The South, The North, Hope, and Historical Change

Luke E. Harlow

Luke E. Harlow is Associate Professor of History and Director of Graduate Studies at University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

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Luke E. Harlow, "The South, The North, Hope, and Historical Change," Journal of Southern Religion (18) (2016):

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Do new histories of slavery mean new histories of southern evangelicalism? This is the question with which we’re tasked to answer in this forum. My answer to that question is “no.” But in answering that question, I want to move in two directions. First, I want to address the state of the field of scholarship that has thought about that question in the narrowest sense: those of us who have worked on the history of southern evangelicalism in the nineteenth century. Second, I want to push outward, to think about the way the new literature on slavery has not fully taken the measure of the history of evangelicalism—the most popular and dominant religious system, South and North—in the period, and what that might suggest for future inquiry. In other words, as a historian of southern evangelicalism I’m asking two questions here: Do we need to change anything? And what do we have to say to those scholars who don’t focus first on the history of religion?

It is undeniable that the new histories of slavery want to show, perhaps more than we have heretofore appreciated, the extent to which nineteenth-century American slavery was capitalist: this “second slavery,” as Dale Tomich has called it, was different from the pre-nineteenth century colonial system because it was grounded in modern global networks of commodity exchange. It is this insight that illuminates the leading histories in the new literature, including work by Adam Rothman, Josh Rothman, Walter Johnson, Edward Baptist, and Sven Beckert. Furthermore, as Seth Rockman has shown compellingly, slavery and wage labor were not antithetical as was once thought, but existed and cooperated hand-in-hand.[1] Nineteenth-century American slavery was capitalist. Full stop. In part this literature dodges the implications for our understanding of Civil War causation. But whatever the Civil War was, it was not a modern and industrializing North facing off against an agrarian and traditional South.

Because this forum is about a different sort of question, I will avoid the debates about whether or not the new histories of slavery define capitalism appropriately, whether or not slavery was necessary to modern industrialization, and even whether or not these new histories are showing something “new.” There is much debate about that to be found elsewhere.[2] But to put a fine point on it, I’m not sure anyone believes, as Eugene Genovese once claimed, that “The fall of the Confederacy drowned the hopes of southern conservatives for the construction of a viable non-capitalist social order.”[3]

To be sure, when Genovese published those words in 1994, there existed one clear place where these new histories intersected with the question in front of this forum. And that’s the extent to which southern evangelicalism was distinctive and different from the variety of that faith that existed in the rest of the North Atlantic, especially Great Britain, Canada, and the American North. In an older telling, the South’s “old-time,” especially revivalist, religion was very much that: traditional, anti- (or at least pre-) modern, seemingly constructed against a wanton embrace of crass acquisitiveness. It was also reactionary, especially over against a rapidly industrializing, laissez-faire, North and Great Britain. There was also the residue of a mid-twentieth-century version of the secularization thesis at work in this interpretation: modernity meant a decline of the centrality of religious belief, and since the South proved a bastion of religiosity, it was therefore anti-modern. Put bluntly, southern religion was “backward.” And when it came to the relation of that religious system to slavery, as one historian perceptively put it, “The premodern character of slavery has been so often linked to revival religion that it has become akin to a geological formation in the literature.”[4] So understood, it also made it easy to explain the coming of the Civil War. Two fundamentally different cultures squared off, and one was destined to lose to the forces of modernity.

But that isn’t true. Southern religion was fundamentally—and obviously—linked to the currents of the modern world. And historians of nineteenth-century southern evangelicalism have known that for a long time.

I won’t speak for the whole community of scholars who have worked on religion in the nineteenth-century South, but for my own part, no one has done more to make that point clear than Beth Schweiger (quoted above). Especially in her field-defining monograph, The Gospel Working Up (2000), she demonstrated clearly the progressive, bureaucratized, professionalized—indeed, modern and capitalistic—nature of Baptist and Methodist clergy in nineteenth-century Virginia. Their lasting legacy was the creation of modern denominations, institutional structures that have persisted to the present. As Schweiger wrote elsewhere,

By characterizing religion in the American South as premodern or backward, historians have seriously underestimated the social power of the institutions that evangelicals created in the South. Southern evangelical Protestants did not merely put themselves at the service of the political economy of slavery. Slavery shaped the messages of southern churches, but it could not dictate the organizational form that they took, one that was mirrored exactly by denominations in the free-labor North.[5]

It was not, in other words, a difference of theology or institutional culture that marked the South’s evangelicalism as different or distinctive. So what was the difference? In one word: slavery.

Here, I might slightly part company with Schweiger, who has argued that, “Political economy, not theology, has defined regional differences in the history of American Protestantism between 1730 and 1860.” I would argue that theology is more a product of political economy than those of us who study religious history might want to acknowledge. At the very least, there is much creative symbiosis, a kind of mutually constitutive quality, to theology and politics. And as I have argued elsewhere, the defense of slavery and its attendant biblicism led to the formulation of a number of key tenets of modern American evangelicalism—that, again, were not uniquely southern and widely accepted in the North and West, especially after emancipation.[6]

This assertion raises another question, one that puts the history of nineteenth-century southern evangelicalism more squarely in tension with the new histories of slavery. In these new histories, slavery looks a lot less like a regional distinctive. The North became a free labor, free soil society after the American Revolution thanks to a spate of gradual emancipation laws that required decades to fully take hold. But American slavery was fully capitalist, fully embedded in global markets, and the so-called free-labor societies of the North and Great Britain profited fantastically because of slavery’s existence.

With that acknowledgment, I turn to what historians of evangelicalism might bring to bear for historians of slavery more broadly.  The fact that the North and South shared so much in common religiously might give us some pause before fully embracing new histories of slavery that appear to minimize regional distinctions. Perhaps religion is the best place to look to see the difference that slavery in fact made. It might help us see more clearly why, as Mark Noll once wrote, two regions that shared so much in common culturally were “at each other’s throats.”[7] The history of southern evangelicalism can show us the importance of retaining a sense of region—at least on the slavery question—and in turn, gesture at what might be gained from also studying the evangelical culture of the North more deeply as it related to slavery. The Civil War did come, and slavery died with it.

However, stating that obvious fact—that the Civil War brought emancipation—and by corollary that region might still hold significance in our analysis, forces us into more complex interpretive terrain. Here I want to advance an even broader set of assertions about what the history of religion offers for the new histories of slavery. In the new histories of slavery, because of the dominant, hegemonic quality of capitalism, there seems little room to make sense of challenges to the system. To be sure, much has been written about agency and resistance, and what was possible under slavery.[8] I do not wish to re-hash those old questions, especially when other members of this forum have written more compellingly about those issues.

Historians of religion can offer at least one contribution, though. I suppose it’s something I’ve thought a lot about lately, in light of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, and his recent Atlantic essay on hope and historical thinking, as well as Tim Tyson’s response.[9] For my part, I probably agree with Coates, that hope is not a category for historians to consider in their analysis. And, after all, if you study the history of slavery and racism in America, it is dour. It is bleak. As one of my Ph.D. committee members asked me at my own dissertation defense, “Where’s the hope?” I didn’t have an answer. But as a historian of religion, I know plenty of historical actors who did have hope. In one serious way, the new histories of slavery can leave readers feeling as if the past was a bit flat, as if there were no possibilities for change in the face of the capitalist machine. Yet the Civil War came and destroyed the system of American slavery.

For actors at the time, this change was revolutionary. Certainly it was more revolutionary in an eighteenth-century sense of a rights revolution than in the nineteenth-century Marxist sense of a revolution against capital, but four million people found freedom in the process. A people worth three billion dollars in 1860 became citizens, voters, officeholders, students, and landowners within the span of a decade. If the causes and consequences of Civil War emancipation are myriad and complex, at some base level it must be underscored that Christianity—particularly evangelicalism—supplied some of the most profound and consistent resources to challenge slavery.[10] The language of faith pervaded the black freedom struggle in the North, and certainly was present throughout the South. In addition, I do not think it is overstating the case to suggest that abolitionist organizations like the American Anti-Slavery Society and American Missionary Association—both funded in large part by the exceedingly capitalist and evangelical Tappan brothers—played a prominent role in slavery’s demise, as well as the effort to create a free society in the American South after emancipation.

We historians do not have to engage in the overwrought, even millennialist, claims of our historical actors to see the significance of the change that came with the end of slavery. Rather than viewing the Civil War as a contest between two diametrically opposed societies, we might say that American capitalism went to war with itself. One vision of capitalism—with property in persons—was ultimately displaced by another that had existed with it, with property organized by contracts and wage labor. And it also brought a series of civil rights changes that came into being because once-slaves claimed those rights. Certainly because of the underlying commitment to property rights and the sacrosanct nature of the contract, as many historians have shown, some radical reconstruction plans—like land redistribution—did not get very far off the ground. The change might have been ultimately limited. But there was change.[11]

The biracial base of the Republican Party—which in large part made possible those changes—drew from a series of Christian-infused sources. That was not just true before the war. Following a number of works that have showed how black political organizing developed among enslaved communities before emancipation—in churches and other religious spaces—I think it is important to emphasize that even if black aspirations may not have been fully realized in the white republic, they certainly shaped the course of Reconstruction after the Civil War. They furthermore gave shape to the rights that were claimed.[12]

Here I think it is worth holding on to a sense of contingency in our historical analysis—and maybe not even a robust sense of agency. I should signal my own debt to David Brion Davis, who has also had quite a lot to say about the relationship between slavery, capitalism, and religion: One does not need to embrace a Whig interpretation of history—that somehow we are all headed to a teleological place of moral “progress,” whatever that means—to see that over time, and especially in the struggle over slavery, people of a variety of persuasions—especially Christians—raised moral questions about the system of exploitation they were complicit in perpetuating. It is possible to imagine people working against their own capitalist self interest, because when it came to the abolition of slavery in the New World—not just in the United States—examples abound.[13]

As a historian, I cannot answer in my own life the question that seems implied in the writing of Ta-Nehisi Coates and maybe even the new histories of slavery: How do you live in a society that you have no hope of changing? But as a historian, I certainly can show that there were people in the past who organized themselves and worked to change their own world. Many, perhaps most, of those efforts were futile. But not all were. It was fashionable once upon a time to suggest that slavery would die off of natural causes or through legal instruments short of war—meaning that the Civil War was a pointless, “tragic” bloodbath that changed nothing. But that was not the perspective of Abraham Lincoln, who, citing biblical chapter and verse, saw the Civil War as just—and God-ordained—recompense for American slavery. And it was not the perspective of the enslaved millions, nor their northern abolitionist allies. And it is not my perspective either.

[1] Dale W. Tomich, Through the Prism of Slavery: Labor, Capital, and World Economy (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004), 56­–71; Tomich and Michael Zeuske, “Introduction, the Second Slavery: Mass Slavery, World-Economy, and Comparative Microhistories,” Review (Fernand Braudel Center) 31, no. 2 (2008): 91­­–100; Anthony Kaye, “The Second Slavery: Modernity in the Nineteenth-Century South and the Atlantic World,” Journal of Southern History 75, no. 3 (Aug. 2009): 627–650; Adam Rothman, Slave Country: American Expansion and the Origins of the Deep South (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005); Joshua D. Rothman, Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012); Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic, 2014); Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York: Knopf, 2014); Seth Rockman, Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009).

[2] See John E. Murray, et al., “Roundtable of Reviews of The Half Has Never Been Told,” Journal of Economic History 75, no. 3 (Sept. 2015): 919–931; Trevor Burnard, “‘The Righteous Will Shine Like the Sun’: Writing an Evocative History of Antebellum American Slavery,” Slavery and Abolition 36, no. 1 (2015): 180–185; Edward E. Baptist, “The Response,” Slavery and Abolition 36:1 (2015): 186–97; and John J. Clegg, “Capitalism and Slavery,” Critical Historical Studies 2.2 (Fall 2015): 281–304. For a general survey of other literature on slavery and capitalism, see Scott Reynolds Nelson, “Who Put Their Capitalism in My Slavery?” Journal of the Civil War Era 5, no. 2 (June 2015): 289­–310.

[3] Eugene D. Genovese, The Southern Tradition: The Achievements and Limitations of an American Conservatism (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994), 37.

[4] Beth Barton Schweiger, “Max Weber in Mount Airy, Or, Revivals and Social Theory in the Early South,” in Religion in the American South: Protestants and Others in History and Culture, ed. Schweiger and Donald G. Mathews (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 31–66, quote 33; and Schweiger, The Gospel Working Up: Progress and the Pulpit in Nineteenth-Century Virginia (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 4–5. For the best work showing how white southerners thought religiously about the economy in the period, even as they were embedded in a global capitalist system, see Kenneth Moore Startup, The Root of All Evil: The Protestant Clergy and the Economic Mind of the Old South (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997); and Startup, “‘A Mere Calculation of Profits and Loss’: The Southern Clergy and the Economic Culture of the Antebellum North,” in God and Mammon: Protestants, Money, and the Market, 1790–1860, ed. Mark A. Noll, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 217–235.

[5] Schweiger, “Max Weber in Mount Airy,” 55.

[6] Ibid., 33; and Luke E. Harlow, “The Long Life of Proslavery Religion,” in The World the Civil War Made, ed. Gregory P. Downs and Kate Masur (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 150­–152.

[7] Mark A. Noll, America’s God, From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 396.

[8] Walter Johnson, “On Agency,” Journal of Social History 37, no. 1 (2003): 113–124.

[9] Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York: Speigel & Grau, 2015); Coates, “Hope and the Historian,” The Atlantic, December 10, 2015; Tim Tyson, “Can Honest History Allow for Hope?,” The Atlantic, December 18, 2015.

[10] This point, well established in the field, has most recently been underscored in Ira Berlin, The Long Emancipation: The Demise of Slavery in the United States (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2015).

[11] Amy Dru Stanley, From Bondage to Contract: Wage Labor, Marriage, and the Market in the Age of Slave Emancipation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999); Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 (New York: Harper and Row, 1988); Michael Les Benedict, “Preserving the Constitution: The Conservative Basis of Radical Reconstruction,” Journal of American History 61, no. 1 (June 1974): 65–90.

[12] Steven Hahn, A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003); Charles F. Irons, The Origins of Proslavery Christianity: White and Black Evangelicals in Colonial and Antebellum Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008).

[13] David Brion Davis, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), esp. 231–249.