Robert Elder

Robert Elder is Assistant Professor of History at Valparaiso University.

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Robert Elder, "Introduction," Journal of Southern Religion (18) (2016):

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This forum began as a set of questions that cropped up as I tried to familiarize myself with the flood of new scholarship on slavery published over the last couple years by scholars such as Edward Baptist, Walter Johnson, Sven Beckert, Joshua Rothman, Adam Rothman, Calvin Schermerhorn, and a whole array of other work both published and forthcoming that is transforming (again) our traditional interpretations of slavery, the South, capitalism, and even the character and nature of modernity. The central thrust of this new scholarship is the argument that slavery in the American South represented a relatively refined and rapacious branch of modern, global capitalism that depended on naked brutality alongside highly sophisticated financial instruments and marvels of the modern age like the steamboat to extract wealth out of enslaved people and stolen land. This new scholarship seems to have successfully eclipsed the already long-contested idea of the American South as a society set apart by a premodern labor system that existed on the trailing edge of modernity, on the fringes of capitalism, and on the wrong side of history.[1]

What was remarkable to me as a historian who studies southern evangelicalism was just how little most of these new histories engaged religion, even when they acknowledged it. This is even more surprising when one considers that these new histories of slavery are part of a larger historiography of capitalism that includes scholars like Bethany Moreton, Darren Dochuk, and Darren Grem, to cite only three examples, who argue that southern evangelicalism played a central role in shaping the course of capitalism in America, and even the world, during the twentieth century.[2] And yet, as Charles Irons observes in his contribution to this forum, religion is notably absent from Walter Johnson’s catalogue of the materials that made up the “Cotton Kingdom”. Edward Baptist confines his treatment of religion to a few short pages that mainly serve to document another example of cotton capitalism overpowering everything in its path. Clearly religion is not central to any of these new interpretations of slavery in the way that it was central to Eugene Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll or, more recently, to Erskine Clarke’s Dwelling Place.[3] Especially in contrast to previous interpretations of slavery, the absence of religion in these histories raises a series of questions, and I wanted the participants in this forum to address how these new histories might impact and interact with the study of southern evangelicalism. For instance, can historians still describe the complicated and nuanced relationships that existed in biracial evangelical churches alongside Edward Baptist’s unrelenting description of the “second slavery”? Just as importantly, I wanted the participants to address the meaning of the religion-sized hole in these new interpretations. What is the relationship between the argument in these books that slavery and the South were thoroughly modern and the parallel and ongoing discussion about the modern elements of southern evangelicalism? What do historians of religion have to offer to the important arguments about agency that figure so prominently in these works? Do historians of evangelicalism need to “catch up” to the new histories of slavery, or do these new works indicate that historians of slavery finally catching up to us? And, finally, but not exhaustively, how should we describe what we mean by “southern evangelicalism” in the wake of so much scholarship that seeks to integrate the region into descriptions of a broader national and even global economic system?

In his essay, which is also a meditation on the possibility of historical change and hope, Luke Harlow captures many of these issues by posing two questions to historians of southern evangelicalism, “Do we need to change anything? And what do we have to say to those who don’t think first about the history of religion?” Charles Irons considers exactly what “the new materialists” leave out when they leave out religion, and also asks what might be gained from considering “religion” more broadly in these histories. Laura Porter considers the significance of these bleak new histories as they relate to the historiography of Christian paternalism, arguing that books like Edward Baptist’s “not only leave little question that the paternalistic ideals touted by many slave owners were rarely put into practice, but also—crucially—why they were doomed from the beginning.” Beth Schweiger considers the impact of new histories that depict slavery as thoroughly modern on our view of southern evangelicalism, writing, “The consensus that American slavery was a varietal of modern liberal capitalism matters to histories of religion because, although rarely stated outright, a premodern slavery was presumed to rest on a premodern religion.” Jon Sensbach rounds out the forum by extending the geographical boundaries of the discussion to include the British Caribbean, revealing the very different dynamics that characterized the relationship between evangelicalism, slavery, and capitalism in the British West Indies, and in the process underlining the importance of that relationship in the American South.

Taken together, these essays suggest that the new histories of slavery will indeed impact future scholarship on southern evangelicalism, but also that the striking absence of religion in these histories leaves an important part of the history of slavery and capitalism untold.

[1] Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 2014); Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2013); Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York: Knopf, 2014); Calvin Schermerhorn, The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism, 1815–1860 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015); Joshua D. Rothman, Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2014); Adam Rothman pays more somewhat more attention to religion than other recent accounts. Adam Rothman, Slave Country: American Expansion and the Origins of the Deep South (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).

[2] Bethany Moreton, To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009); Darren Dochuk, “Blessed by Oil, Cursed with Crude: God and Black Gold in the American Southwest,” Journal of American History 99, no. 1 (June, 2012): 51–61; Darren E. Grem, The Blessings of Business: How Corporations Shaped Conservative Christianity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[3] Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York: Vintage Books, 1976); Erskine Clarke, Dwelling Place: A Plantation Epic (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005).