Review: Religion, Race, and the Making of Confederate Kentucky, 1830-1880
Luke E. Harlow. Religion, Race, and the Making of Confederate Kentucky, 1830-1880. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. 242pp. ISBN 978-1-107-00089-6.
Luke Harlow takes us deep inside the mind of conservative evangelical Protestants in Kentucky to discover the marrow of thinking on religion, slavery, race, and region. By looking at Kentucky, he insists, we find the center of American debates on those issues. In that border state, slavery ruled in law but antislavery sentiment worked on conscience, and religious believers on all sides of the debates were in regular contact with one another in print and even in person. What developed there, as perhaps in no other place, was an on-going “back-and-forth argumentation” that revealed the limits of antislavery gradualism and the force of proslavery racism. In the end, he argues, Kentucky moved from its initial “neutrality” on secession and support of the Union (with slavery), to being an unreconstructed southern “Confederate” state after the war. That evolution showed in the ways conservative evangelicals worked out their ideas over a half century.
Harlow largely relies on the writings of prominent preachers and public figures among Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians to make his case for the prevailing and evolving thought(s) on Kentucky’s place in the great debates on slavery, on the meaning of the Union, and on the obligations to, and of, church and state. In his close readings of such works, Harlow finds that in Kentucky at least antislavery gradualists and proslavery apologists engaged in sustained arguments on how to read the Bible, the spirituality of the church, and the uniqueness of slavery as it had developed in a Christian republic. Gradualists sought ways to end slavery and proslavery advocates sought ways to protect, and even, extend it. Both sides, however, agreed that slavery as an institution was sanctioned in the Bible, that God ordained a racial order in which Christian whites held sway, and that immediate, universal, uncompensated emancipation of the Garrisonian kind violated scriptural commands for an ordered society, invited race war, and threatened Christian authority. In a word, they thought abolitionists were dangerous heretics.
Harlow carefully tracks the various arguments with extended exegeses of books, pamphlets, articles and editorials in religious newspapers, and printed sermons and speeches. In doing so, he suggests that evangelicals—conservative and other— were almost preoccupied with the slavery and race questions. He also asserts that such men spoke for their congregations, and indeed for the larger evangelical public, though he offers no evidence of public responses to their arguments. His assumption that sermons and printed texts must have resonated in the pews—a common claim by students of religion focusing on printed texts—bears caution. So, too, does his fixation on the public writings of clergy and lay church leaders, which slights the day-to-day concerns of worship, witness, fellowship, and church-building that likely preoccupied the people in the churches and defined their priorities about what religion meant and must do. But, overall, his arguments make sense, especially in light of the political and religious outcomes. Although he devotes only a chapter to the process, Harlow shows that a gradualist-proslavery convergence occurred during and because of the war, when radical abolitionists supposedly took over Union policy by driving emancipation and arming the slaves. The latter developments were especially disruptive in the erstwhile Union state of Kentucky, for the promise of emancipation elsewhere spurred the state’s blacks to run to Union lines and to join the Union forces in numbers that turned slavery upside down and inside out in Kentucky, making whites there increasingly and self-consciously “southerners.” Reconstruction sealed that union of former antislavery gradualists and proslavery advocates as they adopted and adapted a mythology that claimed the Confederacy as a noble cause and white southerners as God’s chosen people, with all the obligations to resist Republican radicalism and sustain a God-commanded racial order of white over black. As Harlow has it, a “conservative religion made Confederate Kentucky” after the war (223).
Whether Harlow’s book rewrites “southern” religious history and our understanding of the religious basis of border-state antislavery and proslavery arguments only further work will tell. But with uncommon skill, intelligence, and sensitivity, he has deconstructed and re-centered the arguments of conservative evangelicals to show that for all their differences both antislavery gradualists and proslavery advocates worked from a common theological foundation. In doing so, he reminds us that, in assessing religion and the slavery question, we must not cast the story in polarities. Place matters. So, too, does process. In that regard, Harlow’s fine book invites us to investigate and observe the dynamics of religion and politics close up and over time in other places. Thereby, we might find the very soul of “southern” religion.