization on the church.
JF: Thanks, Lucas!