The End of Days

African American Religion and Politics in the Age of Emancipation

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Matthew Harper
  • Chapel Hill, NC: 
    The University of North Carolina Press
    , September
     2016.
     224 pages.
     $29.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781469629360.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Matthew Harper uses selected episodes from the history of African Americans in North Carolina from 1865 to 1915 as a springboard to launch himself and his readers into a larger argument about the ways that African Americans’ reading of the Bible affected how they saw themselves as actors in the momentous events occurring around them. He is thus exploring a particular intersection between theology and history.In his conclusion, he calls African American Protestants’ use of biblical narratives “a kind of narrative theology” (160). In general, he finds their narrative theology to be characterized by an optimistic eschatology, even when the often-gloomy events that he chronicles (the Exodus movements of the late 1870s, for example, or the successful coup against the Republican government in Wilmington in 1898) would not seem to warrant such optimism. In truth, the totality of the biblically related concerns of Harper’s subjects can be construed as eschatological only in the broadest sense of the word; the word “prophecy” would fit their concerns just as well. But narrative theology, or biblical hermeneutics, as applied to the lives of African Americans in the half century after emancipation is certainly a worthy area for Harper’s scholarly exploration.

Such a narrative is an ambitious program for a slim volume like this one. How does Harper deal with it? He comes to the topic with an impressive degree of knowledge, both of African American history in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and of the relevant scriptural passages, so he is the right person to undertake such a project. In the main text—and also the footnotes—Harper engages in cogent critiques of the work of previous scholars who have alluded to this topic, such as Steven Hahn and W.E. B. DuBois. Briefly, such scholars show vague awareness of the relevance of the topic, but generally they do no more than allude to the Bible passages significant to African Americans. For example, Hahn titled a 2005 volume on African American history after emancipation A Nation Under Our Feet (Harvard University Press), reflecting African Americans quoting from Psalm 47, but Harper complains that Hahn leaves such biblical references “unexplained” (164). Harper’s prolegomena, insofar as they are aimed at explaining the need for his work, seem persuasive.

The implementation of the constructive project that Harper is engaged in, however, seems somewhat spotty and incomplete. Harper gives a detailed, original, and interesting analysis of the 1870 “Esther circular,”  in which North Carolina Democrats sought to use impeachment proceedings to depose the white Republican governor, William Holden, and to end Republican governance at the state level. The circular, written by African American legislators, depicts Holden as a helpless Mordecai at the hands of Haman and advocated that their constituents engage in prayer and fasting to counter this threat. But Harper persuasively uses the book of Esther as a whole—only carefully selected passages were cited in the circular—to argue that the tract is also making an elliptical argument that would implicitly justify actions of self-defense by African Americans threatened by the Ku Klux Klan and other aggressive forces aiming to drive them out of politics. This analysis, as well as Harper’s arguments with previous authorities on the subject such as DuBois, is quite compelling.

Elsewhere, Harper makes other well-informed and judicious arguments. For example, he develops a solid distinction between the interpretation of Exodus and Jubilee passages of the Bible, and explores how these were enacted in the lives of late nineteenth-century African Americans. However, his analysis of the 1898 events in Wilmington contain much useful historical information, but little correlation to biblical hermeneutics. Toward the end of the book, Harper seems to shift into a more generalizing mode, offering less detailed examinations of historical texts than those that enlivened his exploration of the Esther circular.

Harper has written a most provocative and interesting volume that points to some promising new angles of scholarship in American and African American religious history. Those who are studying African American religion or history in the Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction periods will benefit greatly from reading and interacting with this work.

About the Reviewer(s): 

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

Date of Review: 
February 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Matthew Harper is Assistant Professor of history and Africana studies at Mercer University.

Keywords: 

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