Christianity and Race in the American South

A History

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Paul Harvey
Chicago History of American Religion
  • Chicago, IL: 
    University Of Chicago Press
    , November
     2016.
     264 pages.
     $40.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780226415352.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This is a brief and very readable history of Southern American religion from Paul Harvey, one of the leading scholars in the field. It is remarkably comprehensive in its chronology, beginning with French and Spanish attempts to colonize Florida in the seventeenth century (the Spanish killed and enslaved the Indians and massacred the French; the English, when they arrived on the scene, were no less violent) and continuing to the similarly violent 2015 massacre of nine African American Christians in the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina by white supremacist Dylann Roof. There is much violence in between, including, memorably, the American Civil War. But the question for this book is the role of religion in all of this life and death.

Harvey paints an admirably kaleidoscopic portrait. If his account seems overly brief and impressionistic at times, his ample notes point to excellent resources that fill out the picture. His account of the seventeenth century alludes to Anglicans and Quakers in the Chesapeake region, and Muslims and persons influenced by African traditional religions in the Carolinas. He looks at the religious roots of the 1739 Stono rebellion in South Carolina and of the 1831 Nat Turner rebellion in Virginia. Disruptions as varied as the eighteenth-century Great Awakening, the Spiritualists in Louisiana in the nineteenth century, and Pentecostalism and megachurches in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries are faithfully chronicled. The role of artistic beauty in meaningfully addressing human suffering in this harsh environment receives welcome treatment in Harvey’s examination of the spirituals and the blues. Few religious minorities are entirely overlooked in these pages. We learn about the roles played by Hispanic (and other) Catholics, Jews, and Asian religious practitioners of various sorts in the South. The term “Christianity,” which appears in Harvey’s title, is not a limiting factor, it soon appears.

Perhaps the overriding question of Southern religion is the question of change and continuity. Especially in the defining issue of race, signaled by Harvey in his title, how much has Southern religion changed, and how much has it remained the same? A key passage in the book points to the economic captivity of most Southern churches, even more than their cultural captivity: “By the 1970s the civil rights movement had been successful in taking down the legal structures of segregation but had met its match in addressing more structurally deep-rooted issues of white privilege in American history. The freedom struggle deeply affected sentiments, attitudes, and practices but could not transform economic power” (183).

As religion scholars attempt to teach and re-conceptualize Southern American religion in the wake of the white supremacist demonstration in Charlottesville and the wider controversies that that event has engendered, this book comes along as a most welcome and timely resource. Consider it for use in your classroom.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Stephen W. Angell is the Leatherock Professor of Quaker Studies at the Earlham School of Religion.

Date of Review: 
October 18, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Paul Harvey is Professor of history and presidential teaching scholar at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. He is the author or coauthor of several books, including The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America.

Keywords: 

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