David French wonders where “the South ends and Christianity begins.” Some history will help those wondering the same thing

Here is French at The Dispatch:

There’s an enormous amount of literature describing shame/honor culture in the South and shame/honor culture generally, but I like this succinct description from David Brooks:

In a guilt culture you know you are good or bad by what your conscience feels. In a shame culture you know you are good or bad by what your community says about you, by whether it honors or excludes you. In a guilt culture people sometimes feel they do bad things; in a shame culture social exclusion makes people feel they are bad.

Shame/honor cultures are very focused on group reputation and group identity. Again, here’s Brooks:

People are extremely anxious that their group might be condemned or denigrated. They demand instant respect and recognition for their group. They feel some moral wrong has been perpetrated when their group has been disrespected, and react with the most violent intensity.

Brooks was writing about the general growth of shame culture in America, including in left-wing circles on campus. But doesn’t this sound familiar on the right? Have you noticed how much of the GOP, the party of white Evangelicals, is often positively obsessed with grievance, how it marinates in anger at the insults of the “elite” or the “ruling class”?

We experience this reality constantly. It sometimes appears as if the bulk of the conservative media economy is built around finding and highlighting leftist insults, leftist disrespect, and leftist contempt. And yes, it exists, but there is a difference between highlighting a problem and marinating in grievance over the rejection of the left.

This has old, old roots. In his book Desire, Violence, and Divinity in Modern Southern Fiction, Kent State professor Gary Ciuba writes that “honor meant that southerners beheld themselves as others beheld them,” and that meant that “their self-worth lived in the look of the other.”

French asks an important question. Where does the South end and Christianity begin? Historians have wrestled with this question for decades. If you want to dig deeper, I encourage these books:

Christine Heyrman, Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt. (I haven’t taught this book in a while, but it used to be a staple of my course on the early American republic).

Bertram Wyatt Brown, Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South

Craig Thompson, ed., Southern Manhood: Perspectives on Masculinity in the Old South

Charles Reagan Wilson, Baptized in the Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause

Paul Harvey, Redeeming the South: Religious Cultures and Racial Identities Among Southern Baptists

Paul Harvey, Freedom’s Coming: Religious Culture and the Shaping of the South from the Civil War through the Civil Rights Era

Ted Ownby, Subduing Satan: Religion, Recreation and Manhood in the Rural South

Daniel Stowell, Rebuilding Zion: The Religious Reconstruction of the South

James Bennett, Religion and the Rise of Jim Crow in New Orleans

Robert Elder, The Sacred Mirror: Evangelicalism, Honor, and Identity in the Deep South

I am sure I missed others. Feel free to add more at Facebook and on Twitter and I will try to add them to this list.

When the Churches Can’t Provide the Social Safety Net That We Need

a3062-nodepressioninheavenIn the midst of our current pandemic, several historian friends have been referencing Alison Collis Greene‘s book No Depression in Heaven: The Great Depression, the New Deal, and the Transformation of Religion in the Delta. Greene’s book shows, among other things, that sometimes the good work of local churches in times of economic and social crises is just not enough.  Sometimes we need the government.

Over at The Baffler, Rachel Bryan, a doctoral student in literature at the University of Tennessee, reflects on Greene’s book in the context of her own experience growing-up in the South.  Here is a taste:

IN 2005, MY FAMILY HOME BURNED DOWN. It was an old Sears Roebuck Victorian that my parents spent over twenty years remodeling a bit at a time. The fire happened in June in Alabama; I was asleep in my older sister’s bedroom while she was at the beach because she had an air conditioner in her room, and I didn’t in mine. I slept in her bed whenever I could, which saved my life when the fire started in an outlet in my room. Later that year, Hurricane Katrina came through and flooded what was left of the house’s ground level. We had insurance and were able to eventually rebuild, after a stint in a house with possums in the attic, but I remember the stifling silence of our small town’s churches during those years. Our own church was microscopic, with a few families and older people who could only offer the shirts off their backs—and many did. But I knew then, without question, that churches weren’t a social safety net. If we needed help, the church wouldn’t be the provider.

Those memories came back to me recently when, for a Southern history seminar, I read Alison Collis Greene’s 2015 study No Depression in Heaven: The Great Depression, the New Deal, and the Transformation of Religion in the Delta. Greene tells the story behind what she calls “the myth of the redemptive depression.” There is some truth to the myth, she notes in her opening. “Members of families and communities indeed turned to one another in their hardship, and many also turned to their churches for solace, for support, for meaning.” Yet in the Mississippi Delta, people quickly saw “the inadequacy of families, communities, and churches full of poor people to aid one another in their time of mutual distress. The Great Depression gave lie to the toxic notion that responsibility for poverty lies with the poor rather than with systems of oppression that make a mockery of the American dream.” With a global pandemic and economic recession—if not full-scale depression—looming, Greene’s study of religious charity and political power speaks to life and death concerns in the nation’s most vulnerable regions—and sheds light on what we’re all about to face.

And this:

Later, Greene’s book turns to the reshaping of American national memory—specifically, how the New Right emerged after World War II to rewrite the narrative of the church’s failures during the Depression, and how the church further aligned with the nation’s commitment to capitalist industry in the late twentieth century. The new story encouraged resistance to socialized poverty initiatives, and it framed the state as having gotten in the way of effective church charity

In these rosy new narratives, the Great Depression brought suffering and sorrow, but also thrift and humility. It did precisely what religious authorities had hoped it would: it stripped away life’s superfluities and brought people together, and to God. The Great Depression brought redemption—or it would have, if only Franklin Roosevelt had not interfered.

That’s the redemptive myth, and it fortified the falsehood that governmental assistance was unnecessary, and even harmful to individual initiative and religious charity. This history is important for Southern communities today, especially in places where churches are taking tithes online but will go on to offer no direct relief aid to their congregations. And communities will continue to send their prayers, find social solace in their church communities, and listen to sermons about their communities coming together, all while these churches have no loaves and fishes to spare.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Donald Mathews

Altar Cover.jpgDonald Mathews is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  This interview is based on his new book At the Altar of Lynching: Burning Sam Hose in the American South (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write At the Altar of Lynching?

DM: In preparing to write a sequel to Religion in the Old South, I realized that lynching and religious participation in institutions, collective action, and media were increasing at the same time. I discovered an article by a former minister’s wife, Corra Harris, defending the lynching of a laborer called Sam Hose in 1899. At about the same time I was asked to write an essay on why I [born in Idaho] wrote about religion in the South. The short answer was, I realized: “Because my grandfather was lynched for defending a black family from being lynched.” He wasn’t exactly “lynched,” to be sure, because he survived a beating that damaged his brain, soul, and wealth. My father, however, remembered the event as a “lynching” and his family lived with the psychological fallout from my grandfather’s encounter with American populism and violence. Christians had seized him at prayer and destroyed his life. I thought I should think about Harris’s defense of violence within the context of her religious life and that of people like her.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of At the Altar of Lynching?

DM: Religion enveloped the burning of Tom Wilkes: participants lived it, they shouted it, they enacted it in a grotesque carnival of violence and celebration. Tom Wilkes was not Christ, but his burning as Sam Hose was supposed to resolve matters far beyond and above homicide and rape: black equality, black autonomy, black defiance: His burning was thus a sacrifice to the savage god of White Supremacy.

JF: Why do we need to read At the Altar of Lynching?

DM: “Need” is subjective and I find it difficult to tell anyone what they need. I do invite them

* To understand the historical background of violence against African Americans;

* To understand the religious character of segregation as Lillian Smith understood it;

* To understand how the culture of White Supremacy criminalized black people, used sex and gender to create lies about American society and blacks, and how popular white religion was caught up in those lies;

* To think about how people of African descent condemned the lies told about them, how they were so alienated from the white-controlled “criminal justice system” built on those lies that they could see the execution even of those who were actually guilty of capital crimes as “crucifixions”;

* To understand why W E B Du Bois and concerned white clerics thought of lynching as “crucifixion”;

* To understand how the human compulsion to make signal acts as meaningful as possible even when they are illegal reveals the human capacity for making religious even the most heinous acts imaginable.

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

DM: In college I was always interested in American history; I can’t explain the why of that. In seminary, I was transfixed by the implications of two things Helmut Richard Niebuhr said in class: 1) The first question to be asked when addressing ethical issues, he noted, was “What is/was happening?” 2) When we think of the meaning of the Cross and crucifixion, he once said, we have to sift that meaning through the “Gas ovens. . .” That second comment is one of the most penetrating observations I have ever heard. The first one was prelude. I have to add, I suppose as confession, that I fully understand the homiletic style of my writing. Gene Genovese in a passing conversation once asked me partially in jest, partially in criticism, “Are you ever going to stop preaching?” I answered as I laughed, “No. I guess not.” He replied, “I didn’t think so.” And we went off to a seminar at the National Humanities Center.

JF: What is your next project?

DM: I hope to think about how the memory of violence against a loved one or family member affects those who struggle with its effects. There is a growing number of important books or articles on the memory of lynching, and I need to read as many as I can and come to terms with them. I suspect this is an article, but it could be a small book. I had thought to follow up on an article I wrote about the suicide of a Methodist minister in 1910 as a way to get inside the traumas of “modernity” and I may still do that.

JF: Thanks, Donald!

Author’s Corner with Joseph Locke

joseph lockeJoseph Locke is Associate Professor of American History at the University of Houston-Victoria. This interview is based on his new book, Making the Bible Belt: Texas Prohibitionists and the Politicization of Southern Religion (Oxford University Press, 2017). 

JF: What led you to write Making the Bible Belt: Texas Prohibitionists and the Politicization of Southern Religion?

JL: While reading up on economic radicalism in Progressive Era Texas—I’d become enamored with Lawrence Goodwyn’s old book on the Texas Populists as an undergrad and had wanted to follow up on that story—I was struck by the utter dominance of prohibition as a political issue. For well over a decade, it seemed as if Texans and many others across the South could talk about little more than alcohol and drunkenness and saloons. My interest was already piqued—I grew up around teetotaling Baptists—but the more I read the more I realized something bigger was at stake. Prohibition wasn’t just about liquor; I was seeing a revolution in the way that white southern evangelicals conceived of their faith. And I was also, simultaneously, witnessing the death of an older tradition, a veritable culture of anticlericalism that I hadn’t expected to find in the South. Nothing I had read in the historiography of southern religion, for instance, prepared me for the over-the-top, anticlerical rhetoric of so many prominent anti-prohibitionists. And so I went to work trying to make sense of it all. 

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Making the Bible Belt: Texas Prohibitionists and the Politicization of Southern Religion?

JL: That we’ve taken the marriage of religion and public life in the South for granted. The politicization of southern religion was a historical process—religious activists built up new institutional and cultural resources, redefined the bounds of their faith, waged war against a culture of anticlericalism, and churned notions of history, race, gender, and religion into a political movement that created much of the Bible Belt we know today. 

JF: Why do we need to read Making the Bible Belt: Texas Prohibitionists and the Politicization of Southern Religion?

JL: The “Bible Belt” was not the inevitable consequence of white evangelicals’ numerical strength in the South. Instead, religious activists waged a purposeful, conspicuous, and controversial decades-long campaign to redefine their faith and inject themselves into public life. However much white religious leaders exerted themselves to defend slavery, secession, the Confederacy, and “Redemption,” tangible cultural and institutional limits still constricted the scope of religious thought and practice in the South at the turn of the twentieth century. Understanding the shattering of those limits complicates the narrative of southern religious history, offers insights into the historical relationship between religion and politics, and puts today’s melding of region and religion into historical context. 

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

JL: I grew up enamored with history and, as an undergrad, I took the advice to “major in what you love” without really knowing where it would lead. Luckily, inertia took care of the rest. 

JF: What is your next project?

JL: I’m juggling a few things: I’m wrapping up a long-gestating, comprehensive history of religion in Texas; I’m working to get The American Yawp, a massively collaborative, open-source American History textbook, ready for its forthcoming (spring 2018) publication with a major university press; and, in the meantime, I’m spending the remainder of the summer in Chicago researching the follow-up to a forthcoming article that explores Americans’ moral imaginings of Mexican immigrants and the U.S.-Mexico borderlands at the turn of the twentieth century. 

JF: Thanks, Joseph!

                                     

The Author’s Corner with Phillip Luke Sinitiere

salvationwithasmilePhillip Luke Sinitiere is Professor of History at the College of Biblical Studies, a multiethnic school located in Houston’s Mahatma Gandhi District. This interview is based on his book Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity (NYU Press, 2015).

JF: What led you to write Salvation with a Smile?

PLS: I wrote Salvation with a Smile out of a long-standing interest in the history of American evangelicalism. After completing a chapter on Joel Osteen in my first book Holy Mavericks (NYU Press, 2009), I wanted to write a larger story on the smiling preacher that considered his place in American religious history. As a life-long Houston resident, I also wanted to explore Osteen and Lakewood Church in relationship to Texas, and to the Sunbelt.

In my research, I found that everyone I spoke with had an opinion about the smiling preacher; folks either loved him or hated him. I wanted to investigate Osteen and Lakewood Church beyond the binary responses I was hearing. After all, there’s a reason why 40,000 people attend Lakewood weekly, millions of people read his New York Times best-selling books, and millions of people tune into his television broadcast. I wrote Salvation with a Smile to figure out why.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Salvation with a Smile?

PLS: Salvation with a Smile argues that Joel Osteen, and by extension Lakewood Church, is America’s most powerful twenty-first century evangelical minister; it explains how Lakewood became America’s largest megachurch and Joel Osteen became Joel Osteen. While neither represents the sum total of American evangelicalism, the history of Lakewood Church and Joel Osteen explains significant developments that illuminate connections between neopentecostalism, the prosperity gospel, televangelism, and religion in the American South.

JF: Why do we need to read Salvation with a Smile?

PLS: Salvation with a Smile shows that Joel Osteen’s father, John Osteen, along with post-World War II neopentecostalism and the prosperity gospel movement helped to make the smiling preacher. In this regard, I hope the book adds another chapter to the broader history of the prosperity gospel that scholars such as Kate Bowler, Gerardo Marti, and Arlene Sánchez-Walsh, among others, have brilliantly documented. Furthermore, Osteen’s nearly two decades of religious television production and broadcasting experience before he became Lakewood’s full-time pastor in 1999 helps to contextualize how in the early 2000s Joel harnessed emerging social media platforms in the service of propagating his prosperity message. In this sense, Osteen and Lakewood’s story connects to the history of American televangelism. Finally, Osteen’s ascendance in American evangelicalism during the Internet Age—and his presence on television and social media—has generated a flurry of criticism, much of it from American evangelicals. Thus, Salvation with a Smile historicizes New Calvinist critiques of the smiling preacher as both an index of his notoriety and as a way to understand the fractures and fissures within contemporary U. S. evangelicalism; in other words, the account of Osteen and his detractors reflects the “crisis of authority” about which historian Molly Worthen has beautifully written.

 

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

PLS: While I had designs on pursuing a career in professional golf—I was a student-athlete on the golf team at the University of Houston, and later at Sam Houston State University—in college several professors brought history to life and I found that my passions shifted. The late Terry Bilhartz, one of my mentors at Sam Houston State, was one of the most engaging lecturers I’ve ever seen. At the University of Houston, James Kirby Martin always emphasized the importance of writing clearly and accessibly, Kairn Klieman helped me to understand the power of history beyond the classroom, and Gerald Horne modeled the centrality of archival research for academic scholarship. Reconstructing the past at its best tells a story and the ways that my professors and mentors conveyed history in lively, compelling, and comprehensible ways drew me in. Additionally, I found, and still find, archival research both enjoyable and exciting. Sure, the work at times gets tedious, but the detective sleuthing so vital to the art of reconstructing history is great fun. Connecting the dots between past and present is both challenging and exhilarating whether it is in the classroom with students or in moments of solitude when I’m writing. While I may be a professional historian according to industry standards, I remain very much a student of history with many questions for which I continuously seek answers.

JF: What is your next project?

PLS: For Rowman and Littlefield, I’m completing a short biography of 20th century writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin. I am also editor of and contributor to two essay collections on the twilight years of W. E. B. Du Bois between the 1930s and 1960s. One volume, under contract with Northwestern University Press, examines Du Bois’s career in global perspective; the second volume, which the University Press of Mississippi will publish, explores concepts of American freedom in Du Bois’s intellectual and political work.

JF: Thanks, Phil!

Religion in the Early South

The new issue of The Journal of Southern Religion is out.  In addition to its wonderful collection of book reviews, it also contains a roundtable, edited by Rebecca Goetz, on religion in the early South.  Here is the table of contents with links to the articles:

Religious Diversity and the Coming of Christianity in the Prerevolutionary South
Rebecca Goetz
Catholicism in the Early South
Maura Jane Farrelly
Protestantism in the Early South
Travis Glasson
Native American Religions in the Early South
Tracy Neal Leavelle
Protestant Dissenters in the Early South
Jewel L. Spangler
African Religions in the Early South
Jason Young

Why Evangelicals Like Rick Santorum

This article has been making the rounds in the blogosphere of late.  Matthew Franck, a conservative political scientist, explains why a conservative Catholic is winning the support of evangelical Christians in the south.

Any historian can see the irony. Who would ever have thought that evangelicals would line-up behind a Catholic?  It is clear that the battle lines have shifted over the last fifty years.

Here is a taste of Franck’s piece:

First, some people are scratching their heads over the fact that Romney has polled better among Catholics than Santorum has.  Why can’t Santorum do better among his own co-religionists?  I suspect we’d get our answer if the exit polls drilled deeper into people’s churchgoing habits.  To be “Catholic” in America often means little more than that one took the sacraments long ago, and reflexively identifies with the Church when asked by a pollster, or perhaps falls into the “Christmas and Easter” gang that crowds the pews the rest of us are in every Sunday.  I’d be willing to bet that Santorum is handily winning those Catholics who attend Mass at least weekly, remember to eat no meat on Lenten Fridays, comfortably say “consubstantiation” now, and mark the holy days of obligation on their calendars.

Second, Santorum beat Romney handily among women voters, especially married women, in Mississippi and Alabama.  So much for the fabled “war on women” of the Republicans (and the Catholic bishops).  As the party’s most conspicuous faith-and-family conservative, and the most cogent critic of Obamacare on behalf of every family’s freedom to control its own health care choices, Santorum has probably benefited from President Obama’s egregious over-reaching in this field.  And although he hasn’t talked about it a great deal (and should start doing so), Santorum is probably the candidate preferred by many voters upset by the Obama administration’s assault on religious liberty in its HHS contraception mandate.  The issue fits him like a glove, and voters can see that it does.  The fact that many Southern Baptists have chosen to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Catholic bishops on this issue is no small help to the most “evangelical” of the remaining candidates.

The Power of Evangelical Votes in the Deep South

Over at Spiritual Politics, Mark Silk asks how Rick Santorum managed to win the Alabama and Mississippi primaries when all the polling data had him finishing in third behind Romney and Gingrich?

Here is Silk’s answer.  It makes sense to me.

The answer, simply, is that the polls underestimated evangelical turnout. In Alabama, Public Policy Polling had the evangelical/non-evangelical percentage at 68/32; the actual number was 75/25. In Mississippi, PPP had it at 70/30; the actual number was 80/20. As a result, Santorum’s narrow evangelical pluralities–which PPP did estimate right–were sufficient to lift him over his rivals. 

It’s not uncommon for the pollsters to underestimate evangelical turnout in Republican primaries, and the reason seems to be that they miss the role that mobilization plays. Credit for that yesterday was claimed by the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List, which spent half a million dollars to help turn out voters for Santorum. And presumably the old religious right pastors’ network was working. Overall, turnout was up compared to four years ago–10 percent in Alabama and 50 percent in Mississippi. So at least in states with big evangelical populations, Rick’s mobilizers can beat Mitt’s moneybags.

Paul Harvey’s Latest

Somebody stop him!! 

In the past year Paul Harvey has delivered the following titles:  Through the Storm, Through the Night: A History of African American Christianity (Rowman & Littlefield); The Columbia Guide to Religion in American History (Columbia); and now, just released by the University of Georgia Press, Moses, Jesus, and the Trickster in the American South.  Head over to Religion in American History to learn more about this published version of his 2008 Lamar Lectures on Religion in the South at Mercer University.  Here is a taste of the book’s introduction:

Won’t somebody tell me, answer if you can!
Want somebody tell me, what is the soul of a man
I’m going to ask the question, answer if you can
If anybody here can tell me, what is the soul of a man?
I’ve traveled in different countries, I’ve traveled foreign lands
I’ve found nobody to tell me, what is the soul of a man
 

When the pioneering gospel blues slide guitarist Blind Willie Johnson recorded “What Is the Soul of Man?” for Columbia records in the late 1920s, he challenged listeners to ponder a question central to the religious experience.  . . . This book tours some of the answers Protestants in the American South historically have given to the philosophical quandary posed by Blind Willie Johnson. How did southern Protestants, black and white, from the eighteenth century to the civil rights era, grapple with the intractable religious and philosophical questions through religious expression and belief? How did they come to terms with questions about the soul of man? Most particularly, how did they do so through religious institutions, thought, and culture? How did they do so through theology, folklore, music, art, drama, and film? And why did their cultural expressions of religious faith characteristically take on an intensity and vivacity that continues to attract our attention today, giving the South its Bible Belt image. . . 

To understand fully how southern believers have defined the soul of man, we mustbroaden our field of vision beyond the usual suspects in the study of southern religion. Here we will do so through an examination of four historical literary archetypes: Moses, Jesus, the Trickster and Absalom. Moses and Jesus are familiar, Absalom and the Trickster less so, yet they too have been formative to creating the southern sacred.


Southerners’ answers to questions about the soul of man suggest the power of evangelical Protestantism in southern history, as well as the ways in which that power consistently has been challenged and questioned. Skeptics have nibbled around the edges of the evangelical culture that
came to cultural dominance after the Civil War. Literary figures, cultural archetypes, and musical explorations have added layers of cultural complexity to what otherwise might be seen as a solid South of evangelicalism.

. . . .   If Jesus has been a pure figure in white southern theology, he could become a trickster of the trinity in black thought and lore. If Moses has represented deliverance, then Absalom has shown how the Egyptians and the Israelites in fact were entangled in one narrative. Absalom suggests that the southern drive for purity and the obsession with miscegenation covered over the fact that no people were more impure. The design of the masters of southern history–for racial and religious purity, and for a definition of freedom that depended on order, obedience, and hierarchy — was a hoax. Throughout southern history, the soul of man has burst those bonds and produced a rich cultural history in song sermon, art, tale, dance, and literature.

Does the Southern Baptist Convention Need a New Name?

Apparently Bryant Wright, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, wants to rename the denomination to make it sound less regional.

Over at Spiritual Politics, Mark Silk plays with a few possible new names  (with a hat tip to David Letterman).

Always ready to help out those in need, the Spiritual Politics blog herewith offers a Letterman’s Top Ten list of possibilities.

10. The Convention Formerly Known as Southern Baptist
9. Not Your Granddaddy’s SBC
8. Ya’ll Come On Over Ministries
7. Mr. Land’s Neighborhood
6. Right From the Heartland
5, The Great Commission Convention
4. Nobody Here But Us Christians
3. Some Bodacious Christians
2. The Republican Party at Prayer

And the winner is…

1. America’s Church

Are you looking for a text for your Spring semester course in American religious history, African-American history, or a something similar? Then I encourage you to check out Paul Harvey’s recent offering, Through the Night: A History of African American Christianity
We have come to expect great things from Harvey whenever he turns his attention to questions of religion and race in the American South.  I look forward to reading Through the Storm, Through the Night, possibly teaching it, recommending it, and then placing it on my bookshelf where it will join Harvey’s Freedom’s Coming and Redeeming the South, two books I consult regularly.
The reviewers at Publishers Weekly  give it high praise:
Through the Storm, Through the Night: A History of African American Christianity
Paul Harvey. Rowman & Littlefield, $35 (224p) ISBN 978-0-7425-6473-2
This deceptively slim book covers an enormous amount of historical terrain as an overview of African-American faith in America, touching a staggering number of major developments without exhaustively detailing them. Harvey, a professor of history at the University of Colorado, begins by explaining how the slave trade permanently altered religion for African-Americans, then moves on quickly to how the black church later provided cultural survival strategies. The same colonies that argued that the Bible sanctioned slavery hosted Protestant evangelical revivals where African-American Christianity was born. The book expertly pulls together the individual stories of well-known historical figures whose lives were shaped in black churches, the significance of syncretism in African and Caribbean-based religions as reflections of some elements of Christian theology, and the spread of gospel music as a new and influential part of American popular culture. There are some repetitive passages on Voodoo and Yoruba traditions, but the book is almost entirely a good, rigorous starting point for those unfamiliar with the place of African-American Christianity in America’s history. (Sept.)

Some Great New Work in American Religious History

One of the things I thoroughly enjoyed about the Winter meeting of the Louisville Institute was the opportunity I had to meet younger scholars who are doing some amazing work in American religious history. There are some great new projects out there which, if all goes well (and I have no reason to believe it will not) should be showing up in monographs somewhere in the next five to ten years. Here are three of the projects that I had the privilege of engaging over the course of the last day or two:

Alison Greene, Yale University: “‘No Depression in Heaven: Religion in Memphis and the Delta, 1929-1941.”

Alison described the Great Depression as a “watershed moment in American religious history.” She focuses on the black and white residents of Memphis and the Arkansas and Mississippi Delta “tracing the Depression-era theological reorientation among laypeople and clergy, the corresponding changes in the relationship between belief and social action, and the shifts in power among American religious bodies.” Religious leaders in the Delta responded to the economic crisis in several ways. Some stressed evangelism. Others “blended evangelism with social services.” And a small group, driven by the thinking of Reinhold Niebuhr and others, critiqued capitalism and its “particular abuses in the South.” In my opinion, the genius behind Alison’s work is the way it is situated and grounded in a particular place–the Mississippi Delta. She has visited over twenty archives in her research and thus probably knows more about the twentieth-century religious history of this region than anyone else alive. Her finished work is going to make a major contribution to American religious history and southern history.

In honor of Alison’s work, here is the Carter family:

Christopher Cantwell, Cornell University: “The Adult Bible Class Movement and the Transformation of Evangelical America.”
Chris studies American evangelicalism and fundamentalism at the turn of the 20th century through the work of an organization known as the Adult Bible Class Movement.” It should be stated up front that this is NOT an institutional history. The Adult Bible Class Movement, led by a charismatic leader named Frank Wood, claimed over five million members in the 1920s. Chris has found a wonderful window into evangelicalism and fundamentalism during this period. Not only does the Adult Bible Class Movement allow us to see fundamentalism from the perspective of the laity (men and women), but it provides much insight into the way fundamentalists organized for labor reform, prohibition, and other progressive causes. Chris’s project has the potential to challenge a dominant narrative of American fundamentalism that is mostly concerned with clergy and ideas.

Brendan Pietsch, Duke University: “Dispensational Modernism.”
Pietsch’s work connects the dispensational movement within American fundamentalism (C.I. Scofield plays a prominent role in the dissertation) to what he calls “popular beliefs about the power of quantification, classification, and scientific analysis.” He connects all those great dispensationalist charts dealing with the “end times” to what he calls “classificatory desire” in popular culture. He is not as much concerned with the minutiae of dispensational theology as he is the way in which new styles of organization and management and architectural drawing may have influenced the movement. As he puts it: “dispensationalists labored to chart anew the spiritual world through own scientific methods.”

I look forward to reading these books down the road.