Review: Gods of the Mississippi
Michael Pasquier, ed. Gods of the Mississippi. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2013. 223 pp. ISBN 978-0-253-00806-0.
Gods of the Mississippi is an edited collection of essays investigating “the relationship between religious life and river life” (11) along, across, and on North America’s longest waterway. Michael Pasquier, the volume’s editor, opens his introduction to “Religious Life on the Mississippi” with a quote from William Alexander Percy’s Lanterns on the Levee (1941): “The gods on their thrones are shaken and changed, but it abides, aloof and unappeasable, with no heart except for its own task…As a thing used by men it has changed: the change is not in itself, but in them” (1). The subject here, of course, is the river itself, and Gods of the Mississippi does indeed dive deep into the ways the Mississippi—as a river, as a region, as an idea—has changed gods and humans alike. Yet, this quote also hints at Pasquier and the other authors’ aspirations. When read individually, the essays introduce unfamiliar subjects—like geographic quests for and symbolic competition over the river’s origin (Art Remillard, Chapter 3), imaginings of the Mississippi as a New Jerusalem for new religious movements (Thomas Ruys Smith, Chapter 4), and religious responses to the rural crisis facing the Delta during the Great Depression (Alison Collis Greene, Chapter 7)—and offer fresh perspectives on familiar figures—as disparate as Joseph Smith (Seth Perry, Chapter 5) and Johnny Cash (John Hayes, Chapter 9). But taken together, the book also attempts to “shake and change” the standard stories told about religion in America.
Gods of the Mississippi provides new perspectives on a particular region and river that work to challenge prevailing assumptions in the broader currents of American religious history. For example, in Chapter 2 Sylvester Johnson introduces readers to Christian missionary work among the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations in the Mississippi Territory at the turn of the nineteenth century. Johnson uses this vantage point, however, to redefine the terms of early American and Protestant missionary history on the Mississippi frontier, arguing that “American Christian foreign missions functioned as a ‘civilizing’ religion of empire in strategic partnership with the War Department to transform the Mississippi Territory…from a land of sovereign Indian nations to an Anglo-American region of white imperial dominion” (36). To take another example, John M. Giggie details the ways technological changes, like the development of the railroad and the subsequent expansion of consumer markets, transformed African American religious life in the Mississippi Delta in Chapter 6. Thus Giggie intervenes in the traditional interpretation of the post-Reconstruction period as the “nadir” of African American history, arguing instead that, in spite of the rise of Jim Crow, African Americans in the Delta achieved incredible feats of religious creativity that birthed the Holiness-Pentecostal movement and changed not only the nation but also the world.
These nine essays, then, operate simultaneously on multiple registers: the historical and the historiographical (and sometimes the theoretical), the local and the national (and even transnational). In this sense the book answers the call of another collection, Thomas A. Tweed’s Retelling U.S. Religious History (1997), for scholars to re-view American religion from new locales and with different disciplinary perspectives. As Tweed notes in his afterword to Gods of the Mississippi, telling American religious history from the vantage point of the Mississippi foregrounds “the movement of people, things, and practices,” emphasizes the heterogeneity of characters and cultures, and reorients the narrative along a north-south axis—all of which challenges the “predominant plot of ‘western expansion by white Protestants’” (206) that has reigned in the study of religion in America (at least until recently). Gods of the Mississippi is at its strongest when it does just this.
Despite its ambitious breadth in temporal and spatial scope, or perhaps because of it, the collection does have its limitations. The religious life of Catholics is remarkably absent for a book on a region with one of the longest standing histories of Catholicism in North America. Justin D. Poché’s chapter “Bonfires on the Levee” is the notable exception. Poché uses the annual Christmas bonfires on levees in Louisiana as a way into a discussion of “the creation of a Catholic moral geography” by Catholics along the “River Road” between Baton Rouge and New Orleans (177). If the Mississippi is to allow scholars an opportunity to think beyond the usual plot of “western expansion by white Protestants,” then the presence of Catholics on the River of the Immaculate Conception, as French Jesuit missionary Jacques Marquette named it, will have to be much more pronounced. The same might be said of slavery. John Sensbach does open the volume with an analysis of the flourishing of African culture and religions in the lower Mississippi Valley, and Sylvester Johnson addresses the emergence of American empire at length. However, considering that more than half of the book’s chapters are set in an era when Mississippi was made into a cotton kingdom by the hands of slave laborers, more attention could have been paid to telling the story of religion in slave-holding America.
These limitations notwithstanding, Gods of the Mississippi succeeds on two fronts. It will certainly serve as an essential resource for scholars of religion in the South, not to mention those interested specifically in religion on and along the great river. What is more, this collection now stands as an invaluable example of precisely how scholars can retell religious history in the United States and across the Americas.