Monday, April 8, 2013

Catholics, Protestants, and Sectionalism in Antebellum American: An Interview with W. Jason Wallace

Conducted by Randall Stephens

W. Jason Wallace is a professor of history at Samford University. He is the author of Catholics, Slaveholders, and the Dilemma of American Evangelicalism, 1835–1860 (Notre Dame University Press, 2010). I recently caught up with Jason to ask him some questions about his work on Christianity in pre-Civil War America and to discuss some of the
Wall Street, 1847. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
connections between religion, politics, and historical consciousness in the nineteenth century U.S.

Randall Stephens: What makes the era between 1835 and 1860 such a critical period in American religious history?

W. Jason Wallace:
Between 1835 and 1860 most aspects of American social, political, and economic life reached something of a ferment.  Religion, and especially Christianity, underwent substantial trials as well.  Religious disestablishment was then, and still is, a young phenomenon in the scope of world history.  Unlike European churches, American churches had to compete in the marketplace of ideas for adherents.  People had choices.  Religious affiliation was not simply a matter of genealogy or geography.  As a result, in Nathan Hatch’s great phrasing, the democratization of the churches began in earnest.  With the First Great Awakening the confessional boundaries established over the course of a century or so after the Reformation slowly lost influence.  The Second Great Awakening all but ended the confessional church tradition in America.  Revivalism combined with broad conceptions of evangelicalism to create new Protestant identities.  By the middle decades of the nineteenth century many Protestant traditions that valued creeds and liturgy found themselves overwhelmed by evangelical sentiment.  Doctrine became less important than the individuals’ personal relationship with God, and behavior and public virtue came to be seen more and more as marks of “genuine” Christianity.  In some ways these theological shifts made evangelicalism valuable to the growing country because it gave sanction to the importance of virtue and morality for national life.  In other words, Christianity provided a code of behavior that could benefit everyone.  But for Christianity to be useful it had to be contained.  If disputes over theology and doctrine spilled into public life then Christianity could become divisive and socially destabilizing.  In part, this is exactly what happened in the debate over slavery. 

Stephens: What accounts for the close connection between anti-slavery and anti-Catholicism?

Economics, immigration, social pressures, and theological disagreements all contributed to the close connection between anti-slavery and anti-Catholicism.  In the nineteenth century the intellectual centers of American evangelicalism were in the large emerging industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest.  Here also is where we find strong pockets of Whigs as well as growing numbers of abolitionists and Irish Catholic immigrants.  One could say that the northern cities had all the right conditions for the “perfect religious and political storm” against Catholicism and slavery.

Between 1835 and 1860 the alleged tyrannies of slavery and Catholicism became a unifying idea for
A nativist newspaper from the antebellum period.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
northern Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists.   All oppressive hierarchies, religious or secular, were depicted as the enemies of American values.

Stephens: Could you say a little bit about the sources you used in your study?

Most of my primary sources were sermons, articles in popular religious periodicals, correspondence, newspapers, and theological essays found in academic journals. Primary Catholic sources were a bit tougher to find than Protestant ones.  There were some letters, but most Catholic sources came from rejoinders against Protestant accusations, Catholic periodicals, theological essays, and polemical pieces defending the compatibility between Catholicism and Americanism.  Without a doubt the journal was the blog of the nineteenth century. 

Stephens: You note that in many ways northern Protestants in the antebellum era were divided over questions about doctrine and politics. How did those divisions shape the struggle leading up to war?

I did not find any indication of a monolithic northern evangelical “mind,” but there is evidence that American evangelicals in general, and northern evangelicals in particular, tended to value shared social commitments more than theological precision.  Over the course of the mid-nineteenth century the Protestant theological divisions of the past came to matter less than how Christianity translated into social and political questions.  Evangelicals, however, faced a serious problem when they began to disagree about what constituted legitimate social concerns.  Nowhere was this problem more pronounced than with the slavery question. Where theology could be either ignored or debated without real public consequence, politics could not.  Antebellum politics betrayed the appearance of unity evangelicals so desperately desired.  Both northern and southern evangelicals held fast to the notion that there was in fact a relationship between Protestant Christianity and good government.  This relationship, though never explicitly defined, divided millions of evangelicals when the slavery question could no longer be ignored.  Northern evangelicals believed slavery to be as incompatible with American values as Catholicism, and they launched a semi-coordinated campaign against both Catholics and slaveholders in sermons, speeches, and journal articles.  A consequence of this campaign was that slaveholders, like Catholics, shared the position of the northern evangelical ideological “other”—the outsider who had to be assimilated or reconstructed.  While southern theologians retreated into a myopic defense of the peculiar institution, Northern evangelicals increasingly allowed their understanding of the church to be defined by the American experiment.
Gleason's Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion, May 1851.

Three excellent studies that came out just before or just after my book that further the connections between doctrine and politics (and I wish I had had more time to absorb into my work) are Mark Noll’s, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, Harry Stout’s, Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War, and George Rable’s God’s Almost Chosen People.

Stephens: You spend some time writing about how believers engaged the past or constructed a usable past.  Could you tell us a little about how views of the past were politicized?

Most people want a useable past regardless of their religious beliefs or where they called home.  Look at the great stories by writers as different in time and place as William Faulkner and Philip Roth.  Both develop fascinating characters whose pasts contribute to self-awareness.  There is something universal in this quest.  In this regard, I don’t think antebellum evangelicals are very different from other people or groups.  What is somewhat unique is the way they used the past and what they emphasized.  Northern evangelical leaders recognized a threat in the articulate and intellectually talented American Catholic hierarchy.  Yet, they also understood the hierarchy had roots in Europe, and they were convinced that Rome was in some way behind all of Europe’s political problems.  Both current events in Europe as well as Europe’s pre-Reformation history loomed large in the northern evangelical imagination.  Specifically, the idea of the Middle Ages as dark, corrupt, and tyrannical provided the perfect foil against which northern evangelicals could articulate their optimism about political liberalism.  They insisted that intellectual and moral slavery were the twin legacies of the Middle Ages, and that under their benevolent Christian influence “mental” slavery must end in Europe as surely as physical slavery would in America.

Stephens: Historians like Charles Irons, Donald Mathews, and Christine Heyrman have studied southern evangelicals’ relationship to slavery in various ways.  Would you say something about how you approached the discussion of southern evangelicalism, slavery, and Catholicism?

The scholars you mention are certainly important.  To that list I would add Anne C. Loveland, Mitchell Snay, Eugene Genovese, and Michael O’Brien.  While each subject has been well-covered independent of one another, I found little that treated them together.  Southern evangelicals were conservative in temperament, yet they shared with northern evangelicals the belief that the United States should be identified with Protestant values.  In the main, they overwhelmingly rejected revisions to received Christian doctrine, but they did not entirely reject the idea that
Slave Market, by unknown artist, 1850s-60s.
Protestantism should play an important role in shaping the character of the nation. With the crises of secession and war, southern evangelicals were as resolute as northern evangelicals that their understanding of Christianity provide a moral template for republicanism.  An important point I tried to make in the book is that although southern evangelicals never abandoned the leveling theological principles of Protestantism, they nevertheless distanced themselves from the northern evangelical notion that Protestantism could perfect democracy.   As a result, southern evangelicals found themselves touting hierarchical and elitist political and social arrangements while at the same time they defended the priesthood of the believer, private conscience, and the perspicuity of Scripture.  In short, southern evangelicals worked hard, very hard, to justify a conservative social vision of caste, aristocracy, and natural inequality while at the same time holding on to Protestant religious presuppositions that championed none of these things.  By recasting their political theology in terms that supported slavery, southern evangelicals confirmed what northern evangelicals had been arguing for years—slaveholders were a threat to their nationalist aims precisely because they offered a competing vision of what a Christian republic might look like.  In this sense, southern evangelicals found themselves in a predicament remarkably similar to a group with whom they would otherwise have very little in common, American Catholics. 

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