At the Altar of Lynching

Burning Sam Hose in the American South

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Donald G. Mathews
Cambridge Studies on the American South
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , September
     400 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Before each chapter of this intense, staggering book comes this description of its central focus: “On the third Sunday after Easter in 1899 about forty miles southwest of Atlanta near Newnan, Georgia, a white crowd burned to death a black laborer known as Sam Hose. The atrocity blended anger, contempt, brutality, festivity, and satisfaction into a mood just beyond comprehension. ‘Glory!’ shouted an excited man enraptured by the intensity of the moment, Glory be to God!’”

In a sense, this book is an attempt to answer the question: what did that cry of “glory!” mean? The final sentence of the book is just this: “Glory!” The penultimate paragraphs summarize the theme and the major argument: “A religious aura permeated communal lynching because the act occurred within the context of a sacred order designed to sustain holiness. Holiness demands purity and purity was sustained in the segregated South by avoidance, margins, distances, aloofness, strict classification, and racial contempt” (282-83 ). Religion, Mathews continues, “was not absent when the crowd burned Tom Wilkes [aka Sam Hose]. Participants lived it; they enacted it; they shouted it. The burning was not merely a spectacular punishment; it was a sacrifice…. Religion and lynching had melded on the altars of a savage faith drenched in blood and consumed by fire” (282-83).

This book is a full-length treatment of the argument Mathews first presented in his Journal of Southern Religion article, “The Southern Rite of Human Sacrifice” (2000). What Mathews has done since then, in terms of refining and expanding the argument, includes incorporating the insights of “the carnivalesque” in addition to the solemnly “religious” in his analysis of communal lynchings, drawing particularly on the work of Mikhail Bakhtin. The element of the carnivalesque  came largely from questions raised in earlier conference presentations of Mathews’s work, noting the fact that there was fury and glee and celebration—not just shouts of glory and feelings of self-purification—at the sacrifice of Sam Hose (a lynching quickly followed by the public murder of Elijah Strickland, a local AME minister in Hose’s county).

Along the way, in developing his argument, Mathews is also writing a complete study of southern history and culture from the mid-ninteenth to the early twentieth century. In this sense, he is revisiting the big argument themes laid out earlier in Joel Williamson’s Crucible of Race (Oxford University Press, 1984), which outlined a typology of southern reactions to race, ranging from conservative paternalists to the radical exponents of cleansing violence (the ones studied with particular care here). But since Williamson’s work, an entire library of careful works on race and violence in the Jim Crow South have cleared a lot of ground: there are now case studies of lynchings, sociological works, local studies of particular counties and regions, statistical and economic analyses, and powerful narrative evocations of black life in the Jim Crow South in works such as Leon Litwack’s Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow (Vintage, 1998). Mathews has conducted a huge amount of primary source research, particularly in newspaper accounts and selected archival sources from the era, but he’s also able to draw on this newer secondary scholarship. The result is that most wonderful of things, a provocative and powerful interpretation, drawing from religious studies theories and scholarship, that is also completely grounded in the empirical realities of the time and place of the incident. That is, this is a beautiful and memorable blend of religious studies and history, with a powerfully original interpretation well-supported with empirical fact and astonishingly powerful prose. Indeed, I found myself often stopping and taking breaks from reading the book, in part because of the disturbing and wrenching material, and in part because the density of the argument—always delivered in crystalline-clear prose—just leaves the reader breathless.

Along the way, besides the case of Sam Hose being used here as a vehicle for Mathews’s analysis of religion, purity, and violence, we learn a great deal about individual stories of Christian responses to the tragedy (focusing especially on figures associated with Emory University and Georgia Methodism from that era), black reactions, numerous other instances of local violence associated with the Hose episode, Georgian and southern politics, denominational politics, Ida B. Wells-Barnett anti-lynching crusade and those of others, W. E. B. Du Bois (whose life and work was changed permanently from his reflections on the episode), the southern cotton and casual labor economy, Tom Watson and populism, the early Holiness movement and the southern preacher Sam Jones, Southern Methodist women’s early efforts at bi-racial cooperation, the Greek scholar Andrew Sledd’s 1902 Atlantic article and subsequent exile from Emory University, and a whole litany of ineffectual southern liberals who could not see that this was a white problem, and not (as they consistently put it), “the negro problem.” I could go on, but this list gives some sense of the scope and magnitude of a book. The Sam Hose story is large, and Mathews’s analysis of it contains multitudes.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Paul Harvey is professor of history at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.

Date of Review: 
November 26, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Donald G. Mathews has taught at Duke and Princeton Universities, as well as at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He has studied and written about religion and the South for over fifty years, publishing three books and over thirty articles. He is the author of Religion in the Old South (1979) and co-author of Sex, Gender, and the Politics of ERA (1993).


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