Between Fetters and Freedom

African American Baptists since Emancipation

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Edward R. Crowther, Keith Harper
James N. Griffith Endowed Series in Baptist Studies
  • Atlanta, GA: 
    Mercer University Press
    , November
     2015.
     268 pages.
     $35.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780881465402.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Between Fetters and Freedom: African American Baptists since Emancipation collects essays from nine scholars, a foreword by the editors, and an afterword by Wayne Flynt. The volume’s foreword and afterword bookend the work with declarations of its worth: this collection of essays points scholars toward the diversity of religious experience and thought among African Americans, particularly Baptists, following the end of the Civil War and culminating in the Civil Rights Movement. The provenance of this volume, however, is to be both celebrated and lamented. It ought to be celebrated because each of the essays offers an important critical response to historiographical treatments of the black church, often considered as a monolith. It ought to be lamented, however, that there was ever an assumption that a group of people, merely because of shared skin color, thought and acted the same way in diverse circumstances. These realities lurk in the background of many of the essays and they are explicitly stated in a few, notably in Paul Harvey’s essay on cultural practices within African American Baptist churches. 

The nine essays are each case studies, a format that lends itself well to the volume’s stated purpose. Insofar as one seeks to dispel a false narrative, exceptions are one’s best friend. This does, however, mean that very little ties the essays to one other. Due to this, each essay can be assessed on its own merits. Between Fetters and Freedom begins with Sandy Martin’s essay, in which he ably argues that the religious expression of African Americans differed from the Lost Cause civil religion of many Southern whites. Instead, Martin points to a vindicated faith: namely, the idea that the Civil War was ultimately a victory of justice rather than a shameful loss. While African Americans and whites may have shared a belief in the providence of God, the particular ways in which that providence worked were understood in vastly different ways. Along similar lines, Edward Crowther’s essay on the National Baptist Convention broadly outlines the ways in which Black Baptist political engagement was diverse in both ends and means, varying as much as individual circumstances did. Charles F. Irons offers an incredibly helpful essay arguing that the assumption that African Americans, as a whole, fled predominantly white congregations as soon after Emancipation as they could to form their own congregations is a false one. Instead, by treating congregations in North Carolina, Irons adds flesh to the argument that not all African American Christians saw separate congregations as the most faithful and safe way to live out their faith in post-Emancipation America.  

Two of the articles focus specifically on African American women, elaborating and fleshing out earlier arguments in Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham’s powerful Righteous Discontent (Harvard University Press, 1993).The reader is left inevitably wanting even more, especially as it is clear that it is particularly the work of Black women that sustained many churches, especially financially. April Armstrong’s essay on Nannie Helen Burroughs and Annie Walker Armstrong exemplifies a dynamic that characterizes much of the interracial cooperation in the decades immediately following the end of Reconstruction: cooperation does not necessarily mean comprehensive agreement. Courtney Pace Lyons’s essay cements Prathia Hall in the pantheon of important civil rights leaders, revealing her influence through the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The reader is reminded that, though the historiography on Black female civil rights leaders is scarce, it is a field ripe for exploration.

The book functions well as a broad historiographical intervention, but that comes with its downsides. The content of the nine essays spans one hundred years and numerous states, answering some questions but also creating others. For example, Eric Michael Washington’s essay outlines the tenets and influence of Ethiopian theology in Black Baptist churches, particularly focusing on the ways in which missions to Africa were especially important to many Black Baptists in the 1870s and 1880s. But how does one come to terms with the fact that there was much more diversity within free black communities in considering the methods for those missions? Can one discuss these phenomena without addressing the tendency for some African Americans to reproduce settler colonialism in African colonies? Indeed, civil rights theology cannot be reduced to Martin Luther King, Jr.: Andrew Manis’s reflection on Fred Shuttlesworth’s legacy and Courtney Pace Lyons’s work reminds us of the many voices of the movement. Yet it is clear, even from these essays, that much work remains to be done. Lastly, Alan Scot Willis’s essay on M.C. Allen reveals a figure who merits extended treatment and comparison. By digging deeply into the work of an African American pastor who affirmed the reality of an ontological racial difference in order to affirm Black superiority, Willis reveals a paradigm that reminds scholars that even racialization is not a monolithic phenomenon. 

The scholar of American religious history who reads these essays will enjoy them for what they are: a series of snapshots displaying the diversity of circumstances faced by African Americans after Emancipation, and the diversity of their responses to those circumstances. The hope is also, however, that the exploration continues far beyond these essays. Rightfully so, these authors admit that there is much more work to be done, but this book is a wonderful opening salvo in what will become a rich body of scholarship.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Malcolm Foley is a doctoral student in Religion at Baylor University.

Date of Review: 
June 2, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

A native of Vicksburg, Mississippi, Edward R. Crowther is professor of history at Adams State University. He is the author of Southern Evangelicals and the Coming of the Civil War, along with numerous articles and reviews.

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