Presbyterians in North Carolina: Race, Politics, and Religious Identity in Historical Perspective

By Bishop, Christopher M. | South Carolina Historical Magazine, July 2013 | Go to article overview

Presbyterians in North Carolina: Race, Politics, and Religious Identity in Historical Perspective


Bishop, Christopher M., South Carolina Historical Magazine


Presbyterians in North Carolina: Race, Politics, and Religious Identity in Historical Perspective. By Walter H. Conser Jr. and Robert J. Cain. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2012. Pp. xvii, 251; $29.95, paperback; $23.95, e-book.)

In the first comprehensive study of Presbyterianism in North Carolina in more than a century, Walter H. Conser Jr. and Robert J. Cain examine a denomination that is typically off of the radar of scholars of southern religious history. Despite being outnumbered by Baptists and Methodists, Presbyterians were wealthy and politically influential, suggesting that historians should look at them more closely. The authors of this volume place North Carolina Presbyterianism into broader Atlantic, national, and regional contexts. Further, they put forward their approach as "a possible model for studying mainline Protestantism in the United States" (p. xii). Given the diversity of American Protestantism, studies with strict spatial and denominational boundaries allow scholars to fully examine a specific group in a particular geographic area and thus uncover important nuances absent in other studies. Presbyterians in North Carolina is a fruitful step in this direction.

Conser and Cain divide their book into two parts. The first part traces the beginnings of Presbyterianism in North Carolina's three geographic regions: the coast, the piedmont, and the western mountains. The authors discuss waves of transatlantic immigration of Presbyterians to North Carolina, principally from Scotland and Ulster, but also the arrival of Germans and Swiss who adhered to the Reformed faith. Moreover, Presbyterian migration from Pennsylvania to the North Carolina piedmont along the Great Wagon Road in the late eighteenth century proved quite significant as well. Conser and Cain show that the development of Presbyterian polity in North Carolina proceeded within the larger framework of ecclesiastical organization in North American Presbyterianism. The authors additionally explain the importance of revivalism in the mid eighteenth century and the resulting Old Side versus New Side schism, finding that Presbyterians in North Carolina remained firmly in the Old Side faction. By the antebellum period, the piedmont had become the center of North Carolina Presbyterianism. Like their coreligionists in the North, antebellum North Carolina Presbyterians participated in benevolent societies, even if the ecumenism of these groups proved disconcerting for doctrinaire Calvinists. While slavery does not figure prominently in the first part of the book, the authors do identify its importance to North Carolina Presbyterians before the Civil War.

The second part of the book begins with the denominational disunion of northern and southern Presbyterians in 1861 and concludes at the present day. Race comes to the forefront in this section, as the authors discuss the struggles of black Presbyterians in North Carolina during Reconstruction to create church bodies independent of their former masters. On the subject of turbulent postbellum politics, Conser and Cain note that North Carolina Presbyterians generally adhered to a doctrine known as "the spirituality of the church," which insisted that the church eschew all political issues. While individual Presbyterians might have been active in government affairs (a topic about which this book is sadly silent), pulpit messages most often centered on individual salvation, even as Jim Crow became codified and lynching took its toll on southern society. The authors find that there were indeed elements of the Social Gospel in some Presbyterian outreach ministries in the late nineteenth century, including foreign missions to China as well as orphanages and patronage of secondary schools and colleges throughout the state. …

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