Review: Crucible of Faith and Freedom
Bruce T. Gourley. Crucible of Faith and Freedom: Baptists and the American Civil War. Macon, GA: Nurturing Faith Inc., 2015. 142 pp. ISBN 978-1-9385-14-82-1.
No scholar has written more expertly about Civil-War-era Baptists in recent years than Bruce T. Gourley. In Diverging Loyalties: Baptists in Middle Georgia during the Civil War (Mercer University Press, 2011) and briefer writings, Gourley has detailed the diverse experiences of black and white denominationalists buffeted by the winds of war yet moored by their faith to any number of local, state, and regional loyalties. The author’s efforts to problematize the generalizations common in earlier historiographical considerations of nineteenth-century Baptists, however, have themselves shared an essential quality. In Gourley’s skillfully rendered yet tantalizingly brief Crucible of Faith and Freedom: Baptists and the American Civil War, slavery is everywhere, underscoring the infernal institution’s place in the secular and sacred life of the late-antebellum and wartime United States.
“The road to the American Civil War began with the introduction of slavery into the American colonies,” Gourley writes. And indeed, the nation’s history cannot be told without emphasizing human bondage. As the author reminds, the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights were each compromised in their enlightened substance and limited in their republican impact by efforts to accommodate slavery. Vast fortunes in both the North and South were developed in slavery’s service, and in time slavery’s political opponents manned the helm of the American ship of state. But equally apparent, the story of American Baptists differs little from that of the secular nation. In 1789 Baptist leaders in Virginia declared slavery a “horrible evil” that should be abolished, for example, only to reverse course a few years later after moving into the “religious and socioeconomic mainstreams” (8, 8-9). American Baptists split into northern and southern camps over the issue in 1845. Fifteen years later, as South Carolina’s political and economic beneficiaries of slavery convened the first secession convention in the sanctuary of Charleston’s First Baptist Church, a newly elected president raised in a Hardshell Baptist home reminded his countrymen that the United States was indivisible. And even then, as disunion and war loomed, enslaved Baptists by perhaps the millions “fervently petitioned God for freedom, prayers that helped empower resistance to the oppressors in ways subtle but real” (7).
The author’s outstanding introduction notwithstanding, his summaries of each of the war’s turbulent months are collectively the most important element of Crucible of Faith and Freedom. Originally appearing in a series of articles for the monthly journal Baptists Today and drawn from Gourley’s five-year daily digital project titled Baptists and the American Civil War: In Their Own Words (available online at civilwarbaptist.com), these synopses detail each month’s greater historical significance while deftly incorporating the experiences of a variety of Baptist participants into the narrative. Baptists of every distinction—black, white, Native American, northern, southern, Primitive, Missionary—suggest the real diversity of belief that found its way into the Baptist denominational tent. Importantly, the personal experiences of Baptists in these continuing reports feature everything from Christian fear and resignation to religiously fueled sacrifice and suffering. Nevertheless, it is slavery and the numerous ways slavery and its concomitant racialized religious belief shaped the affairs of state and informed the wartime experiences of Baptists that most often takes center stage.
Crucible of Faith and Freedom is a difficult book to categorize. Always eloquent in prose and erudite in analysis, this is not a scholarly offering in the traditional sense, in that it does not include footnotes or endnotes or a comprehensive bibliography. Although the primary and secondary sources used in the monthly overviews are included on the author’s website, readers in the academy may nevertheless find this feature frustrating. Owing to the effort’s brevity, moreover, earnest students of Civil-War-era history might occasionally long for more contextualization of events and historical actors than Gourley provides. That said, Crucible of Faith and Freedom: Baptists and the American Civil War is much more remarkable for what it is than for what it isn’t. In less than 150 pages, one of America’s most respected scholars of nineteenth-century American religion offers a succinct analysis of the Civil War, told from a particular religious viewpoint yet revealing greater and broadly applicable truth. No matter its denominational distinction or earnest spiritual intent, organized religion is in the end a human endeavor. In considering the rationalizations and ideological contortions that some Baptists of the Civil-War-era realized in championing human bondage and the righteous indignation that others of the faith fomented in pursuing slavery’s demise, Bruce T. Gourley reminds us of the bad and good ways that religious traditions like Baptistism shape, yet are shaped by, their adherents.