The Politics of Faith: How Contests within Sacred Space Shaped Post-Emancipation Society

The Politics of Faith: How Contests within Sacred Space Shaped Post-Emancipation Society

In this roundtable, three historians present short excerpts from papers they would have presented at the 2020 meeting of the Society of Civil War Historians, which was cancelled due to Covid-19. The authors featured here explore how the wartime destruction of slavery shaped politics and power within Black churches, between Black and white church organizations, and in a progressive white-led congregation.

Group of African Americans in front of Church Building
First African Baptist Church, Richmond, Virginia, ca. 1865. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Caitlin Verboon examines the challenges Black church organizations faced in separating from white organizations, and why it was so important for them to do so. Investigating an explosive controversy within Washington, DC’s First Congregational Church, Peter Porsche shows how Black Oberlin graduate John Hartwell Cook pushed Freedmen’s Bureau Commissioner O. O. Howard to take a stand for racial equality within the church. Nicole Myers Turner previews many of the arguments in her 2020 book, Soul Liberty, by showing how, after emancipation, Black churches became venues for discussion of gender roles and foundations for political action. (Turner discussed her work with us in July.)

These three essays, all fragments of larger projects, reveal how much we may continue to learn from deep research into “the politics of faith” after the Civil War. Historians have shown that this was period of tremendous growth of independent Black denominations and that by establishing independent churches, African Americans created spaces in which they could not only worship as they chose but also nurture community ties and mobilize for politics on their own turf. These studies add nuance to our understanding, revealing new kinds of primary sources and new approaches that promise to yield exciting discoveries.

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