April E. Holm. A Kingdom Divided: Evangelicals, Loyalty, and Sectionalism in the Civil War Era. Conflicting Worlds: New Dimensions of the American Civil War Series. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2017. 288 pp. $47.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8071-6771-7.
Reviewed by Evan C. Rothera (University of Arkansas - Fort Smith)
Published on H-Slavery (January, 2020)
Commissioned by Andrew J. Kettler (University of California, Los Angeles)
Most people today, April E. Holm contends, do not blame churches for the coming of the US Civil War. However, plenty of people did at the time. According to Holm, Robert L. Stanton’s The Church and the Rebellion (1864), for instance, claimed that future historians would take notice of the “‘agency of the Church’ and the ‘zeal of the ministers of religion’ in promoting secession.” Holm cautions readers against brushing such accusations aside as marginal or irrelevant. A Kingdom Divided employs religion “as a critical lens through which to analyze sectionalism, war, and reunion. More than simply gazing at the church’s role in causing secession, it examines how religion, politics, and morality interacted in a time of political crisis to create lasting institutional and cultural divisions in American Christianity” (p. 1). Holm begins with the Second Great Awakening, ends in the Gilded Age, and focuses on three denominations: Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians. These groups experienced tremendous growth during the early nineteenth century, but by the 1850s, the issue of slavery divided each denomination into sectional branches. As the northern and southern branches of each denomination became increasingly politicized, people living on the border between North and South, the region that interests Holm, employed a strategy of neutrality to navigate through the difficulties of sectional division.
Holm defines the border as “the area in which, when faced with divisive political conflicts, evangelicals struggled with the question of whether they were northern or southern” (p. 7). Geographically, it encompassed Delaware, Maryland, western Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri, and portions of every neighboring state. A Kingdom Divided charts the expansion of the three religions during the Second Great Awakening, noting that all three shared the same imperative to evangelize. As one might expect, the western members of each of the denominations wanted their own religious institutions. They established newspapers, seminaries, and publishing houses and accumulated a considerable amount of property. This did not pose a major problem until the three churches split into sectional branches.
Evangelical denominations were national organizations and, therefore, brought people from across the nation into contact with each other. Consequently, regional differences of belief about slavery, abolition, and the nature of sin could not be ignored. Churches, like other US institutions, soon felt the divisive power of the slavery question. Slavery did not cause the Presbyterian fracture into Old School and New School branches in 1837, and Holm does not find either branch explicitly proslavery or antislavery, but most antislavery Presbyterians ended up in the New School. The Methodists and Baptists split into northern and southern branches in 1844-45, largely due to slavery and questions about clergymen owning slaves. The Methodist Plan of Separation, designed to ease the transition, led instead to acrimonious property disputes that heightened tensions on the border. Making a choice about whether to affiliate with the northern or the southern branch proved comparatively easy for people who lived in northern or southern states, but for westerners, it was often nearly impossible and fraught with difficulty. Holm describes how these sectional divisions created an ecclesiastical border.
Problematically, for border evangelicals, division did not mean the end of the disputes, as both the northern and southern branches of each denomination laid claim to the border region. Border congregations evaluated ministers by their position on the slavery question. Disputes over property became legion. Holm includes several fascinating accounts of churches that proved more than willing to use the courts to resolve their disputes. Critically, to turn to the courts, evangelicals had to make their peace with violating the separation of church and state and committing the sin of schism. Courts, interestingly enough, often proved hesitant about wading into denominational squabbles. Some congregations left questions about affiliation and slavery unresolved. They embraced a doctrine of spirituality, which emphasized “political neutrality in the pulpit over expressions of support for the secular government” (p. 81). Border evangelicals also considered slavery a political issue and argued that clergy should not express opinions about the subject. At a time when sectional political debate dominated civil society, border evangelicals attempted to maintain neutrality. Their problem became maintaining unity in the face of a deepening rift over slavery, a task made even more challenging by the events of the Decade of Crisis.
The real problem of neutrality became readily apparent during wartime. Military authorities “enacted measures designed to ensure the emotional loyalty of the people, not just the political loyalty of the state” (p. 102). In other words, border clergy maintained that preaching could be neutral, Union authorities said it could not, and the results were usually unpleasant. Evangelicals came to represent a loyal opposition within the northern branches of each of the three denominations and army officials came to see disloyal ministers as more threatening than disloyal citizens. Provost marshals wanted active, not passive, loyalty and they did not hesitate to compel displays of allegiance. However, attempts to police loyalty often backfired and arresting clergy generated considerable animosity. Debates over loyalty, union, and neutrality continued into religious reconstruction, which began in the final year of the war and lasted through the end of the decade. “Attempts to redistribute church property and ensure the loyalty of ministers in occupied areas,” Holm asserts, “not only impeded sectional reunion, they also did much to alienate border moderates” (p. 125). By the end of the 1860s, border moderates no longer identified with the northern churches and established their independence. Although the war ended slavery and destroyed the Confederacy, it did not mean that many evangelicals cared any less about these issues.
Border evangelicals in each of the three denominations moved away from the northern branch of their respective denominations and drifted ever closer to the southern churches of their denomination. Southern branches had to justify their continued independence and an alliance with the border churches offered benefits. Northern evangelicals attempted to initiate reunion—and never gave up hope of reunion—but their overtures produced few results. Decades after abolition, slavery continued to dominate the discussion and divide each of the three denominations. In polemical histories, “southerners downplayed their defense of slavery before the war while northerners exaggerated their antebellum opposition to slavery” (p. 176). Holm argues that postwar interactions between evangelicals “provide an arresting counterpoint to the narrative of postwar reconciliation” (p. 192). In contrast to other areas of society, which experienced a growing blue-gray fraternalism, the three denominations remained divided.
A Kingdom Divided is a well-written and thought-provoking book. Holm notes that while the book is principally concerned with ministers and lay leaders, she nevertheless examined “material from all ranks of church organizations” (p. 10). At times, her analysis can seem like a conversation among elites, and one wonders whether Holm might have brought in more voices from church members and contemporary observers. In addition, the author notes that white southern evangelicals complained about northern missionaries “stealing” black southern evangelicals. These white southerners even anticipated freedpeople joining their churches. Obviously, this did not happen, and Holm might have woven more African American voices into her story of border evangelicals. Nevertheless, this volume is well worth reading and will interest all students of religion and politics in the nineteenth-century US.
. For other incisive accounts of evangelicals, see Richard Carwardine, Evangelicals and Politics in Antebellum America (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1997); and Christine Leigh Heyrman, Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997).
. Holm’s book contributes to a rich historiography on religion and the US Civil War. For other examples, see Mitchell Snay, Gospel of Disunion: Religion and Separatism in the Antebellum South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993); Mark Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006); Harry S. Stout, Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the American Civil War (New York: Viking, 2006); George C. Rable, God's Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010); and Timothy Wesley, The Politics of Faith during the Civil War (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2013).
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Evan C. Rothera. Review of Holm, April E., A Kingdom Divided: Evangelicals, Loyalty, and Sectionalism in the Civil War Era.
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