Conference on Faith and History Session: “The Bible in American Cultural and Political History”

BibleEarlier today I chaired a session titled “The Bible in American Cultural and Political History.” It was co-sponsored by the American Historical Association and the Conference on Faith History.

In recent years, several important monographs have been published examining the role of the Bible in American culture and politics.  In 2015, Oxford University Press released Mark Noll’s In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492-1783, the first book in his projected multi-volume work on the history of the Bible in America.  In 2017, Oxford also published The Bible in American Lifethe culmination of a four-year interdisciplinary study by the Center for the Religion and American Culture at IUPUI.  The study focused on Bible-reading as a religious practice.  Two of today’s panelists–Amy Easton-Flake and Emerson Powery–contributed to this volume.

The editors of The Bible in American Life–Philip Goff, Arthur Farnsely, and Peter Thuesen–write: “According to Gallup, nearly eight in ten Americans regard the Bible as either the literal word of God or as inspired by God.  At the same time, surveys have revealed–and recent books have analyzed–surprising gaps in Americans’ biblical literacy.  These discrepancies reveal American Christians’ complex relationship to Holy Writ, a subject that is widely acknowledged but rarely investigated.”

The panel I chaired today reflected on the history of the Bible in American history with four scholars who have contributed to this ongoing conversation.  I asked each panelist to take a few minutes to describe their ongoing work.

Daniel Dreisbach of American University talked about the challenges–both real and imagined–of writing about the Bible’s contributions to the American founding.  He is interested in the question whether the Bible’s contributions are sufficiently significant that it merits mention alongside other intellectual influences on the founding, such as British constitutionalism, Enlightenment liberalism (in various forms), and classical and civic republicanism.  He also addressed criticism that some of his work has been used by the defenders of the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation.

James Byrd of Vanderbilt Divinity School focused on the relationship between his book Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution and his current book project, “The Bible and the American Civil War.”  Byrd is particularly interested in the ways the Bible was used to justify and explain war.

Amy Easton-Flake of Brigham Young University spoke on women’s deployment of the Bible in late nineteenth-century America.  She used three case examples: the portrayal of Latter-Day Saint women in the journal Women’s Exponent, Harriett Beecher-Stowe’s portrayal of biblical women in her Women and Sacred History, and the Suffrage Movement’s use of the Bible in Revolution and Women’s Journal.

Emerson Powery, my colleague at Messiah College, offered a few thoughts on the integral use of the Bible in arguments surrounding slavery during the antebellum period, especially from the perspective of those whose bodies were most affected.  His way into this discussion was through the voice of the formerly enslaved though the so-called “slave narrative.”

It was a lively session.  I encourage you to explore this subject further by reading the books and articles of these panelists:

Dreisbach, Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers

Byrd, Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible in the American Revolution

Easton-Flake: Mormon Women’s History: Beyond Biography

Powery, The Genesis of Liberation: Biblical Interpretation in the Antebellum Narratives of the Enslaved

Fea, The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society

Churches and the Legacy of the Confederacy

Lee Episcopalian

R.E. Lee Memorial Church, Lexington, VA

As we reported last week, the Southern Baptist Convention stumbled, but eventually managed to get its act together and condemn racism and the Alt-right at its annual convention last week.  The Southern Baptist Church is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States.  It was founded in 1845 by Baptists in the South who defended slavery.

Over at Christianity Today, Kate Shellnut reports on how historic Southern congregations of all denominations are dealing with their monuments to the Confederacy.

“Few public Confederate monuments have been changed, moved, or razed since 2015,” USA Today reported, estimating 700 to 1,000 such monuments remain across 31 states. “While flags can be lowered, songs censored, mascots switched, and schools renamed, monuments are the most tangible and least mutable memorial symbols.”

The debate over such markers inevitably involves the church buildings that housed—and the many more that later memorialized—the history of the Confederate States of America. The most striking example may be St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, nicknamed the Cathedral of the Confederacy.

Over the past two years, the historic church, where Jefferson Davis learned that the war was coming to an end, decided to remove plaques honoring Lee and Davis and place them in an exhibit. Gone are the kneelers with the Confederate flag in needlepoint. The church will retire its coat of arms. Leaders are now discussing how to move forward with presenting a history that acknowledges racism and slavery in its past.

“It shouldn’t take a tragedy to turn the tide against racism. Why did it take the murder of nine black people in a Bible study for some people to finally reject the racism associated with the Confederate emblem? Why do people have to literally be killed before we confront racial prejudice?” asked Jemar Tisby, president of the Reformed African American Network. “Christian leaders should be able to challenge racism in the midst of the church without waiting for a public disaster as an entry point to conversation.”

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Bridget Ford

bondsofunionBridget Ford is Assistant Professor of History at California State University East Bay. This interview is based on her new book, Bonds of Union: Religion, Race, and Politics in a Civil War Borderland (The University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Bonds of Union?

BF: In the beginning, a dissertation advisor suggested that I study “social order” in the Ohio River valley. For some reason, that sounded terribly compelling and important to me, a neophyte historian and native Californian. Perhaps I was inclined to take this suggestion seriously because the advisor in question was Alan Taylor, the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for history.

Over time I wondered if that idea of “social order” didn’t seem a little old-timey. In this rebellious phase, I was a cultural historian, studying “modernity,” among other things that baffled friends, family, and undergraduates. There was also the problem of studying such monumental shifts in the human experience in the tertiary cities of Cincinnati and Louisville. Why not New York, or Los Angeles? Or really, any other generally agreed upon cosmopolitan cities?

Now though, upon reflection, “social order” is precisely what I ended up writing about in this book—it’s just that with time and experience reading original sources, I looked at that concept from the perspective nineteenth-century Americans, using their language for the most part, rather than the shorthand of scholars. This also proved to be cultural history, in its own way. Somehow my inclinations and training all came together in this book.

What ultimately engaged me was this question:  How did diverse Americans hold their strained Union together, even while pressing for radical change—that is, the destruction of slavery? The “United” States can often feel so divided (then and now), with so many forces driving this fragile entity to the brink of disunion. This was never more true than in the 1840s and 1850s, and especially in the Ohio River valley, where all manner of religious, racial, and political divisions seemed to be pulling the country apart at its geographical seams. But the people in this unique region preserved the Union and called for stunning social change. I wanted to understand how that happened—not from just a military or political perspective, and not just from Abraham Lincoln’s words and actions. I had also become enthralled by the vivid language and heated emotional tenor of the nineteenth century—using their terms, and not so much ours.   

In fact, the very idea of “Union” was something I wanted to understand better, because we just don’t use that word to describe the United States anymore. Something seems quite foreign about that term, and especially a commonly used extension, “bonds of union.” I wanted to understand how nineteenth-century Americans comprehended that phrase, because they used it frequently at moments of great import—in forging political connections, creating religious communities, and protecting family relations. Moreover, these conscious acts, these “bonds of union,” all seemed broadly connected to the persistence of the Union, conceived as a nation, at least in the minds of people at the time.

We have a much better historical sense, I think, of how and why the bonds of slavery produced various forms of secessionism. But the “bonds of union,” something that nineteenth-century Americans appeared to intuitively grasp, is a phrase almost entirely lost on twenty-first-century Americans. It seems worthwhile, in our own moment, to recover the meaning of this phrase, for it encouraged thinking both about freely chosen “bonds” and about undertaking the work of building stronger connections among diverse peoples.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Bonds of Union?

BF: This book argues that Americans of diverse backgrounds, faiths, and personal experiences found means to overcome their differences by imagining their “bonds of union” together. The individuals discussed in this book lived in an especially divided region of the country, but the bonds of connection that they forged across differences of religion, race, and politics helped to end slavery while also preserving the Union.

JF: Why do we need to read Bonds of Union?

BF: For academic historians, the book offers a closer look at cultural negotiations taking place before the Civil War that helped strengthen the Union during the war itself. These negotiations advanced the abolition of slavery in a region that, at first glance, appears to have been especially hostile to immediatism. Moreover, the book deepens our understanding of the meaning of “union” to nineteenth-century Americans.

Building upon other studies of the Ohio River valley, this book also makes a case for expanding our cast of characters who can be viewed as critical to understanding the Civil War era—I think a number of individuals treated in this book could be more widely known for their significance to the politics of antislavery, for example. I hope this book helps adds to this cast of relevant figures. Studies of the Ohio River valley should not be deemed merely “regional” in nature, while books examining Boston or New York are treated as “national” history. This seems unfortunate to me.

For everyone else, I think that this book shows nineteenth-century Americans to be much more culturally malleable or flexible than we typically think. I very often hear students say of racism during the nineteenth century, or of more recent times too:  “That is just the way people thought.” But that simply doesn’t make any historical sense, given how far many Americans in the past travelled to imagine a biracial, inclusive society on equal terms. I very much regret that students resort to that phrase, because it locks our past down, and I think makes our path forward seem more difficult. It also seems to excuse people for horrendous actions. We have a longer, deeper history of imagining an inclusive society—and of Americans making moral choices for good or for ill. We should be letting students know that.

Lastly, I’m intrigued by the richness of the term “union,” as it was used in the nineteenth century. If asked, students today have no idea what that word might have meant to Americans in 1861. We also tend to separate “government” and “community” into two mutually exclusive entities. But I think that nineteenth-century Americans generally combined these two mental constructions, towards the end of great social change, the destruction of slavery. This book helps to recover the meaning of “union” in its religious, racial, and political senses.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

BF: Just as I entered by senior year of high school, my mom earned her Ph.D. in US history from the University of California, Davis. Within the next seven years, I was also at UC Davis, trying to earn my doctorate in American history. I was not nearly so rebellious as I had thought in my youth. While earning my bachelor’s degree in history, I also studied with amazing teachers at Barnard College, who reinforced the sense of importance, rigor, and enthusiasm that I attached to studying the past—and the US past in particular. But I think my mom, along with a supportive father, always saw history as endlessly fascinating, with great explanatory power about the human condition. They also appreciated the contingencies of history, too—a concept I grasped, I think, long before I heard that word in graduate school. Family dinners were fun: my mom loved to swiftly correct my father on his superficial (at times) historical knowledge. She always seemed like the smartest person in the room, so I wanted to follow in her footsteps. We have an unusual story. We are like the Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. and Jr. of UC Davis. I jest, of course.

JF: What is your next project?

BF: I’m considering studying the lives and work of historians who were traditional outsiders to the profession—women, racial and ethnic minorities—who ended up examining the nineteenth century, from their vantage of the second half of the twentieth century. But beyond that, I am interested in public trust in government, for such basic things as schools, transportation, health care, and so on. For the United States, this is always so fraught. I’d like to understand why Americans can be so desirous of such things, and yet then starve or shun the very public entities providing them—even when those entities are doing a demonstrably good job. Can you tell I teach at a public university?

JF: Thanks, Bridget!

Allen Guelzo Asks: "Did Religion Make the Civil War Worse?"

In a roundabout way Guelzo answers “no” to this question in a recent piece in The Atlantic. Politicians and political ideals, and not religion, he argues, were responsible for the Civil War.

But the war did have a devastating influence on American religion and its grip on the larger culture. Here is his conclusion.

From the Civil War onward, American Protestantism would be locked deeper and deeper into a state of cultural imprisonment, and in many cases, retreating to a world of private experience in which Christianity remained of little more significance to public life than stamp-collecting or bridge parties. Appeals to divine authority at the beginning of the Civil War fragmented in deadlock and contradiction, and ever since then, it has been difficult for deeply rooted religious conviction to assert a genuinely shaping influence over American public life.

In exposing the shortcomings of religious absolutism, the Civil War made it impossible for religious absolutism to address problems in American life—especially economic and racial ones—where religious absolutism would in fact have done a very large measure of good. Some leaders, Martin Luther King prominent among them, have since invoked Biblical sanction for a political movement, but that has mostly been tolerated by the larger, sympathetic environment of secular liberalism as a harmless eccentricity which can go in one ear and out the other. “Never afterward,” wrote Alfred Kazin of the war, “would Americans North and South feel that they had been living Scripture.” I do not know that Americans have been the better for it.

I probably would not have used the phrase “religious absolutism” to describe the positive impact that Christianity could have had on post-bellum American life.

Weekend in Gettysburg and Lancaster

I started off the weekend in Gettysburg where I visited the brand new (July 2013) Seminary Ridge Museum.  This is a must stop the next time you are in Gettysburg.  The museum, which is located on the campus of the Lutheran Seminary at Gettysburg, is housed in a building that played a pivotal role on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg and served as a hospital in the months following the battle.  The museum has three floors, covering the first day of the battle, the care of the wounded in the Seminary hospital, and the role of religion and slavery in antebellum America.  I am currently writing a more extensive review of this museum.  Stay tuned.

Seminary Ridge Museum
Has nothing to do with the Battle of Gettysburg, but I couldn’t pass this pic up.  It is a Lutheran seminary after all

General John Buford’s View from the cupola on the morning of July, 1, 1863

A better view from the cupola

On Saturday I was in Lancaster, PA.  My daughter was playing in the MLK Kickoff Classic, one of the largest volleyball events on the East coast.  During breaks from the games, while Allyson bonded with her teammates, I wandered around historic Lancaster.  Last December I participated in a conference on the Conestoga Indian massacre of 1763, but I did not get a chance to make it to the Fulton Opera House, the site of the jail in which the Paxton Boys killed several Indians who were being kept there under the protection of the government.  Here are few pics I snapped at the site:

Site of the second phase of the Conestoga Massacre–December 1763

On Monday, we were still playing volleyball.  Our site was moved to Thaddeus Stevens School of Technology in Lancaster.  Not much early American history here (the school was founded in 1905), but there was a cool statue of Thaddeus Stevens.

Christopher Graham on "Religion and the American Civil War"

The Way of Improvement Leads Home correspondent Christopher Graham offers some notes on this star-studded panel on religion and the Civil War. –JF
The turnout for the Religion and the American Civil War: History and Historiography panel exceeded the organizers’ expectations. So many showed up that we all migrated to a larger room, and participants still overflowed into the hallway, where additional chairs were set up. Mark Noll presided and Allen Guelzo, Harry Stout, George Rable, James McPherson, and Laura Maffly-Kipp spoke. The title of the panel suggested a broad reconsideration of the historiography of religion and the Civil War but the individual papers did not amount to as much.
Stout discussed how his interpretation of Lincoln’s relationship to God has changed since the publication of his On the Altar of the Nation. Guelzo explored the historiographical view of Lincoln’s religiosity and concluded that because of scant and contradictory evidence, Lincoln disappoints all doctrinaires. McPherson spoke on evangelical efforts to sponsor freedmen’s schools, and Maffly-Kipp considered religion’s place in the African American interpretation of the Civil War as a battle in a longer warfare waged by slavers on the enslaved. In short, the combat over bodies also was a combat over souls.
George Rable recognized the considerable wave of scholarship on religion in the war that has been produced in the last ten to fifteen years, and sketched out seven topic areas that require further examination. They go something like this:
1. The relationship between the Bible and the American Civil War. Politicians, editors, preachers, and soldiers all utilized scriptures as a justification for war and a comfort for its victims. He said that if there is an American Jesus, there just might be a Civil War Jesus, and suggested that such a title would sell.
2. The role of military chaplains is unexplored, from the problem of their recruitment, to their performance, to the often-fraught relationships between chaplains and soldiers. He suggests that there are loads of unexplored sources on this.
3. Some attention has been given to wartime revivals, but more needs to be done. Further study might reveal conflicting religious views between officers and men, or soldiers and civilians. To that end, Rable called for more research on how the war changed attitudes toward piety, including communion, baptism, and the idea of blood sacrifice and atonement of sin.
4. How did civil religion change? How did days of prayer and thanksgiving and attitudes toward them change?
5. In a catchall on “society and war,” Rable asked how the war touched domestic religious ideals, what activities the religious undertook, how the print culture changed, or rises or declines in church membership. He even suggested there might be value in doing good old-fashioned denominational histories, which produced some bemused groans from the audience.
6. He called for an examination of the international aspects of religion during the war.
7. Finally, he wants further work on the relationship between religion and larger social issues during the war. He admits that this work is already underway, but the more the merrier.  
The discussion produced a few interesting nuggets. For instance, the panel generally agreed that millennial thinking largely did not appear in the rhetoric of religious people during the war. Stout thought it was because to have a millennial construction, a rhetorical anti-Christ is necessary, and the war was simply seen as a Protestant-on-Protestant fracas. Guelzo suggested that participants simply could not articulate a good expression of millennial thinking and when they tried, the results were often muddy.
Guelzo contended that the Civil War ate away at religious people’s confidence in revelation. After watching carnage, many people found it impossible to believe again in Godly order. Even folks who did not witness carnage, like Charles Hoge and Charles Finney, felt the same way. Rable disagreed and suggested that the war did not cause a shattering of belief but instead drove people further toward a reliance on God’s promises.
Finally, one questioner asked how religion figured into the memory of war. Inexplicably, no one in the room mentioned Ed Blum’s Reforging the White Republic. Myself included.