It was a great pleasure to reread Donald Mathews’s essay after so many years. I first encountered it as a graduate student, writing my dissertation and grappling with the cultural meanings of lynching rituals. Trudier Harris had already skillfully interpreted lynching as a symbolic ritual through which evil was exorcised from a community and social order restored. Orlando Patterson had expounded on this idea by arguing that, for white mobs, lynching was a specifically Christian sacrifice to expiate sin, sin that African Americans represented due to their association, in white minds, with slavery and with beastliness.1 But Mathews’s essay was a revelation, for in it he illuminated connections between lynching rituals, the culture of white supremacy, the meaning of blood sacrifice, and Christian theology of atonement with tremendous erudition and novelty.

Notably, lynching was, for Mathews, a “southern rite of human sacrifice” (emphasis added). Recent scholarship has emphasized that lynching was not at all specific to the South and in fact was perpetrated in other regions far more than previously recognized. Although the vast majority of lynchings happened in the South, we still might wonder whether Mathews’s analysis, which was predicated on the Calvinist penal theory of atonement, would cross regional boundaries. With this acknowledgment, my discussion here, for the sake of simplicity, will stay true to Mathews and focus on the South.

In rereading the article, I was struck by how skillfully Mathews constructed his argument, piece by piece, trusting the reader’s patience. He began with the historiography, using that as a foundation to explain lynching as a communal ritual through which cultural ideas about sex and race were expressed. He then added religion into the mix. The lynching ritual had an otherworldly quality, he said, but, with references to Émile Durkheim and Clifford Geertz, he made clear that this transcendence was a symbolic expression of the social order. His next move was to explain segregation and the white purity it protected as a “system of symbols,” or in other words, a religious system. The violation of the purity of that system that the mythic rape of white women signified required expiation through blood sacrifice. For white southerners, steeped in evangelical Protestantism, the most significant blood sacrifice was Christ’s crucifixion. And so it goes.

He was careful, however, not to assert a direct cause and effect between Christian belief and lynching, for there were many white Christians who were appalled by the violence. Surely we can surmise that if white southerners had not been steeped in this Christian tradition, they still would have lynched African Americans in the same brutal and ritualistic way. The Christian story of blood sacrifice served as the narrative through which their violence was made meaningful and sacred.

Mathews, however, was not so interested in the ways in which white southerners consciously understood lynching in Christian terms. He claimed that, with some exceptions, most white southerners would not have been aware of the analogy between lynching and the crucifixion. He focused instead on the meaning of the lynching ritual itself, rather than their interpretations of their violence after the fact. In that light, there are places he suggested that their Christianity had everything to with the violence they committed. “To be clear: The Christianity of the white South was a religion of sin, punishment, and sacrifice,” he wrote. “It was a religion of violence,” alluding to its Calvinist strains. In other words, evangelical Protestantism was a religion rooted in an act of retributive justice: God’s punishment of human sinfulness through the blood sacrifice of Christ. That core dogma of penal substitutionary atonement (which, Mathews noted, was derived from Medieval theology, not the Bible itself) allowed Christians pleasure in vengeance, for through it God’s anger was satisfied and they were redeemed. Would lynching rituals have been different in a non-Christian South? Would they have happened at all? NAACP Secretary, Walter White, believed not, writing in 1929, “It is exceedingly doubtful if lynching could possibly exist under any other religion than Christianity.”2 Mathews discussed White’s contention in his later essay, “Lynching is Part of the Religion of Our People,” but he ultimately sidestepped the issue.3 So it is here that Mathews’s argument becomes ambiguous to me. As Durkheim’s work makes clear, pleasure in vengeance was not specific to Christianity. Retributive justice is satisfying because it restores a moral imbalance; it allows a community to express and enact the moral values that a crime or a sin had threatened. Nor are sacrificial rites and practices of scapegoating specific to Christianity. If we follow this view, Christianity was not the cause, but simply the means through which white southerners interpreted the satisfaction the lynching ritual provided them, but this did not seem to be Mathews’ contention.

Indeed, Mathews did not look to the lynching accounts and defenses, except to remark that the lynchings of Leo Frank and Sam Hose were described as religious rites. He was interested in lynching as a ritual in the abstract, in unconscious “moods and motivations.” The language of pro-lynching narratives, however, complicates Mathews’s argument. To many African Americans, the analogy between lynching and the crucifixion held tremendous cultural power. As Mathews and many others have pointed out, that analogy sanctified their suffering and allowed them to find some hope of redemption in it. But the notion that, most white southerners, consciously or unconsciously, would have seen lynching as a crucifixion seems improbable to me. Yes, as René Girard tells us, the scapegoat is a marginal figure, someone outside the community whose sacrifice then compensates for the disruption in the community. And unlike Patterson, Mathews did not claim southerners atoned for their own sin through lynching and rightly so. Rather, he argued that through that rite, they expiated the perceived assault upon their symbolic order and, by doing so, reinforced the boundaries of their community. Except, beyond that, the idea of lynching as a blood sacrifice, and certainly as a crucifixion, breaks down. Although the sacrificial victim was an object of scorn, Girard also noted that he had a “dual connotation,” as an object to be venerated and worshipped.4 A sacrifice implies a renunciation, a loss of some sort. What was the loss to white southerners? And what of the crucifixion? In the Christian Gospels, Christ was persecuted as a criminal and compared to the scapegoats of the Old Testament, but, as Girard argues, the Gospels tell the story from the perspective of the persecuted. They represent Christ not as a scapegoat, burdened with sin, but as an innocent lamb, which is precisely why African Americans’ interpretation of the lynching as a crucifixion holds such power.5 In penal atonement theory, it is God, and Christ himself, who make the sacrifice, not Christ’s persecutors, to compensate for human sinfulness.

Lynching accounts are brimming with language about retributive justice, sanctified by God, but they impart a narrative not of the crucifixion, but of the Last Judgment. This is a point Scott Poole makes in his essay on white southern interpretations of Reconstruction violence and that I picked up on in my analysis of religion and lynching.6 White southerners in both Reconstruction and the Jim Crow eras were not concerned with atonement, but rather they saw themselves as victims of violence and chaos, unleashed by hellish creatures in their midst. They interpreted lynching as God’s work to exorcise the black “fiends” and “demons” that threatened their security and their purity. In their words, they were the already-saved, the innocent and righteous, working as messengers of God to appease His wrath and restore the sacred order of white supremacy by punishing black transgression with holy force.

Such an analysis does not necessarily contradict Mathews. White southerners were responding to a larger sense of moral disorder that they perceived around them as their towns and cities grew with industrialization, and African Americans were scapegoated for the fears about crime and vice that this social disruption produced precisely so that white southerners could maintain their own sense of innocence and righteousness. The language of lynching accounts does not tell us anything about the unconscious “moods and motivations” that interested Mathews. Although, if their unconscious motivations were rooted in a narrative of blood sacrifice, does it matter if that narrative was a Christian one? I do not know the answer to that question, but the fact that Mathews’s essay continues to raise so many questions for me speaks to its consequence. It also reminds us that, despite the many scholars who have followed Mathews, there is still much to understand about lynching as a religious ritual.

Editor Note: Wood earned her Ph.D. at Emory University and completed a post-doctoral fellowship at the Center of the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill. She is the author of Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940 (University of North Carolina Press, 2009), which won the Lillian Smith Book Award and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award in History. She is also the co-guest editor of a special issue of Mississippi Quarterly on lynching, representation, and memory (2008), and the editor of the volume on violence for the New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture (University of North Carolina Press, 2011). Her current book project is a cultural history of crime and criminality in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

  1. Trudier Harris, Exorcising Blackness: Historical and Literary Lynching and Burning Rituals (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1984), 11–12; Orlando Patterson, Rituals of Blood: Consequences of Slavery in Two American Centuries (Washington, D.C: Civitas/Counterpoint, 1998), 169–232.

  2. Walter White, Rope and Faggot (New York: Arno Press, 1969), 40.

  3. Donald G. Mathews, “Lynching is Part of the Religion of Our People,” in Religion in the American South: Protestants and Others in History and Culture, ed. Beth Barton Schweiger and Donald G. Mathews (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 158–160.

  4. René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977), 95.

  5. René Girard, The Scapegoat, trans. Yvonne Freccero (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), 117; Edward J. Blum, W.E.B. DuBois: American Prophet (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), 140–141.

  6. W. Scott Poole, “Confederate Apocalypse: Theology and Violence in the Reconstruction South,” in Vale of Tears: New Essays on Religion and Reconstruction, ed. Edward J. Blum and W. Scott Poole (Macon: Mercer University Press, 2005); Amy Louise Wood, Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940 (University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 45–68.