Dividing the Faith
The Rise of Segregated Churches in the Early American North
- ISBN: 9781479803187
- Published By: New York University Press
- Published: December 2020
Richard Boles’s Dividing the Faith is subtitled The Rise of Segregated Churches in the Early American North. While reading, I found myself wondering if it might more accurately be subtitled The Persistence of Interracial Churches in the Early American North. Chapters 1 through 4 focus on the continued presence of Native American and African-descended people in the predominantly white Protestant congregations of New England and the Middle Atlantic. Even in chapter 5, which takes on “the rise of separate black churches” at the turn of the 19th century, Boles emphasizes the continued (and in some instances, increased) conversion of some Black northerners to white churches. It is not until the final chapter that the promised payoff of the book—the more general segregation of antebellum northern churches—is realized. What Dividing the Faith offers, then, is an important challenge to the prevailing consensus that interracial religious activity was limited in the early American North (especially in New England). That history of “dynamic interracial interactions in northern churches” provides fresh insight into the reasons why those institutions ultimately segregated along racial lines and the role played by churches in that process (3).
Dividing the Faith is organized chronologically, beginning in 1730 and ending in 1850. Each chapter covers a particular period within that timeline, often tied to broader societal events that affected church membership rates among Africans and Indians, including the so-called “Great Awakening,” the American Revolution, and the rise of abolitionism. This chronological account culminates in chapter 6’s explanation for the rise of segregated churches throughout the antebellum North. Coming on the heels of the establishment of the first independent Black Protestant churches and against the backdrop of rising anti-black and anti-Indian sentiment and violence, the number of African Americans in predominantly white churches witnessed a “substantial decrease” (205). This decline in membership, then, is best seen as an important part of the broader segregation of northern society, as Native peoples were removed, free Black men saw their legal and political rights curtailed, and public transit, housing, and schools became newly segregated.
In analyzing religious life in the early American North, Boles approaches the region expansively. His book is not a case study that uses a single place to draw broader conclusions about the North as a whole. He is attentive to differences between individual colonies/states and the denominations within each. This comparative approach yields insights not only about what churches Black and Indigenous individuals affiliated with but also why. Thus, Boles notes that while the antislavery stance of Methodists in the Middle Atlantic appears to have helped attract more Black converts, the turn toward abolition by many Congregationalists in New England was followed by a decrease in Black membership. “There was not a simple relationship,” Boles concludes, “between a church’s stance on slavery and the number of its black attendees or members” (128).
Dividing the Faith balances social history research (tables throughout the book present the author’s careful research in church records to tabulate church membership) with descriptive anecdotes found in the writings of Black and Indigenous authors and white observers that keep the narrative lively and readable. The book thus opens with the story of Phyllis Wheatley (despite being “the most famous black Christian from the colonial era, . . . [her] religious affiliation in a predominantly white church was quite ordinary”) and closes with the critiques of segregated Christian churches by William Apess, Frederick Douglass, and David Walker (1, 235-242).
The contributions of the book are many. Boles adds to the work of several other scholars interested in the lives—religious and otherwise—of free and enslaved people of color in the North. In considering the church membership of Black and Native peoples alongside one another, he highlights both commonalities and differences in their respective experiences, as well as noting moments and periods of interaction and connection between the two groups. The close reading of church records reveals not only the persistent presence of people of color, but also the changing language used to identify and describe them, demarcating the broad shifts from “negro” (common throughout the colonial periods) to “black” and “African” (increasingly popular after 1790) and finally to “colored” (emergent between 1810 and 1820). While “Indian” was used throughout, Native peoples were also sometimes grouped under the category of “coloured” in the early 19th century. With little variation, these trends were consistent across denominational lines. These changes came in partial response to the self-assertion of Blacks themselves, especially free Black people who organized separate churches, which they often identified as “African” churches. But the changes also came in response to broader shifts within society. Native peoples, for example, began to be identified as “colored” and grouped alongside Black Christians in church records as part of the larger displacement of “Indians” (both physical and rhetorical).
While Boles ably tackles regional and denominational differences within the North, I found myself continually wondering about the movement of individuals and ideas between regions. We know, for example, that a majority of those enslaved Africans imported to New England during the first half of the 18th century came from the Caribbean and that changing theologies of race among white Protestants were shaped within a transatlantic flow of ideas. Dividing the Faith may very well serve as an important starting point for another scholar to take up those very questions, but there is little attention given to such connections here.
Similarly, it would be interesting to compare this Protestant story with that of Catholics, or with any of the upstart religious sects who appeared in the 18th and 19th centuries. How did the timing of those groups’ beginnings shape their own attitudes and actions toward African American and Indigenous people and their presence in those spaces? Did Shakers readily welcome Black men and women into their communities in an effort to counter the rising segregation of Protestant churches at the time? What relationship might the policies and politics of race in Protestant churches in New England, New York, and Pennsylvania have with the attitudes of early Mormons (most of whom came from Methodist, Baptist, and other Protestant backgrounds) toward Indigenous people, or with the restrictions imposed by Latter-day Saints on Black converts?
That Dividing the Faith not only offers a fresh revision to our understanding of race and religion in early America, but also prompts fresh questions for future historians to address, is the surest sign of its success and contributions. It deserves a wide readership.
Christopher Cannon Jones is an assistant professor of history at Brigham Young University.Christopher C. JonesDate Of Review:June 30, 2022