The Author’s Corner With Stephen Ash

rebel richmondStephen Ash is Professor Emeritus at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. This interview is based on his new book, Rebel Richmond: Life and Death in the Confederate Capital (The University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Rebel Richmond?

SA: After finishing another book some years ago, I began searching for a new topic. I wanted to stay in my comfort zone (Civil War-era social history) but was ready to try something new within that field.

I’d never written an urban history. The subject intrigued me, but at first I hesitated to take on Richmond. Several general histories of the city during the war have been published, and numerous books, articles, and dissertations have explored particular aspects of its wartime experience. But in doing research for my earlier books  I’d come across some extraordinarily rich primary sources that were unused, or under-used, by previous tellers of Richmond’s tale. So it seemed to me that the full story of Richmond during the Civil War remained to be told.

The earlier general histories depended heavily on newspapers, city council minutes, and published letters, diaries, and militar reports. This dependency skewed them: they have much to say about elite Richmonders, high government officials, and the battles around the capital, but not much about ordinary Richmonders and their daily struggles. Those sources have all been very useful to me, but the others I delved into—including census reports, soldiers’ military service files, records of Confederate government bureaus and manufactories and hospitals, and the correspondence of the Virginia governors—opened wonderful new perspectives.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Rebel Richmond?

SA: Between 1861 and 1865, Richmond experienced a storm of calamities and transformations like no other American city, before or since, has had to endure. The people–men and women and children, whites and blacks, rich and poor, bosses and workers, civilians and soldiers, secessionists and Unionists, long-time residents and wartime refugees–responded to this unprecedented crisis in very human ways, sometimes nobly and sometimes shamefully, but mostly somewhere in between.

JF: Why do we need to read Rebel Richmond?

SA: It not only tells us much that we didn’t know about the Civil War but also casts light on the broader question of how human beings cope with extreme circumstances.

In making my case, I emphasize the role of religion. Christian belief was at the heart of Richmonders’ understanding of the Civil War. White secessionists believed that God was on their side and would ensure Confederate victory, as long as believers were faithful to His commands. When the war turned against the South in 1863, some concluded that the sins of the Confederate people had cost them God’s favor; but others saw the military setbacks not as a judgment but as a test of their worthiness in God’s eyes.

Black Richmonders, by contrast, saw the war as the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah, promising freedom to the captives. As the war went on, they drew comfort also from the book of Daniel (11:15): “So the king of the north shall come . . . and the arms of the south shall not withstand.”

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

SA: I turned thirteen in 1961, the year that our nation began its observance of the Civil War’s centennial. That’s an age at which many people acquire a hobby and a focus, and that’s what happened in my case. I fell in love with the Civil War, read all I could about it in the succeeding years, chose to go to Gettysburg College and major in history, worked as a licensed battlefield guide at Gettysburg in the summers, and subsequently went to grad school at the University of Tennessee and wrote a dissertation about Middle Tennessee during the Civil War and Reconstruction. In all those years, I never really had any other aspiration besides studying the Civil War. I’m one of the lucky few who turned an adolescent fascination into a career.

JF: What is your next project?

SA: I wish I could answer this question. I think I’ve got at least one more book in me, but I haven’t yet found a topic that really intrigues me. If the readers of this blog have any suggestions, I’d love to hear them (sash@utk.edu).

JF: Thanks, Stephen!

Churches and the Legacy of Racism: A Tale of Two Congregations

Interior_of_St._Pauls_Episcopal_Church_Richmond_VA_2013_8759347988-e1443705658980

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Richmond, VA

Back in June, I wrote a post about the 150th anniversary of the founding of First Baptist Church in Dallas, the congregation led by court evangelical Robert Jeffress.  In that post I referenced Tobin Grant’s 2016 Religion News Service piece on the long history of racial segregation at First Baptist. Daniel Silliman’s piece at Religion Dispatches is also worth a look.

Here is the 150th anniversary video that the congregation has been promoting:

A few comments:

  1.  The narrative revolves around three authoritarian clergymen:  George Truett, W.A. Criswell, and Robert Jeffress.
  2. It says nothing about the fact that the Southern Baptist Church was formed because southern Baptists defended slavery and white supremacy.
  3. It says nothing about Truett’s and Criswell’s commitment to racial segregation and Jim Crow.
  4. It does include an image of Robert Jeffress with Donald Trump.  Let’s remember that Jeffress defended Trump last year after the POTUS equated white supremacists and those protesting against white supremacy in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Rather than taking a hard look at its past, First Baptist-Dallas has whitewashed it.

I thought about this June 2018 post a couple of weeks ago when I had the privilege of teaching the Adult Faith Formation class at St. Paul’s Episcopalian Church in Richmond, Virginia.  St. Paul’s occupies and amazing building in the heart of Richmond.  It is located across the street from the Virginia State Capitol and adjacent to the Virginia Supreme Court.  The church was founded in 1844.

During the Civil War, when Richmond served as the Confederate capital, both Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis worshiped at St. Paul’s.   After the war, the church used its windows to tell the story of the Lost Cause.  It is often described as the “Cathedral of the Confederacy.”

But unlike First Baptist-Dallas, St. Paul’s decided to come to grips with its racist past.  In 2015, the church began its “History and Reconciliation Initiative” (HRI) with the goal of tracing and acknowledging the racial history of the congregation in order to “repair, restore, and seek reconciliation with God each other and the broader community.”  I encourage you to visit the HRI website to read more about the way St. Paul’s is trying to come to grips with the darker sides of its past.

Public historian Christopher Graham, who co-chairs the HRI when he is not curating an exhibit at The American Civil War Museum, invited me to Richmond to speak.  He is doing some amazing work at the intersection of public history and religion.

When I think about St. Paul’s, I am reminded of Jurgen Moltmann’s call to “waken the dead and piece together what has been broken.”  It is also refreshing to see the words “repair” and “restore” used in conjunction with the word “reconciliation” instead of “Christian America.”

Southern Baptists, and American evangelicals more broadly, may immediately conclude that they have little in common theologically with St. Paul’s Episcopalian Church in Richmond and can thus dismiss the congregation’s history-related efforts as just another social justice project propagated by theological liberals.  But this would be a shame.  They can learn a lot from this congregation about how to take a deep and honest look into the mirror of the past.

When Removing Monuments Strengthens Our Knowledge of the Past

St. Paul

Earlier this week we posted on Kate Shellnut’s Christianity Today article on the way that churches in the South are dealing with their Confederate legacy and monuments.

Since I wrote that post I learned about similar efforts at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, the so-called “Cathedral of the Confederacy.”  Jefferson Davis was a member of this church.  Robert E. Lee worshiped there during the Civil War.

In recent years the church has formed the “History and Racial Reconciliation Initiative” to deal with Confederate symbols in the church, including Confederate battle flags. According to this article at Episcopal News Service, some of these symbols have been removed. Others have not, but the church continues to have conversations about what is appropriate.

Some of the comments on the Episcopal News Service piece have not been pretty.  Here are a few:

Historical “censorship” and revisionism as demonstrated above, is intellectually dishonest, spiritually counterfeit and an anathema to freedom. Actions like these, as innocuous as they appear, are small steps on the path to totalitarianism.

What seems to be lost in all of this is that History is important. We don’t need to be erasing it, we need to learn from it! If we destroy all of the symbols of periods of history we do not like, what have we accomplished? Nothing except a little misguided “feel good” for those in favor of the destruction of the symbols. The same symbols that people want to destroy provide us with a chance to explain how we have resolved those issues, grown as a Church and as churchmen, and understand and respect the journeys of those who lived though those times struggled with their own faith. What can be wrong with that? Have we not learned from the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, and from the Civil Rights Movement? Should we destroy the Holocaust Museum, etc.. I hope not.

The confederacy is a part of our history. It is wrong to glorify it, but I think we need to remember it so that we don’t let this happen again. Sweeping things under the rug don’t make them go away, compassion and justice keep them from happening again. I was born and raised in Miami. My family lived in Key West and had slaves and freed them but still provided for them as long as they lived. It is our history, we can’t make it go away – we need to remember.

Political correctness has gone too far when it results in the re-writing of history. It’s our past and we all live with it. The USSR was the last regime in my lifetime to attempt to re-write history. I am saddened the U. S. is going that way.

One of the leaders of the History and Racial Reconciliation Initiative is public and religious historian Christopher Graham.  (He is mentioned in the article).

Graham has turned to his blog “Whig Hill” to address some of the negative comments. He argues that the history conversations at St. Paul’s have actually led the members of the congregation to have a better understanding of their shared past.

Here is a taste of his post:

To the main point; I’ve heard this charge often—that pulling down monuments is erasure; that we’ll know less and be deprived of the opportunity to learn and be inspired—even if by the transcendence of error. Never have had an adequate response to it until now.

What has happened at St. Paul’s is a rebuke to the assertion that we’re erasing the past. Since removing a small number of Confederate icons from the sanctuary, St. Paul’s now knows more about its own history than it ever has.

Even at this early stage of the HRI process, the people at St. Paul’s are able to articulate:

  • Who congregants were in the 1850s and how they fit into Richmond’s slave based economy.
  • How their faith reconciled slaveholding with Christianity, and how they enacted that faith to shape the racial-religious landscape of Richmond.
  • How sharing wartime anxiety, adrenaline, and grief (and yes, faith in the Confederacy’s ultimate cause) tied the church’s identity to the Confederate nation and its leaders.
  • How the narrative of racial difference forged in slavery continued to shape Episcopalian practice in Virginia (and beyond) for a century after 1865.
  • How the stories this church told itself with its memorials contributed to the “Lost Cause” explanation of the Confederacy—and in doing so constructed a history of race and slavery that reinforced efforts to disfranchise and marginalize African Americans in political, economic, and social life in Richmond in the twentieth century.
  • Who among its parishioners that supported the movement toward legal segregation in the 1902 Constitution, the 1912 and 1914 city segregation ordnances, the 1924 Racial Integrity Act, and the 1926 Massenberg Bill. (Most, likely, at the first, but a decreasing number by the last.)
  • Who among its parishioners and clergy (Bowie, Munford, Tucker, Carrington) that tirelessly and passionately opposed the adoption of these laws, and promoted anti-lynching and anti-Klan legislation, even if we recognize that they did so because of their racial paternalism.
  • How churchmen and churchwomen of St. Paul’s—along with the rest of Richmond’s elite—challenged and shaped the geography and culture of segregation that dominated the twentieth century and that we still see the vestiges of today.

These are just a small and incomplete sampling of the points upon which we’re developing a new narrative about our own past.

We haven’t erased history. Indeed, the removal of a small number of tablets has served as a catalyst for knowing more. And that may be my key takeaway in this particular moment: whether you alter a memorial landscape or not, the action can’t be the only thing, but just one point in a larger process of discovery and re-inscription. Moving things may not even be the most important element of that process in the end.

I can’t say (because nothing has been decided) what will become of the items removed, or those that remain. In fact, this process and the discussions around it have ranged far beyond the location of memorials. But I do know that the knowledge that we’re beginning to carry about our past, present, and future, feels far more consequential right now.

Read Graham’s entire post here.  This is a wonderful model for how to bring good history to bear on the life of religious congregations.  I am glad that Graham is involved in this initiative.

I wonder what it might look like to have a similar conversation in a church that places an American flag in the sanctuary.

The Author’s Corner With Douglas Thompson

RichmondDouglas Thompson is Associate Professor of History in the College of Liberal Arts at Mercer University.  This interview is based on his new book Richmond’s Priests and Prophets: Race, Religion, and Social Change in the Civil Rights Era (University of Alabama Press, 2017)

JF: What led you to write Richmond’s Priests and Prophets?

DT: I never intended to write this book. A lot of the research for this project had been done for a dissertation. When I completed the Ph.D., I already had a job in a teaching university so publishing a book, particularly turning a dissertation into a book, did not register on my radar. Once I abandoned the “dream” of being a dean because it took me away from the classroom, I sketched out a research agenda that included a project on how automobiles transformed the American South. When I applied for a sabbatical, the plan was to begin the research on that project and develop an article for publication to float the idea for the larger project. Every time I sat down to work on the car project, however, I kept thinking about the Richmond research. Just before my sabbatical I pulled out the dissertation and began tearing it apart.

After a feverish month I had a chapter written and drafted out the reimagined book. I sent the chapter off to two people I trust—one a specialist in religious history and one who is not—and told them to decide whether I should pursue the book on Richmond. Both readers encouraged me to write it, so I spent the sabbatical covering some new research and writing the book. The peer review draft went to the University of Alabama Press as I came off sabbatical.

JF: In two sentences what is the argument of the book?

DT: Outside the glare of the 1960s spectacles of marches, kneel-ins, and sit-ins Richmond’s ministers and congregations provide a compelling story about how white Christians wrestled with social change. Without overstating the findings, their variety of responses shed light on Christianity as an agent of change in social movements.

JF: Why do we need to read Richmond’s Priests and Prophets?

DT: I wrote the book for a middle ground between academics and practitioners of Christianity. While I dislike the term microhistory, the narrow focus helps us see how events on the ground both looked like the larger civil rights narrative but also how people disrupted that story.  My hope is that people will read about how folks tried to make progress and used denominational mechanisms to bring about change but also to impede change in desegregating schools and congregations. Chapter one addresses an idea found initially in Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma and repeated since then that the church is not the church unless its functions in its ideal form. Even as Myrdal praised black congregations for conserving cultural identities within African American communities, he blamed white Christians for failing to condemn segregation and racism. In fact, the same forces that help black congregations sustain cultural norms also inform how white congregations might resist desegregation.

In Richmond, I found lots of Christians doing what Myrdal called for but I also found other people attempting to maintain segregation in churches. A good example of this is when white Presbyterians opened a two-week desegregated summer camp in 1957 and maintained the practice through the end of the decade and beyond, but First Presbyterian Church, Richmond spent three years trying to undo that work. The traditional way to interpret this episode is that the progressive move to desegregate was prophetic and that FPC had a conservative reaction. The problem with that simple reading is that it misses two points about desegregation. First, the presbytery had created at least two black congregations so there were children within the presbytery who would not be able to attend and it could not afford a separate camp. Second, the arguments for desegregation were not forward thinking but backward glancing. Presbytery leaders took seriously the command in the Torah, emphasized in prophets like Amos, and taught in Jesus’ treatment of the neighbor that the stranger is a son or daughter of God. The nature of the prophetic voice is not politically progressive although we tend to think about it that way. Richmond’s religious newspaper editors, ministerial association, as well as Methodists and Presbyterians present an array of approaches to desegregation. Their stories can help us understand social change and churches in our present day.

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

DT: I am still coming to terms with that one. There was a day not long into my sabbatical when I had written something and realized that idea was all mine. A few weeks later someone asked what I did and I responded “I am an historian” for the first time, usually I would say teacher or professor.

The other way to answer that question is to tell the story of my first semester in seminary. I had Bill Leonard—Baptist historian now at Wake Forest—for church history. Since Southern Baptist Theological Seminary did not have an official advising program, I asked Bill if he would be my adviser. Within a few weeks of the start of the relationship while visiting in his office, he asked what I was going to do with an MDiv. I said I wanted to be a campus minister. Given our conversations up to that point and the rapid changes taking place in Southern Baptist circles, he said something like “you’ll never get hired.” Talk about existential angst. In hindsight, he was correct. I drifted through classes for the next couple of weeks wondering what I was doing in seminary. Shortly before the end of the term and sitting in one of his lectures, I thought, “I want to do that.” The Ph.D. program at Virginia tweaked that idea a little more and a teaching fellowship at Mercer landed me doing what I do today.

JF: What is your next project?

DT: I have a contract with University of Georgia Press for a book tentatively titled “A Journey of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr., the Vietnam War, and the Struggle for the Soul of America.” I am also in the early stages of a project on Wendell Berry. The car project is always with me.

JF: Thanks, Doug!