Reconstructing Religion

Reconstructing Religion

Mark A. Noll

As recently as 1994, a distinguished historian in an important book on Reconstruction opined that “there were no really significant developments in American religion.”[1] John Hope Franklin made a great contribution to reinterpreting the Reconstruction era in general, but not with this woefully inadequate statement. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that between the firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861 and the inauguration of President Rutherford B. Hayes in March 1877, almost everything respecting religion in American public life changed. If the community of professional historians came late to recognize the earthquake in religious life occasioned by the Civil War and Reconstruction, that community has been working diligently over the last two decades to make up for lost time. For the Civil War itself, a plethora of fresh studies, climaxed by George Rable’s comprehensive synthesis in 2010, is fulfilling James McPherson’s prescient observation-cum-mandate from 1998: “Religion was central to the meaning of the Civil War, as the generation that experienced the war tried to understand it. Religion should be central to our efforts to recover that meaning.”[2] For the era of Reconstruction, this recognition has yielded especially noteworthy results in creatively researched studies that spotlight the postbellum emergence of independent African American churches as a momentously significant development for black community life as well as a crucial factor in the history of the former Confederacy. It has also borne significant fruit in scholarship describing how deeply Reconstruction affected the religion of whites, both North and South. Still to be fully explored and explained, however, are the systemic connections between what happened in the churches and what occurred in American society as a whole. Yet for that purpose, the increasingly sophisticated scholarship on religious subjects means that documentation is at hand to specify how, as Edward Blum recently phrased it, “religions shaped Reconstruction. . . . And Reconstruction transformed religions in the United States.”[3]

The earlier situation can be illustrated by the near invisibility of religion in the definitive, but strongly antithetical, narratives from William Dunning and W. E. B. Du Bois. In 1907, Dunning’s influential account of Reconstruction as dominated by Radical Republican corruption at the expense of Democrats, southern whites, and American business mentioned religion only when observing that the “moral and political doctrine” of two religious weeklies published in New York City “inspired and reflected the spirit of a most upright and conscientious part of the population.”[4] For his part, Du Bois had earlier written of the period after emancipation as marking the rise of “the great African Methodist Church, the greatest Negro organization in the world.”[5] Yet when in 1935 he offered his own deeply researched riposte to Dunning in Black Reconstruction in America, he mentioned religious motives behind postbellum educational initiatives, but little else. While Du Bois’s prose echoed the biblical cadence of African American churches (for example, when the slave trade captured Africans, “they descended into Hell; and, in the third century they arose from the dead”), he did not feature religion as such, even the African Methodist Episcopal Church, in his comprehensive account.[6]

Neglect of religion during Reconstruction came to an end when the civil rights movement reoriented the national historical conscience and in so doing stimulated a nonpartisan historical imperative to get facts straight. Landmark books by Leon Litwack and Eric Foner led the way in this second historical reconstruction when they spotlighted “the black church” as “the central and unifying institution in the postwar black community” (Litwack) and “the creation of an independent black religious life” as “a momentous and irreversible consequence of emancipation” (Foner).[7] Books by Clarence Walker and William Montgomery revealed the fresh insights waiting for those who expanded the brief treatments of these scholars into full-scale monographs—Walker by showing how the African Methodist Episcopal Church of Reconstruction promoted both bourgeois respectability and self-assertive black pride, Montgomery by seasoning his account of black church diversity with consideration of African survivals, emigration, and black nationalism.[8]

But not until 1998 and the publication of Daniel Stowell’s Rebuilding Zion did a scholar make a comprehensive attempt to demonstrate that “the contested process of religious reconstruction in the South forced black and white southerners and northerners to confront the meaning of the Civil War for their religious lives”—even as he also intimated that “the decisions they made . . . continued to affect the section and the nation” for long thereafter.[9] Stowell’s study, which features intensive research in Georgia and Tennessee sources, explains the unusual significance of the Methodists’ complicated alphabet soup (MEC [Methodist Episcopal Church], MECS [Methodist Episcopal Church South], AME [African Methodist Episcopal], AMEZ [African Methodist Episcopal Zion], CME [Colored Methodist Episcopal]); it provides similar insight for the almost as complicated southern Presbyterian landscape along with the fractiously localized universe of the Baptists; but most of all it insists that full consideration of Reconstruction religion demanded attention to whites, both North and South, as well as blacks, both free and freed. The result was a redefinition of the religious story of Reconstruction as national, multidimensional, and significant for much more than what happened in the churches.[10]

Since 1998 a wealth of sophisticated research, some of which makes good use of earlier efforts, has been fleshing out the broader canvas that Stowell sketched. A far from comprehensive tour d’horizon can nonetheless indicate the vitality of recent scholarship for southern and northern white religion, but even more for African American church life. In a first instance, denominational historians of African American Methodism like Dennis Dickerson and Gordon J. Melton have supplied valuable biographical and institutional information.[11] More comprehensively, Paul Harvey has shown how “theological racism,” “racial interchange,” and “Christian interracialism” affected southern society as these positions took shape in the Reconstruction era, but then continued to exert society-wide influence long thereafter.[12] John Giggie explored another complex story when he wrote about blacks in the Mississippi delta who exploited a thick network of church connections—augmented by participation in fraternal orders, activity in commerce, and creative exploitation of the railroads—to blunt the force of white racism.[13] Curtis Evans’s deconstruction of the notion of the black church as a single conceptual entity reinforces the fact that patterns in black church life established in the mid-1860s long continued to mark subsequent developments.[14] Chapters by Matthew Harper, Scott Nesbit, and Charles Irons in a noteworthy collection from 2013 exegete the importance of apocalyptic, millennial, and prophetic themes in the middle decades of the century for, respectively, black investment in emancipation, black land ownership, and racially separate black churches.[15] From a wider chronological perspective, John Coffey documented a strong continuity in African British and African American recourse to scriptures of liberty—especially the escape of the Israelites from Egypt in Exodus 20 and Jesus’s proclamation of his liberating mission in Luke 4—from the eighteenth century, through Reconstruction, and into the civil rights era.[16] In perhaps the most far-reaching study indicating how the internal life of African American churches intersected with national developments, James Bennett’s study of Catholics in New Orleans explains how the city’s unusual tri-racialism (blacks, whites, creoles) survived through Reconstruction and even moderated at least some of the era’s increasingly powerful biracialism, only to see Catholics in the era of Plessy v. Ferguson give way to the Jim Crow discrimination that had come to prevail among the city’s Protestants a generation before.[17]

Scholarship on southern white religion in Reconstruction, while not quite as extensive, has nonetheless substantially expanded on earlier important books by Samuel Hill, Gaines Foster, and Charles Reagan Wilson.[18] Beth Schweiger’s study of white pastors in Virginia depicts a clientele sustained through the tumults of Reconstruction by education, middle-class respectability, and a fresh commitment to denominational structures.[19] Essays from 2005 in a book edited by Edward Blum and Scott Poole outline several paths taken by whites, North and South, for putting sectional conflict behind them.[20] On white theological support for lynch law, Donald Mathews and Darren Grem have provided new insights and riveting moral perspective.[21] In works on southern Presbyterians, Sean Michael Lucas and Zachary Dresser explain how a concept of “the spirituality of the church” was deployed to resist Reconstruction, reinforce racial hierarchy, and salve pious consciences.[22]

A significant advance in documenting the extensive religious engagement of both northern and southern whites in every stage of Reconstruction, as well as the retreat from Reconstruction, came in Edward Blum’s 2005 Reforging the White Republic and the collection of essays Blum coedited the same year.[23] Augmenting the story of northern religious commitment to postbellum southern benevolence, especially southern education, that Du Bois, Litwack, and Foner had highlighted, the Blum and Poole books explored the much less inspiring story of northern white moral exhaustion. Religious currents that had earlier fueled active reforms, including varieties of immediate abolition and gradual emancipation, turned aside in the 1870s to advocate North-South reconciliation, focus on personal moral discipline (especially temperance), and accommodate to the imperatives of an industrial society—or simply retreated into a northern analog to the white South’s “spirituality of the church.” In sum, the relatively recent attention to white religion during Reconstruction, both North and South, has created a silver age of scholarship to accompany the golden age for serious study of African American religion.

The remaining challenge is to specify how breakthrough research for the various religious communities illuminates national history. Although several of the works already mentioned move in that direction, Edward Blum and Paul Harvey’s 2012 The Color of Christ and a 2013 essay from Blum provide the most extensive efforts. The Color of Christ is a wide-ranging cultural history that takes in industrialization, immigration, imperialism, print media, and electronic media. In its account Reconstruction appears as a critical episode that sustained, while also altering, the nation’s enduring wrestle with race.[24] In his essay, Blum contends that national circumstances emerging in the mid-1870s must be evaluated in relationship to circumstances before 1860. Particularly crucial in his account is the jolt delivered by emancipation and Reconstruction to a widespread antebellum certainty “about God’s designs for the nation.” That jolt “shattered the old America,” even as it left many citizens still convinced about God’s providential solicitude for the United States—but after 1865, as “all types of Americans recast their faiths,” a much more diverse sense of providence fragmented by ambiguity, flexibility, disappointment, disillusionment, prophetic interventions, and both reinterpretations and doubts respecting Scripture. According to Blum, this diversifying fragmentation helps explain major national developments—including the shape of southern white resistance to Republican Reconstruction, the willingness of northern white abolitionists to prioritize national reconciliation over black liberation, the ability of Mormons to finesse polygamy and so gain national political standing, the turn of biblical premillennialists from social activism to passive preoccupation with the future, the resources that labor activists found in moral extensions of slave emancipation, and the disillusionment of Native Americans about any kind of divine assistance for their increasingly marginalized plight.[25]

Details in Blum’s picture can be debated. Reconstruction’s major impact on Mormons, as an instance, was probably, as Sarah Barringer Gordon has shown, that “the erosion of a national commitment to reform in the South actually increased the attention paid to Utah, and to polygamy.”[26] Yet Blum’s essay succeeds in making his major point—that a richer religious history demands a more comprehensive national history. Put more specifically, because of the Civil War an earlier “evangelical America” fractured; because of that fracture American culture moved in new directions.

To exploit Blum’s insight, historians must resist the temptation to divide the American past into two discrete halves separated at 1865 or 1877 but rather insist on considering the nation’s story as a continuous series of adjustments, with every new era deeply affected by earlier currents that expanded, contracted, or remained much as before. Most obviously for the Reconstruction period, the religious and organizational energy of African Americans, which had been previously constrained, took advantage of new opportunities to flourish. Almost as obviously, slavery was gone, but white racism remained. At the same time, the American economy continued its rapid evolution away from person-to-person Whig entrepreneurship toward industrial giantism. In politics, the memory of wartime northern mobilization remained an inspiration to some progressive reformers, even during the national retreat on race and the concessions to laissez-faire business. Significantly, each of these well-documented transitions occurred within a religious force field where change reverberated throughout the national constellation as a whole. In particular, evangelical Protestantism, which had dominated many aspects of the antebellum era, although it continued to inspire much lay and clerical personal religion, lost the comprehensive reach of its antebellum influence.

To look ahead from Reconstruction, it is imperative to look back from the Civil War. For that purpose, Richard Carwardine’s definitive study of antebellum religion and politics provides a convenient baseline. During the first decades of the United States, in his words, “new certainties, new communities, new social networks, and new patterns of living were needed in this world of flux and disintegration. For thousands of Americans evangelical religion provided the answer.” Although the consequence was not absolute evangelical hegemony, yet compared to any other system of values—with the possible exception of broadly republican commitments—as many “American citizens sought to give meaning to politics, evangelicalism offered them a perspective and critical apparatus for the task.” By 1860, “religion and politics had fused more completely than ever before in the American republic.” This religion for public purposes was predominately evangelical; the politics everywhere reflected “mental attitudes, social relationships, and public discourse” shaped by the same forms of activistic Protestantism.[27]

Recognizing the central cultural position of antebellum evangelicalism is not the same as valorizing it; for some Protestants then and now, not to speak of many other interested parties (also then and now), have leveled sobering criticisms at antebellum social mores. Quite apart from moral judgments, however, is an empirical reality—that because of the Civil War, emancipation, Reconstruction, and the end of Reconstruction, “religion,” as Blum suggests, “lost some of its antebellum authority.”[28] More precisely, the earlier evangelical near-hegemony dramatically weakened.

The spillover from that weakening affected American society comprehensively. To be sure, white Protestants, as Gaines Foster and others have shown, did retain considerable moral energy. If that energy mostly turned aside from racial reforms, it still could organize active lobbying aimed at protecting the family, preventing sexual oppression, and above all attacking abuse of alcohol. These efforts were led by northern Republicans but also drew some Democratic support and, especially on issues of alcohol, polygamy, and obscenity, reinforcement from the South as well. Such mobilization, carrying on the vision of a strong central government from the Civil War, sought, in Foster’s words, “to expand the moral powers of the federal government and to establish the religious authority of the state.”[29] The federal legislation that resulted—including the Comstock Law, the Mann Act, various restrictions on narcotics, and alcohol reform leading eventually to the Eighteenth Amendment—can now seem oppressively Victorian. Nonetheless, campaigners like Frances Willard of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, who always viewed opposition to drink as obtaining protection for women and children, definitely sustained some of the altruism of antebellum evangelical reform.

Yet by accommodating reform to the acceptance of Jim Crow, postbellum white Protestants also showed how much the war had undercut their influence. In particular, the multiform but powerful evangelical conviction that the Bible revealed God’s absolute moral standard for personal faith, corporate religious organization, and proper social order lay shattered amid the intellectual debris from debates over slavery and the material rubble created by two great armies, both convinced that God was on their side. In Allen Guelzo’s apt phrasing, “for every Northern divine claiming God’s favor for the Union, and every Southern one claiming God’s favor for the Confederacy, there were far more who could not make up their minds what to say about slavery. . . . Taken together, they created a popular perception that religion had nothing reliable or coherent to say about the greatest American issue of the nineteenth century.” Whatever religiously inspired groups said about other moral challenges, no comprehensive moral authority engaged the terrorism propelling the retreat from Reconstruction, the indifference in almost all white communities to the rise of Jim Crow, or the plight of workers in the American industrial revolution. To quote Guelzo once more: “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.”[30]

Antebellum controversy about what the Bible taught concerning slavery had created a first-order national problem: was it a purely evil sin, a regrettable evil but not exactly a sin, an entire good, or a good that needed to be disciplined by “Abrahamic” standards? After the earlier national consensus on the authority of Scripture broke apart, approaches to the Bible illustrated the fragmentation that Edward Blum described. During and after Reconstruction a significant segment of the Protestant population—as suggested by Luke Harlow and Michael Phillips—clung to biblical literalism but focused now on prophetic interpretations of the future rather than Scripture’s offhand references to slavery.[31] As Molly Oshatz has documented, a smaller, but culturally more prominent group of elite white Protestants, warned away from simple biblicism by the scriptural defense of slavery, turned to refined ethical sensibility as their moral lodestar.[32] A still smaller, but still more influential, cultural coterie gave up on the Bible altogether and, as explained by George Fredrickson, Anne Rose, and Louis Menand, abandoned the notion of moral absolutes in favor of pragmatic responses to the nation’s social maladies.[33]

Against this now jumbled array of ethical authorities, recourse to a putatively objective science seemed especially attractive—except for African Americans who became victims of the ever more authoritative pronouncements of scientific racism. As bad as the biblical defense of slavery had been for African Americans, white Bible believers still affirmed the unity of the human race. But during Reconstruction and afterward, as Eugene Genovese once suggested, the polygenetic science of the late nineteenth century replaced an earlier monogenism based on the Bible.[34] George Fredrickson’s comment about England pertained as well to the United States: “Scientific racism of the explicitly or implicitly polygenetic kind did not take hold . . . until after the mid-nineteenth century, mainly because of the strength of evangelical Christianity, and its commitment to the belief that all human beings descended from Adam.”[35] Because of Protestant confusion coming out of the Civil War, Reconstruction witnessed biblical uncertainty about slavery giving way to scientific certainty about black anthropological inferiority.

The implosion of the nearly comprehensive spiritual authority exercised by antebellum white Protestants, especially when combined with postbellum electoral contingencies, did mean that other religious communities were able to flourish as had not been possible before. Because the nation’s most visible Protestants supported the Republican Party so visibly, Catholic loyalty to the Democratic Party paid off in local patronage and national visibility when Democrats experienced political comebacks, as in the 1874 congressional canvass.[36] By the end of Reconstruction, rising young Catholics, like Bishop James Gibbons, also gained significant public traction by claiming that they, not the hopelessly divided Protestants, offered the most reliable understanding of the Bible.[37] By extending the timeframe of Reconstruction past the mid-1870s, it becomes obvious that decline of influence for the groups that dominated antebellum American religion did not mean the decline of religion per se. Instead, the decades after 1865 witnessed the rising vitality of, as primary examples, Jews in many urban areas, German and Scandinavian Catholics and Lutherans in the Upper Midwest, and a wide variety of Catholics in many parts of the country.[38]

These examples could be extended to illustrate the value of integrating the religious history of 1861–77 into full accounts of the national story. That history goes far to explain why in 1877 most of the nation’s white Christian population, which shortly before had declaimed so loudly on national crises, remained silent about troop deployment to curtail railroad strikes and troop withdrawals to end military occupation of the former Confederacy. It also helps explain why as Reconstruction was coming to an end temperance replaced abolition as the reform of choice for activist Protestants. It clarifies why religious influence grew for groups not associated with antebellum white Protestants. And it offers a clue as to why in the early twentieth century Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson (both church members in good standing) domesticated the Bible as simply a bulwark of democracy when less than half a century before Abraham Lincoln (never the member of a church) had used Scripture in his Second Inaugural Address to challenge citizens with a standard of righteousness greater than any American cause.[39]

During Reconstruction, and then as a result of Reconstruction, significant developments in American religion proliferated on every side. If it requires attention to the antebellum nation in order to grasp the great importance of postbellum religious developments outside of the churches as well as inside, the effort will pay off in a much firmer grasp of how Reconstruction transformed religions and religions shaped Reconstruction.


MARK A. NOLL is Francis A. McAnaney Professor of history at Notre Dame University. He is the author of several articles and books, including, most recently, In the Beginning Was the Word: the Bible in American Public Life, 1492-1783 (Oxford University Press, 2015).


[1] John Hope Franklin, Reconstruction after the Civil War, 2d ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 185.
[2] George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010); James M. McPherson, afterword to Religion and the American Civil War, ed. Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout, and Charles Reagan Wilson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 412.
[3] Edward J. Blum, “‘To Doubt This Would Be to Doubt God’: Reconstruction and the Decline of Providential Confidence,” in Apocalypse and the Millennium in the American Civil War Era, ed. Ben Wright and Zachary W. Dresser (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2013), 246.
[4] William Archibald Dunning, Reconstruction: Political and Economic, 1865–1877 (New York: Harper & Bros., 1907), 347.
[5] W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903; repr., Boston: Boston Globe, 2005), 42.
[6] W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860–1880 (1935; repr., New York: Athenaeum, 1985), 77, 90–91, 727.
[7] Leon F. Litwack, Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery (New York: Knopf, 1981), 471; Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 (1988; repr., New York: History Book Club, 2005), 88. Foner also provided indispensable assistance for charting the impact of black church leaders on southern life generally in Freedom’s Lawmakers: A Directory of Black Officeholders during Reconstruction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).
[8] Clarence W. Walker, A Rock in a Weary Land: The African Methodist Episcopal Church during the Civil War and Reconstruction (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982); William E. Montgomery, Under Their Own Vine and Fig Tree: African American Churches in the South, 1865–1900 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993).
[9] Daniel W. Stowell, Rebuilding Zion: The Religious Reconstruction of the South, 1863–1877 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 186 (emphases added).
[10] Stowell’s helpful survey of historiography underscored what Edward Blum would later describe as a paucity of efforts trying to “connect religion to the crucial issues of the era.” Stowell, ibid., 10–11; Blum, “To Doubt This Would Be to Doubt God,” 218, which in turn expanded upon Blum, Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and American Nationalism, 1865–1898 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005), 8–10.
[11] Dennis C. Dickerson, A Liberated Past: Explorations in AME Church History (Nashville: AME Sunday School Union, 2003); Gordon J. Melton, A Will to Choose: The Origins of African American Methodism (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), 211–82.
[12] Paul Harvey, Freedom’s Coming: Religious Culture and the Shaping of the South from the Civil War through the Civil Rights Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005).
[13] John Michael Giggie, After Redemption: Jim Crow and the Transformation of African American Religion in the Delta, 1875–1915 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).
[14] Curtis J. Evans, The Burden of Black Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).
[15] Matthew Harper, “Emancipation and African American Millennialism,” Scott Nesbit, “A Sharecropper’s Millennium: Land and the Perils of Forgiveness in Post–Civil War South Carolina,” and Charles F. Irons, “‘Two Divisions of the Same Great Army’: Ecclesiastical Separation by Race and the Millennium,” all in Wright and Dresser Apocalypse and the Millennium, 154–74, 175–93, 194–16.
[16] John Coffey, Exodus and Liberation: Deliverance Politics from John Calvin to Martin Luther King Jr. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).
[17] James B. Bennett, Religion and the Rise of Jim Crow in New Orleans (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2005).
[18] Samuel S. Hill, Southern Churches in Crisis (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1966), expanded as Southern Churches in Crisis Revisited (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1999); Charles Reagan Wilson, Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865 to 1920 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980); Gaines M. Foster, Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South, 1865 to 1913 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).
[19] Beth Barton Schweiger, The Gospel Working Up: Progress and the Pulpit in Nineteenth-Century Virginia (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 109–28.
[20] Edward J. Blum and W. Scott Poole, eds., Vale of Tears: New Essays on Religion and Reconstruction (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2005).
[21] Donald G. Mathews, “Lynching Is Part of the Religion of Our People: Faith in the Christian South,” in Religion in the American South: Protestants and Others in History and Culture, ed. Beth Barton Schweiger and Donald G. Mathews (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 153–94; Darren E. Grem, “Sam Jones, Sam Hose, and the Theology of Racial Violence,” Georgia Historical Quarterly 90, no. 1 (2006): 35–61.
[22] Sean Michael Lucas, Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2005); Zachary W. Dresser, “Providence Revised: Southern Presbyterian Old School in the Civil War and Reconstruction,” in Wright and Dresser, Apocalypse and the Millennium, 129–53.
[23] Blum, Reforging the White Republic; Blum and Poole, Vale of Tears.
[24] Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey, The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012).
[25] Blum, “To Doubt This Would Be to Doubt God,” 246. On the religious implications of Reconstruction for Native Americans, Jennifer Graber helpfully extends Blum’s brief treatment in her chapter “The Great Indian Pentecost: Providential Revisions, Indian Evangelization, and the Taking of the American West,” in Wright and Dresser, Apocalypse and the Millennium, 110–28.
[26] Sarah Barringer Gordon, The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 120. On the results of that fuller attention, see Kathleen Flake, The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smooth, Mormon Apostle (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004).
[27] Richard J. Carwardine, Evangelicals and Politics in Antebellum America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 2, 48, 322.
[28] Blum, “To Doubt This Would Be to Doubt God,” 244.
[29] Gaines M. Foster, Moral Reconstruction: Christian Lobbyists and the Federal Legislation of Morality, 1865–1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 2.
[30] Allen Guelzo, “Did Religion Make the American Civil War Worse?” Atlantic, August 23, 2015,
[31] Luke E. Harlow, “The Long Life of Proslavery Religion,” in The World the Civil War Made, ed. Gregory P. Downs and Kate Masur (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 151–52; Michael Phillips, White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity, and Religion in Dallas, 1841–2001 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006).
[32] Molly Oshatz, Slavery and Sin: The Fight against Slavery and the Rise of Liberal Protestantism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).
[33] George M. Fredrickson, The Inner Civil War: Northern Intellectuals and the Crisis of the Union (New York: Harper & Row, 1965); Anne C. Rose, Victorian America and the Civil War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992); Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001).
[34] Eugene D. Genovese, A Consuming Fire: The Fall of the Confederacy in the Mind of the White Christian South (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998).
[35] George M. Fredrickson, Racism: A Short History (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002), 66.
[36] See especially Michael Hochgeschwender, Wahrheit, Einheit, Ordnung: Die Sklavenfrage und der amerikanische Katholizismus, 1835–1870 (Paderborn: Schöningen, 2006), 117, 121, 131, 184, 333, 399, 425, 468; Mark W. Summers, “‘With a Sublime Faith in God and Republican Liberty,’” in Blum and Poole, Vale of Tears, 112–32; and Summers, The Ordeal of Reunion: A New History of Reconstruction (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014), 249.
[37] See Mark A. Noll, “Bishop James Gibbons, the Bible, and Protestant America,” U.S. Catholic Historian 31 (Summer 2013): 77–104.
[38] See Jon Gjerde, The Mind of the West: Ethnocultural Evolution in the Rural Midwest, 1830–1917 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997), 225–317; Naomi W. Cohen, Jews in Christian America: The Pursuit of Religious Equality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 65–122; Jonathan Sarna, American Judaism: A History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 135–207; John T. McGreevy, Catholics and American Freedom: A History (New York: Norton, 2003), 91–165.
[39] See Mark A. Noll, “The King James Version at 300 in America: ‘The Most Democratic Book in the World,’” in The King James Bible and the World It Made, ed. David Lyle Jeffrey (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2011), 71–98.

2 Replies to “Reconstructing Religion”

  1. I want to suggest supplementing the historical work Mark A Noll so ably describes by turning to a different archive. Literary figures writing in the era of Reconstruction and about it frequently portrayed the influence of religion on Reconstruction and vice versa. Their portrayals can by no means replace historical evidence. But as William Dean Howells wrote, reviewing two of Albion W. Tourgée’s Reconstruction novels, “There are other reasons beside a weakness of will which lead people to prefer novels to congressional documents or tables of statistics. . . Literature has this immense advantage . . . [I]t may take into account the forces that everyone knows to be efficient, but cannot be reduced to figures, and there is the opportunity for such selection in art as will give one swiftly the really vital points in a great political argument.” Howells is careful not to claim that literature “reflects” historical reality. On the contrary, literary artists make political arguments, not as politicians do, but by creating fictional worlds that place the forces at work in a period in proportionate relation to one another. These possible-not actual-worlds are arguments because one author’s portrayal of those relations is different from another’s. These competing portrayals of different worlds remind us that Reconstruction in part was a debate about which of the worlds the Civil War made possible should be realized. Religion played an important role in how almost every literary figure imagined such a world. How could it have not when a candidate losing an election blamed it on “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.”

    Noll mentions the importance of Exodus 20 and Luke 4 as scriptures of liberty. Another biblical passage placed in different contexts by different writers is St. Paul’s “God hath made of one blood all the nations of the earth.” In A FOOL’S ERRAND Albion W. Tourgée calls it a “living principle in the Northern mind.” Indeed, the phrase had been a rallying call for abolitionists. After emancipation, Charles Sumner cited it in his 1866 speech, “The Equal Rights of All.” New Englanders also used it to combat anti-Chinese sentiment. An 1881 Senate debate over a treaty with China led to the first exclusion act. Senator George Frisbie Hoar of Massachusetts, Sumner’s friend and editor of his papers, rose and quoted St. Paul to defend the right of Chinese people to immigrate. Senator John Miller of California, a leader of the anti-Chinese faction, interrupted: “Go on–quote the remainder of the sentence.” Flustered, Hoar murmured: “There is no more of it.” “Oh, yes, there is,” rejoined Miller, “for the apostle added to the words the Senator has just quoted, ‘and hath determined the bounds of their habitation.'” Miller’s response shows how effectively opponents of equal rights had managed to appropriate the authority of St Paul for their own cause. In THE CLANSMAN Thomas Dixon reenacts Miller’s correction of Hoar in a fictional debate between his villain Stoneman and Lincoln. Significantly misquoting Paul by substituting “races” for “nations,” Dixon has Stoneman proclaim, “God hath made of one blood all races,” only to be interrupted by Lincoln’s “Yes. But finish the sentence. ‘And fixed the bounds of their habitation.’”

    Dixon was a Baptist minister. He was countered by the African American Baptist minister Sutton Griggs. One of Dixon’s protagonists in LEOPARD’S SPOTS is a minister. In THE CLANSMAN, Dixon is at pains to associate northern Reconstruction rule with the Puritanism of Stoneman, although he does not contrast the northern Puritans with southern Cavaliers (Church of England.) Instead, their strongest opposition comes from the liberty-loving Scotch Irish, mostly Presbyterians. In contrast, Charles W. Chesnutt associates those intent on restoring white rule in the South with the Church of England. In THE MARROW OF TRADITION a white supremacist is named Major Carteret after the royalist Sir George Carteret’s. Major Carteret’s son is christened with water “from the carved marble font, which had come from England in the reign of King Charles, the Martyr, as the ill-fated son of James I was known to St. Andrew’s.” Major Carteret, we are told, “believed in the divine right of white men and gentlemen, as his ancestors had believed in and died for the divine right of kings.” Later whites gamble at the Clarendon Club. It is named after the Earl of Clarendon, Lord Edward Hyde, a staunch royalist and Charles II’s chief advisor while in exile. Restored to the throne, Charles II named Clarendon his chief minister. The Clarendon Code, with its defense of the Church of England through harsh punishments for dissenters, is a product of his ministry.

    If Griggs and Chesnutt combat Dixon’s account of the role played by different religious orders in Reconstruction, even in Dixon there are some surprises. In THE TRAITOR the former Klan leader defends a Jewish merchant from attack by the remnants of an illegitimate Klan after he has disbanded the “real” thing. This may be a response to Du Bois’s derogatory comments about Jews in the South in SOULS OF BLACK FOLKS. Dixon frequently engaged Du Bois, perhaps this time on religion.

    Another surprise for me was the role Huguenots played in much literature of the time. One of Dixon’s characters has Huguenot ancestry but so too do some of Tourgée’s, whose works he was at pains to counter. John William DeForest begins THE BLOODY CHASM with northerners walking through Charleston’s ruined Catholic and Huguenot churches. In his Cantata sung at the opening day of the Centennial Celebration, Georgian poet Sidney Lanier has Huguenots in dialog with Puritans. Likewise, Quaker Bayard Taylor in his official Centennial Ode includes Huguenot grace along with Puritan will, Cavalier honor, Quaker truth and sweetness and Dutch reformed strength. I believe that Huguenots had the role because they immigrated both North and South. Indeed, works of reconciliation often stressed the nation’s religious diversity. Catholics were also represented at the Centennial through a painting of Saint Paul by the Catholic painter John La Farge. In THE BLOODY CHASM, DeForest mocks a rich Puritan New Englander who, despite refusing to forgive the South for its rebellion, tries to arrange a reconciliatory North/South marriage for his nephew while blocking the nephew’s love for a beautiful Catholic.

    George Washington Cable does not quite match Sinclair Lewis’s or Harold Frederic’s portraits of corrupt ministers in ELMER GANTRY and THE DAMNATION OF THERON WARE, but in JOHN MARCH, SOUTHERNER, he does give us the Methodist minister Rev. John Wesley Garnet, who is the architect of much of the corruption in the fictional state of Dixie during Reconstruction. Cable’s portrayal is balanced by that of Maria Amaparo Ruiz de Burton in WHO WOULD HAVE THOUGHT IT?, a satiric portrayal of how corruption behind the Union war effort set the stage for the Gilded Age. Mexican-American Catholic Ruiz de Burton parodies New England ministers, such as Rev. Hackwell, who gave up the demanding practice of law, for “easy preaching” and becoming a Presbyterian rather than a Methodist or an Episcopalian out of self-interest.

    Tourgée, who also wrote a labor novel called MURVALE EASTMAN, CHRISTIAN SOCIALST, provides another picture of an institutionally corrupt church in a nicely teachable chapter from WITH GAUGE AND SWALLOW, ATTORNEYS called “A Conflict Between Church and State.” In a story set in Reconstruction Northern Virginia, a former Confederate and his former slave start having children. The local minster approaches the man and tells him he has to follow the moral path; that is, put off the woman he now loves. Misunderstanding him, the man feels he should marry his housekeeper but cannot under state law. The two go to the nation’s capital to marry, only to be arrested under anti-miscegenation laws when they return home. But perhaps Tourgée ‘s most poignant portrayals of religion are those in African American communities, as they use their religious meetings to practice citizenship and to mobilize political power. A completely different account of freedmen’s religious meetings comes in Joel Chandler Harris’s novel of Reconstruction: GABRIEL TOLLIVER.
    In any case, there is, I think, a rich archive to explore how literary works make competing political “arguments” through different accounts of the role of religion in Reconstruction life.

  2. Many don’t understand reconstruction and they look elsewhere to gain faith again, instead of looking into themselves. Clear your mind out of questions and believe, you will feel it again.

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