Soul Liberty

The Evolution of Black Religious Politics in Postemancipation Virginia

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Nicole Myers Turner
  • Chapel Hill: 
    University of North Carolina Press
    , March
     232 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


“A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one important thing,” went the ancient Greek saying, later picked up and made famous by the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin. I thought of that while reading Nicole Turner’s Soul Liberty: The Evolution of Black Religious Politics in Postemancipation Virginia. This is a book that involves a lot of foraging around in diverse locales, as goes the fox. Turner scours the archives: newspapers, church records, census data, political voting patterns, occupational records, and church discipline practices of post-emancipation black Virginians (focusing on Petersburg and counties surrounding that city). She focuses mostly on Baptists, as would be expected given their numerical majority in the southside, but importantly she devotes separate and extended attention to Episcopalians. My historian’s heart, not strangely, was warmed; this is specific, clear, empirical research conducted skillfully and presented straightforwardly.  

The intent, in part, is to cast a cold empirical eye on many of the most favored generalizations, the “one important [but possibly not really correct] thing” of the hedgehog. Here, that “thing” would be the leadership of black churches, and ministers in particular, in post-emancipation political activity, and the role Elsa Barkley Brown sketched out for women in her indispensable article on the subject. That thing, it turns out, is more complicated, varied, and subtle than we have known. In that way, this book is in the “many things” category. But upon further reflection, I decided both symbolic tropes work here, because we come away with one big thing as well.

I began with an ancient story, but I move quickly from there to the most 21st-century aspect of this book: its deep immersion in and use of the techniques of the digital humanities. The book appears in paper, in an open-access electronic version of the same, and in an “enhanced open access (OA) e-book” on Fulcrum, a publishing project associated with the University of Michigan library. I looked at all three versions. The latter has enhanced digital material allowing deeper dives into some of the material presented in the book. There is also a separate website, a sort of companion to the book. The digital sites reproduce the material of the book but also include much that is only presentable digitally. The result is a short book that punches way above its weight in terms of presenting conclusions from datasets that can be viewed through multiple perspectives.

Turner’s research does what good local studies should do: carefully examine standard generalizations and see if they hold up or if new conclusions appear. In this case, it’s some of both. But local studies work best when they rummage like a fox but burrow in one place like the hedgehog to come up with the prize prey: in this case, the fresh argument.

Now for some of the conclusions. Turner is interested in how post-emancipation African-Americans in Virginia “pursued soul liberty—through their churches, conventions, and seminary education,” and how the ways they pursued their religious and political goals were “dynamic, responsive, and a bit hard to pin down.” One important conclusion is that “the function and structure of churches and conventions not only made churches vulnerable to political exploitation but also caused a merger of values, such that women were marginalized while ministerial leadership was lionized” (2). The emphasis on seminary education furthered the role of the minister and diminished or even excluded that of women. And yet the complications continue, because not just ministers but ordinary church members held offices, and African American organization (at least among Baptists) operated primarily through associations (gatherings of churches in local areas that met for purposes of cooperation and mutual assistance).

Soul liberty was a deep Baptist principle dating from the 17th century, but it operated in a very particular context in post-emancipation Virginia. Turner traces how soul liberty was pursued in negotiations (sometimes successful, sometimes not) with Freedmen’s Bureau officials in the immediate postwar years. Black Baptist Virginians placed themselves squarely in historical narratives (here Turner draws from Laurie Maffly-Kipp’s work on African American historical narratives). In black church disciplinary proceedings, they debated moral standards, particularly around unwed pregnancies, and set within their own communities the governing rules. In seeking theological education, they both participated in white-funded endeavors but also created autonomous black institutions that both reinforced a gendered order and produced a reaction against it. And in the “Readjuster” political campaign of William Mahone, previously studied intensively by Jane Dailey but given a fresh look here, the agency of local black religious associations in generating political activity (rather than the workings of the Mahone campaign) provided the political base of this short-lived but important interracial coalition towards fighting Redemptionist politics. Turner’s careful mapping, overlaying religious associations and conventions and Mahone’s canvassing of the black community, yields hard-earned insight into the religious grassroots nature of black political organizing.

Turner concludes that an examination of black religious politics verifies some of the generalizations commonly made of postwar black churches, but finds also that “their power to effect change largely resided in their communal nature and at once made them powerful and vulnerable institutions” (147). For example, in his Readjuster campaign William Mahone relied on ministers to build alliances and neglected black women, “who proved to be key agents in facilitating and guiding black men’s political participation” (147).

This book swiftly rises to the A-list of must-reads in African American religious history. A final footnote: Stacy Abrams and her organization are pretty busy down in Georgia, but she would recognize herself in these pages. The grassroots organizing, the role of women in churches, the obstacles of voter suppression and Redemption politics, the black male minister who emerges as the star spokesman—it was all there, and it’s all here now. Let us hope that this time, more souls end up with more liberty from the destructive forces of Redemptionist national political leaders.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Paul Harvey is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.

Date of Review: 
February 8, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Nicole Myers Turner is assistant professor of religious studies at Yale University.


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