Nicole Myers Turner. Soul Liberty: The Evolution of Black Religious Politics in Postemancipation Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020. Illustrations, graphs, tables, maps. 223 pp. $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4696-5522-2; $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4696-5523-9.
Reviewed by Peter Porsche (Texas Christian University)
Published on H-CivWar (July, 2021)
Commissioned by Madeleine Ramsey (Virginia Military Institute)
During the late 1870s and throughout the 1880s, black Virginians experienced an unprecedented series of political victories that, to scholars of Reconstruction, appear tantalizingly suggestive of what the postwar era might have been had the country not reunited under the auspices of white supremacy and black disenfranchisement. Over the course of this decade, the leaders of the successful albeit short-lived Readjuster Party, so named for their belief that the state’s debt should be “adjusted,” established an effective biracial coalition that united disenchanted black and white Republicans with dissatisfied Conservative (later Democratic) voters altering the course of Reconstruction in Virginia. In 1879, the Readjusters captured the state legislature followed by the governor’s office two years later in 1881, the same year it sent former Confederate general and Readjuster candidate William Mahone to the US Senate. Under the Readjusters, freedpeople saw marked progress on their legislative agenda, which included “reducing the debt burden, securing state-funded education, funding a college for black people, and banning the whipping post” (p. 5). By the end of the decade, Virginia sent the first African American to serve as a member of Congress, the prominent lawyer and black activist John Mercer Langston. According to historian Nicole Myers Turner’s insightful and meticulously researched new book, Soul Liberty: The Evolution of Black Religious Politics in Postemancipation Virginia, these postwar victories resulted from black community organizing, a complex and strategic process birthed out of black churches, conventions, and seminaries.
In her analysis of postemancipation Virginia, which is largely centered on the Petersburg region and the surrounding counties, Turner mines census returns, local election returns, newspapers, and church and convention minutes, to challenge the prevailing scholarship that views postwar black politics as monolithic and lionizes the political black minister. Through examining the political terrain of the postwar years on the congregational level, she finds that freedpeople pursued “soul liberty,” a term that entails “a combination of religious freedom, righteousness, equity, and justice” (p. 2). As citizens armed with the vote and possessing the numbers necessary to alter election outcomes, freedpeople pursued the strategic goals of their local communities and, in so doing, created a context that allowed for the rise of the political black minister and the consequent marginalization of black women. This latter point denotes a key intervention of Turner’s narrative into a field that has traditionally focused on the male ministerial elite. Her attention to black congregants, especially women, reveals that the rise of ministerial leadership long held as simple fact was in actuality the result of a process, one influenced by the limited theological education black ministers received, an education that promoted black Protestants’ interracial political strategies and the implementation of strict gender roles. As these ministers left the confines of their seminaries to join congregations, they helped establish associations and conventions that proved critical to freedpeople’s political victories in the 1880s. Turner’s ability to track and recreate these “invisible landscapes” (through GIS mapping) that postemancipation black Virginians “carried in their heads” enhances the work and serves as a model for future researchers (p. 8).
Turner breaks down her work into five chapters that trace the progression of minister-influenced black religious politics from their start in the postwar era to their culmination in the 1880s. Chapter 1 focuses on the immediate postwar years and the new relationships freedpeople forged with the federal government and southern whites. Turner highlights how freedpeople used the Freedmen’s Bureau, the most visible and accessible representative of the federal government, to level the playing field and mediate rising disputes with local whites over ecclesiastical independence and separate worship spaces. Contrary to prevailing notions, however, blacks did not always push for autonomy; instead, a variety of complex factors influenced the decisions of each individual community. St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church serves as an important example where members chose to maintain a relationship with local whites for the benefit of the denomination’s educational initiatives. Attention to gender is never far from Turner’s mind, and throughout the work, she blends in this topic seamlessly. Here she discusses the planting of the Zion Union Apostolic Church in Mecklenburg County, which provides a window into the emergence of ministerial leadership during this period. James Howell, a freeman from the North, moved south after the war and helped establish this church. As minister, he promoted the ideals of Victorian manhood and established a patriarchal relationship between himself and the congregation, a model that would be duplicated not just across Virginia but throughout the South.
Turner’s Soul Liberty offers a concise, compelling, and nuanced account of the postemancipation religiopolitical world that freedpeople made. Her meticulous research allows readers to move beyond black ministerial leadership to gain an understanding of the era at the congregational level; this and her use of GIS-mapping technology emerge as two of the greatest strengths of this history. Indeed, those interested in exploring this political landscape further can do so through the companion website, Mapping Black Religion (https://mappingblackreligion.com/). Additionally, her congregational-level analysis debunks the prevailing narrative of a monolithic black community led by a political ministerial elite. In its place, diverse congregations emerge, many comprising women who served as key contributors to postwar religious organizing until the promotion of Victorian standards effectively pushed them to the shadows. One wonders what role the missionaries and teachers of the Congregationalist-led American Missionary Association, which spread across Virginia at the auspices of the Freedmen’s Bureau in the postwar years, had on this process. That omission aside, Turner’s work will prove essential reading for scholars of religion, African American history, and the Reconstruction era. The insights on the interplay of religion, politics, and gender offer clarity to an era that Reconstruction historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. recently described as “one of the most important and consequential chapters in American history that is also among the most overlooked, misunderstood and misrepresented.”
. Henry Louis Gates Jr., “PBS Announces Reconstruction: America after the Civil War, a New Documentary from Henry Louis Gates, Jr., to Air Spring 2019 on PBS,” PBS, last modified August 17, 2020, https://www.pbs.org/about/about-pbs/blogs/news/pbs-announces-reconstruction-america-after-the-civil-war/.
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Peter Porsche. Review of Turner, Nicole Myers, Soul Liberty: The Evolution of Black Religious Politics in Postemancipation Virginia.
H-CivWar, H-Net Reviews.
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