Review: Challenges on the Road to Emmaus
T. Felder Dorn. Challenges on the Emmaus Road: Episcopal Bishops Confront Slavery, Civil War, and Emancipation. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2013. 472pp. ISBN 978-1-61117-249-2.
In histories of Christianity in the era of the American Civil War, Episcopalianism often gets short shrift. The reasons are understandable enough. There are immediate payoffs to narratives foregrounding the period’s large, democratic, and popular traditions (Baptists, Methodists, and Restorationists), its intellectual stalwarts (Congregationalists and Presbyterians), or its rising and numerically robust immigrant tradition (Catholicism). The Protestant Episcopal Church (PECUSA) does not comfortably fit any of those paradigms. Certainly it claimed a legacy of powerful and affluent individuals, but it held comparatively few members and little in the way of popular cultural influence. Furthermore, its hierarchy and liturgy proved off putting in an American context that privileged democracy and innovation when it came to polity and worship. As a result, scholars have struggled to integrate Episcopalianism into the main contours of the religious history of the Civil War era.
Historians will have to wait a bit longer for a book that accomplishes that task, but T. Felder Dorn’s Challenges on the Emmaus Road will prove an essential text for anyone interested in the shape of PECUSA before, during, and after the sectional crisis. For those interested in the voluminous records left by nineteenth-century Episcopal leadership, Dorn’s book will be the place to look first: his research is, quite simply, prodigious. Quotes and excerpts abound. In seven parts—which are broken up into smaller chapters profiling various leaders, agencies, and episodes—Dorn surveys the history of the Episcopal Church in America with regard to slavery, canvasses the hierarchy’s views on the slavery debates, explores various positions held on secession and the creation of a separate Confederate Episcopal Church, explains competing northern and southern views of the Civil War, and discusses the reunion of the PECUSA with the return of former Confederate dioceses by 1866. For specialists, the story will not be terribly new and Dorn does not hold the book together with an overarching thesis, but no one has covered this much ground in Episcopalianism’s Civil War era history.
In many senses, this is an old-school denominational history. As many in the field understand, there is both a positive and negative sense to that term. If a clear positive is that the research is both wide and vast within Episcopalianism, the negative is that the book does little work to gaze outside the Episcopal tradition. Dorn is almost entirely interested in the story of the Episcopal bishops with little focus on the particulars of parish life, the laity, or indicators of the resonance of the hierarchy’s views in broader American social, cultural, or political life. Few connections are made with larger developments in the period’s religious history. One of the main themes of the book is the church leadership’s focus on unity; to be sure, its lack of conflict—especially compared to other Protestant traditions—could have been profitably mined to make some broader points about the shape of American religion in the period. Furthermore, several intra-denominational discussions—such as the chapter on the Protestant Episcopal Freedman’s Commission—are ripe for expanded analysis. A future scholar will have to write the history that makes more of Episcopalianism with reference to broader American religious and cultural narratives, but they will have to cite Challenges on the Emmaus Road when doing so.