Christianity and Race in the American South: A History

By Wills, Anne Blue | The Christian Century, February 28, 2018 | Go to article overview

Christianity and Race in the American South: A History


Wills, Anne Blue, The Christian Century


Christianity and Race in the American South: A History

By Paul Harvey

University of Chicago Press, 264 pp., $40.00

In this timely and readable history, Paul Harvey ably interprets the pervasive ironies of the American South: a place where faith-drenched Christians defended slavery and impoverished prophets arose alongside an economically burgeoning New South. In taking note of these paradoxes, Harvey has produced a thought-provoking historical account of religion and race that's brief enough for lay audiences to read and, perhaps more importantly, talk about. His comprehensive lens focuses on eras and regions that other histories of race and religion have neglected.

Race and religion, Harvey argues, have helped "to define each other." Only when we understand the historical lineaments of that defining process can we address the systemic oppression behind such recent events as the callous federal response to the New Orleans flood after Katrina and the racist viciousness that produced the Emanuel A.M.E. Church massacre.

Harvey, a historian who teaches at the University of Colorado, is a skilled narrator and a trustworthy guide. He has already written extensively on the relationship between race and religion in Through the Storm, Through the Night: A History of African American Christianity (2011) and Freedom's Coming: Religious Culture and the Shaping of the South from the Civil War through the Civil Rights Era (2005). Here he distills his deep knowledge of southern religion into eight manageable chapters marked by moments in U.S. history, starting before the American Revolution and running up to the present.

Harvey narrates the "fundamentally religious" nature of racial categories. Colonial religious authorities in Virginia and South Carolina created and enforced standards of piety that upheld white European civilization as the paradigm. As these Anglicans catechized and baptized enslaved black people, they imposed hedges (such as missionary Francis Le Jau's prebaptismal pledge) against claims to (or even a recognition of) the slaves' social equality with white Anglicans.

By contrast, 18th- and 19th-century white evangelicals, with their revival-fueled enthusiasm, clashed with the Anglican planter class. Through an alluring alchemy of "unleashing] and control [ling] the spirit," evangelicalism became the religious mode of southern slaveholding and produced the "basic dialectic of southern history," which Harvey describes as "cultural creativity and political subordination."

Southern evangelicals, allied with the revolutionaries of the late 18th century, became 19th-century conservatives who defended the slave system. White southern evangelicals' modes of social control rode atop and fed on religious and cultural impulses that had their own integral logic and strategies of resistance.

Harvey puts "musical visionaries" at the center of the distinctively southern culture of sacred and secular music and folk theology. …

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