Response to Roundtable on Class
It is striking that more than half of the contributors to this roundtable expressed a degree of uncertainty or surprise at our inclusion in a conversation about religion and class. Ken Fones-Wolf and Jarod Roll identify first as labor historians, while I am primarily a religious historian. As each of my co-commentators noted, a lot of historians write about religion and class. Yet the two fields are still far enough apart that it seems odd to call oneself a historian of both labor and religion without qualifying one interest or the other. All of us argue that southern religious history and southern labor history have too infrequently overlapped. Fortunately, the contributors to this conversation have already begun to bridge that gap, not only writing histories that do both but also showing that each field is incomplete without the other.
A point that each of us makes in some fashion but that nonetheless bears repeating is that attention to religion and class should illuminate, and not obscure, our understanding of race in southern religious and labor history. Class and race are not competing categories of analysis; rather, they are intertwined. The Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union remains fascinating to historians not only because its leaders quickly learned to keep every scrap of paper that came into their hands, but also because its very existence proved that poor black and white southerners might unite voluntarily against the wealthier men who worked to divide them. Without exaggerating the depth of that unity or its disproportionate benefit for white union members, Roll demonstrates both in Spirit of Rebellion and in his contribution to this discussion that the union’s racial unity depended in large part on a shared religious and moral vision incomprehensible—and often aimed at—the region’s white power brokers. The religious and work experiences of both black and white union members become comprehensible because Roll describes the interconnections between their racial, class, and religious identities.
Of course, the other key power dynamic that historians of southern religion and class must contend with is gender. Each of the five of us acknowledges this; none of the five of us discussed the interplay between race, class, and gender in southern religion as fully as we might. Historians have long understood that women in early evangelical and Pentecostal churches found opportunities for leadership unavailable to women in the major denominations.1 What struck me in my research, however, was the degree to which female clergy and female religious leaders seemed an accepted part of the religious landscape in Memphis and the Delta, so long as they remained in the churches of the poor.
In 1937, the local paper in Jonesboro, Arkansas featured Elder Ida M. Collins in an article entitled “Church of God Is One of Most Active Institutions in City.” Seventy-two year old Collins had moved her two rural congregations to Jonesboro in 1930, where she founded and led the Original Church of God (Holiness) mission, a church of 25 white men and women. Although it included several photographs of Collins and her church, the column never directly addressed the question of female church leadership and focused instead on Collins’s church’s history and work.2 In churches where women could not stand in the pulpit, they nonetheless took charge. Federal Writers’ Project researchers in Jackson, Mississippi, seemed baffled by a black holiness church that was “almost purely a women’s organization,” led by “three Mothers of the Church” and a priest, “the only masculine sex who is active in the operation of the church.”3 What was most remarkable about these stories and the many others like them was that they did not seem remarkable at all to the reporters and researchers who recorded them.
That women often worked as clergy or leaders in southern churches in the first half of the twentieth century is neither surprising nor the point. I have already discussed the excellent work by historians of southern women and religion, much of it focused on the active work of middle-class women both inside and outside the church. But we have more to learn about the relationship between poor women’s roles in their churches and their roles in their families and communities. To what degree did poor women’s leadership in churches connect to their roles at home and at work? How did this leadership affect women’s roles in labor protest and organization? Did poor southern women define leadership and activism in the same terms as middle-class women, or did they understand their work differently? Relatedly, what roles did poor men see for themselves in their churches, and how did they connect their place in churches with their place in the home and the field or factory? How do the answers to these questions differ for poor black southerners and poor white southerners?
None of these questions are new, and each of the historians I have discussed above addresses them on some level. But we can learn much more about the contours and transformations of southern religious history in the first half of the twentieth century by considering questions like these using class as a primary category of analysis, and with the poor or working class as a central focus. The contours of American religious and political life in the twentieth century become comprehensible only when we are attentive not only to power dynamics of race and gender but also to those of class, and to the interplay among the three.
See, for instance, Catherine A. Brekus, Strangers and Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America, 1740–1845 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998); Anthea D. Butler, Women in the Church of God in Christ: Making a Sanctified World(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007); Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, If It Wasn’t for the Women: Black Women’s Experience and Womanist Culture in Church and Community (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2001); Matthew Avery Sutton, Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007). ↩
“Original Church of God (Holiness), Jonesboro, Craighead County, Folder 119, Box 429, Arkansas Church Records. ↩
Douglass Carr, “Holiness Church,” Jackson, Mississippi, n.d., p. 1, Federal Writer’s Project Negro Source Material, Mississippi Department of Archives and History. ↩