Magazine article The Christian Century

Religion, Race, and the Making of Confederate Kentucky, 1830-1880

Magazine article The Christian Century

Religion, Race, and the Making of Confederate Kentucky, 1830-1880

Article excerpt

Religion, Race, and the Making of Confederate Kentucky, 1830-1880

By Luke E. Harlow

Cambridge University Press, 253 pp. $90.00

The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation

By David Brion Davis

Knopf, 448 pp., $30.00

During the tumultuous 1860s, N. G. Markham did his best to live a Christian life. Away from his Michigan home, he spent his days and nights in Tennessee as a soldier in the Union army. He wrote frequently to his wife, Eunice, of his camp experiences, battlefield struggles, and the faith he tried to maintain. "We have the funniest Sundays I ever saw," he reported in September 1862. "Some are writing, some singing, some reading their testaments, some cleaning their guns, and some are asleep and some are cursing and swearing."

More than a year later, both the war and Markham had changed. The Emancipation Proclamation had transformed the "war for the Union" into a war for universal abolition, and the fighting had become more ferocious on all sides. Markham was glad to have a wife who prayed for him. "I have faith to believe that your prayers will be answered," he wrote. "Keep on praying for it is good to feel when we are in danger."

When it came to the lives of African Americans and the end of slavery, however, he neither offered prayer nor encouraged anyone else to pray. "I am not half so much of an abolitionist as I was before I came here," Markham explained in the same letter. "The free niggers here [are] the most lazy lot of fellows that I ever saw. I would not turn my hand over to see the whole of them free."

One year later, Markham once again reflected on how different his life had become. He now worked alongside free black men in his military company. At first he wanted nothing to do with a "nigger regiment." As an enlistee, however, Markham didn't get to make those kinds of choices. When black men entered his company, he had two options. He could lift hands with them or he could be court-martialed. So he worked with them, and eventually he began spending some of his social time with them. "I am learning a Negro here in our Company to read," he wrote to Eunice. "He learns very fast." Three months later, Markham died of a camp disease.

As a white Christian living and dying in the great moment of emancipation, Markham both road and reflected on the roller coaster of his times. He longed for the Lord's favor and protection, and he viewed African Americans in the aggregate, rather than as individuals. At one point he deemed them unworthy of human or heavenly aid. Even when he taught a black man to read, Markham didn't mention the man's name or anything else about him. At least in the letter, the man was simply "a Negro here in our Company."

Scholars have spent decades trying to understand the N. G. Markhams of the United States. How could northern whites, who seemed to care so little for African Americans, fight, kill, and die for mass emancipation? How did these whites come to support a limited set of rights for blacks during the era of Reconstruction, but then abandon them in the 1870s and do little to stop the racial violence of the 1880s and beyond?

Two new books, one from a junior scholar and the other from a senior one, shed important new light on these questions. Luke E. Harlow's Religion, Race, and the Making of Confederate Kentucky uses the anomaly of Kentucky to explain the much broader phenomenon of white Christian racism and its attachment to political conservatism. Harlow begins with a problem: How did a slaveholding state remain within the Union during the war but then join the Confederacy theologically after its defeat? For Harlow, the answer rests in the tangled webs of religion, slavery, and race.

Through close readings of sermons, denominational newspapers, treatises, and tracts, Harlow shows that before the Civil War, white Kentuckians waged an intense battle over slavery and abolition. …

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