Houses Divided

Evangelical Schisms and the Crisis of the Union in Missouri

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Lucas P. Volkman
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , March
     2018.
     328 pages.
     $74.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780190248321.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Lucas P. Volkman’s Houses Divided: Evangelical Schisms and the Crisis of the Union in Missouri explores the interplay between the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist schisms and the rise of sectional strife in Missouri through Reconstruction. In addition to offering fresh insights into the ways Missourians imbued their sectional rancor with religious meaning, this work illuminates how denominational and legal structures marginalized women and African American church members, how church property disputes led to tortured interpretations of the First Amendment, and the Union military’s disregard for religious free exercise and the rights of conscience. All of this warrants Volkman’s concluding observation that white evangelical Missourians’ united front against 20th-century modernity required them to paper over their conflict-ridden past.

Volkman’s focus on Missouri places his work alongside other recent treatments of the nation’s political and religious borderlands during the Civil War era. As Volkman rightly notes, such a regional approach foregrounds the lived experience of ordinary believers, who in this case saw complicated religious disagreements devolve into open violence. Yet studies of border states are necessarily complex—they require attention to all manner of local contingencies and competing allegiances—and Volkman’s burden of balancing local complexity with national themes is considerable. Nevertheless, aside from a few passages of detailed local accounting, the overall result is a work of deeply researched regional history this is aptly contextualized in the national debate over slavery, the rise of print culture, urban and rural political cultures, and debates over constitutional interpretation.

Volkman is convincing in arguing that  antebellum schisms and political strife were densely connected; however, how he conceptualizes that relationship raises occasional doubts. When he depicts Missourians’ faith as an intensifier of sorts—for example, that it “increased” violence, “energized” conflict, and “fueled” vigilantism—he is at his most persuasive (xv). His research additionally makes clear that  denominational schisms sparked institutional momentum for regional divisions over slavery. The claim that those schisms led to the rise of religious ideas that independently motivated wartime actions, however, perhaps overstates their influence. According to Volkman, “diametrically opposed understandings of true religion and related ideas about society, politics, and government fundamentally generated [wartime] strife”—even “[a]s much as questions about secession and emancipation” (109). Such an assertion stands in tension with the fact that even as evangelicals shared certain bedrock assumptions—including biblicism, commonsense reasoning, and providentialism—they also uncritically applied those convictions to both sides of the slavery and secession debates. In light of these religious adaptations to individuals’ socioeconomic interests and political ideologies, it seems likely that such worldly considerations were molding “understandings of true religion” in ways that undercut their distinctive influence. Although the schisms, and their corresponding rhetorical camps no doubt, hardened political commitments and helped to organize tribal allegiances, it is harder to argue for their independent causal influence on wartime behavior.

Chapter 6 offers a fascinating account of wartime conflicts between Union military officials and southern-affiliated ministers, yet it also raises additional questions about Volkman’s interpretation of religious antipathy in wartime Missouri. Here he asserts that Union efforts to suppress rebel-sympathizing ministers amounted to “a new civil religion grounded fundamentally in abolitionist theology and related political ideals” (156); he claims that “Union military forces” were seeking to “[institutionalize] abolitionist understandings of civil and political order—understandings that the contentious evangelical schisms from 1837 through 1845 had forged and strengthened” (157). Although this chapter does provide numerous cases of Union harassment of Confederate-sympathizing ministers—all of them significant in their own right—none of them appeared motivated by abolitionism. On the contrary, Union officials’ religious partisanship seemed driven by their outrage over the sin of treason. The only reference to abolitionism I found was in the case of Major Gen. Samuel Curtis, a radical abolitionist who ordered a Confederate-sympathizing preacher removed from his ministerial position—and yet the region’s Provost Marshal interpreted it as an order to “rid the State of rebel preachers” (146), not proslavery ones. Indeed, in Tennessee—another slaveholding state that saw extreme expressions of religious sectionalism during the war—evangelical southern Unionists like William “Parson” Brownlow were slow to embrace abolition, yet eager to punish southern-affiliated preachers for disloyalty. This self-conscious distinction between the “sins” of slavery and secession was also common in Kentucky, leading this reviewer to wonder whether Missouri’s white evangelical Unionists were likewise more anti-secession than anti-slavery—especially since most shied from the radical social equality that abolitionists envisioned. 

These interpretive matters aside, this work represents a crucial local piece to the national puzzle of how religious conflict featured in the sectional conflict. It contains a trove of state-level church-state conundrums that Volkman deftly unpacks. And it closes with an intriguing claim that white evangelical Missourians rejected prohibition in the late-19th century due to the lingering abolitionist taint on moral politics. Altogether, Volkman shows that, for some Americans, lasting sectional allegiances took shape within houses of worship—and they ventured out of them with a righteous vengeance. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Laura Rominger Porter is Adjunct Professor of History at Drake University.

Date of Review: 
October 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Lucas P. Volkman is Assistant Professor of History at Moberly Area Community College.

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