Digital Archive of Massachusetts Anti-Slavery and Anti-Segregation Petitions

Another great digital history project just went live last week.  


Harvard just made accessible a searchable online database of close to 3500 antislavery and antisegregation petitions sent to the Massachusetts colonial and state legislatures from the 1600s to 1870.  These petitions are housed at the Massachusetts Archives.


Read all about it here and here.

A small taste:

Each petition image is annotated with detailed information, and the dataset provides web-based browsing, searching, and filtering, along with images of the digitized documents. These digitized images include documents that date back to antislavery efforts from 1649 but also reflect black Revolutionary War veterans, female abolitionists (including Sojourner Truth), and petitions submitted before, during, and after the Civil War. The images, and the associated metadata, will be distributed by the Harvard Dataverse Network infrastructure and will be made publicly available for the first time at this event on February 27, 2015, at the end of Black History Month.

Adam Parsons on Randall Balmer and the Origins of the Religious Right

Regular readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home will remember the Author’s Corner interview we did in April with Randall Balmer on his new book, Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter.  In this book Balmer offers a new interpretation of the origins of the Religious Right.  (Actually, fans of Balmer’s work will know that he first put forth a version of this argument in his Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts Faith and Threatens America).  Here is what Balmer wrote in that interview:

I’d been batting about the idea for a biography of Carter for several decades, but I always found reasons to delay, in part because I didn’t have an angle on the project. I did research at the Carter Center and the presidential libraries of Reagan and Ford. I also did archival work at Liberty University and Bob Jones University, but the most important work I did was in Paul Weyrich’s papers, which (improbably enough) are held at the University of Wyoming, Laramie. My findings there allowed me, finally, to demonstrate beyond all doubt that the genesis of the Religious Right had nothing to do with the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973
Balmer elaborated on this argument in a recent piece on the origins of the Religious Right at Politico in which he argued that the movement coalesced around the desire of Southern fundamentalists to protect segregated Christian schools, and not around the anti-abortion crusade. Here is a taste of that piece:
In May 1969, a group of African-American parents in Holmes County, Mississippi, sued the Treasury Department to prevent three new whites-only K-12 private academies from securing full tax-exempt status, arguing that their discriminatory policies prevented them from being considered “charitable” institutions. The schools had been founded in the mid-1960s in response to the desegregation of public schools set in motion by the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954. In 1969, the first year of desegregation, the number of white students enrolled in public schools in Holmes County dropped from 771 to 28; the following year, that number fell to zero.

In Green v. Kennedy (David Kennedy was secretary of the treasury at the time), decided in January 1970, the plaintiffs won a preliminary injunction, which denied the “segregation academies” tax-exempt status until further review. In the meantime, the government was solidifying its position on such schools. Later that year, President Richard Nixon ordered the Internal Revenue Service to enact a new policy denying tax exemptions to all segregated schools in the United States. Under the provisions of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which forbade racial segregation and discrimination, discriminatory schools were not—by definition—“charitable” educational organizations, and therefore they had no claims to tax-exempt status; similarly, donations to such organizations would no longer qualify as tax-deductible contributions.

In my book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction I used Balmer’s

argument in my explanation of the origins of the Religious Right because it seemed to make sense. But I also suggested that the traditional view, that the Religious Right gained prominence in response to Roe v. Wade, was also correct.  For me it was a combination of things that brought about the rise of the Religious Right.  I was less concerned than Balmer about the exact event that got the movement started.


While I was browsing Facebook last night, I came across another take on Balmer’s thesis about the origins of Christian Right.  Adam Parsons is a doctoral student in American history at Syracuse University.  You may recall that we have featured some of his work before here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  Here is his take on the Balmer Politico essay:

I started to write a comment on this piece, which I’ve seen floating around a lot recently, and decided just to share it on my own page:
I’ve said similar things elsewhere, but – as much as I usually take his side – I think Balmer’s only half-right here. He’s right, of course, that Roe v. Wade was not the catalyst people think. And in looking for another origin, he’s right to point to taxation, and right to point to segregation academies – but there’s a lot more to the story than just the academies. It’s telling, for example, that he uses Bob Jones as an example. In the very politically conservative (we sang Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the U.S.A. in Sunday morning service during the first Gulf War) but also very Northern fundamentalist and evangelical circles in which I spent my childhood, BJU was looked at as a kind of weird, inbred cousin. This view was, from what I’ve seen, shared by a large percentage of northern evangelical leaders throughout the seventies and eighties – even the most conservative of them were, by and large, Moody Press people, not BJU folks.
Those regional distinctions – broadly, between Northern/Canadian, Old Southern, and Southwestern

Adam Parsons

evangelicals – started to break down, I think, a lot later than Balmer claims. He’s right to point to taxation – it’s just that the fears were driven by different things in different regions. In the Old South, yeah, it was the segregation academies. In the Southwest, it was, I think, part of the broader regional culture of John Birch conservatism, which overlapped quite a bit with conservative evangelicalism. In the North (and to a certain extent the Ozarks), though, I strongly suspect that anti-federal/anti-tax attitudes developed among evangelicals in a widespread way as they sought to opt out of late capitalism – they saw tax burdens as a way to obligate people to participate in regularized wage labor, which tore social institutions apart. This opting-out is particularly apparent in, for example, people’s explanations for their attraction to Amway and other kinds of multi-level marketing – they overwhelmingly talk about it as a way to achieve self-sufficiency and to reintegrate work and family life. (I suspect, also, that attraction to these kinds of business enterprises reinforced preexisting negative attitudes toward taxation; anyone who’s dealt with small-business or independent contractor taxes can tell you how much more onerous the administrative, and often financial, burden is compared to simple employment taxes).

There’s a lot more to the story, of course – the whole question of the southernization of the United States, for one, but also, for example, the fracture of radical evangelicalism during the seventies and eighties. A few brief thoughts, though: first, the story of the religious right is not, for the most part, a story about evangelicals changing their minds, but a story about new and different people thinking of themselves as part of the evangelical coalition. (To that extent, it’s also a story about class and intellectual respectability). Second, it would be instructive to produce work on the apartheid controversy in the American Dutch Reformed community, given their long-standing tradition of private schooling but also their ties to the Michigan GOP and their prominence within the evangelical left (especially the Wolterstorffs).

Thanks, Adam.

The Farmville Kneel-In

Farmville, VA Methodist Church

Over at Religion in American History, Mike Utzinger of Hampden-Sydney College has a fascinating piece on the 50th anniversary of an important moment in the Civil Rights Movement in Prince Edward County, VA.

In order to avoid desegregating its public school system, the county decided to abolish public education between 1959 and 1964.  White students attended all-white church academies and black students either left town, attended school in other counties, or were transplanted to other communities across the country by the American Friends Services Committee.  In 1963 the black students of the Prince Edward County town of Farmville had had enough and attempted kneel-ins in local white churches.

After reading Mike’s post, I am eager to read Jill Titus’s book Brown’s Battleground: Students, Segregationists, and the Struggle for Justice in Prince Edward County, VA.  I would really like to learn more about what was going through the head of the minister of the Farmville Methodist Church (one of the few people who did not leave the church when the black students tried to attend worship, although he did beg the students to leave).  It was his first Sunday on the job!

Here is a taste of Mike’s piece:

Fifty years to the day, First Baptist Church, Farmville Methodist, Farmville Baptist, and Johns Memorial Episcopal Church commemorated the kneel in with a walking tour where the churches were open to all, including individuals barred from entrance 50 years ago.  Rev. Williams, pastor of Levi Baptist Church, spoke at First Baptist, recalling, “I had the students and the demonstrators sing right there on the steps of Farmville Baptist and I prayed. Well, before we knew anything, here come the cops.”  The students, he remembered, went limp as the officers carried them away.  However, within the past decade, he noted, things have changed. He even preached at Farmville Baptist last Good Friday.  Ms. Tina Land Harris was a leader in the NAACP Youth Organization and a student leader of the demonstrations.  She was also arrested that day on the church steps.  However, fifty years later the Farmville Police Department made a commendation of the students’ bravery.  After the commendation, a young lieutenant, who said the photographs of the arrests gave him chills (and not the good kind), turned and hugged Ms. Harris noting his respect of her bravery. Williams then led the multi-ethnic crowd of about 200 people in several chorus of “We Shall Overcome.”  Centra Southside Hospital provided water for the participants as they left the church for the next stop.  The Town of Farmville donated a local bus to transport those who needed assistance from site to site.