Review: Between Fetters and Freedom

Nathan Saunders

Nathan Saunders is Curator of Manuscripts at the South Carolina Library, University of South Carolina.

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Nathan Saunders, "Review: Between Fetters and Freedom," Journal of Southern Religion (18) (2016): jsreligion.org/vol18/saunders.

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Edward R. Crowther and Keith Harper, eds. Between Fetters and Freedom: African American Baptists Since Emancipation. Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 2015. 260 pp. ISBN 978-0-88146-540-2.

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Between Fetters and Freedom promises “essays exploring the rich diversity of post-emancipation life for a largely understudied group of Baptists.” The volume delivers on this pledge, with essays treating topics from M.C. Allen’s musings in the pages of the National Baptist Convention’s Union Review, to a personal reminiscence of Fred Shuttlesworth’s homegoing, to discussions of the influence of gospel musicians Thomas A. Dorsey and Mahalia Jackson. Readers may certainly debate which topics a volume such as this should cover. That such a debate might even take place indicates the strength of current scholarship on African American religion and the rich, varied experiences of African American Baptists in America. As a whole, this collection of essays brings out the diversity of African American Baptist faith and practice and contributes to the heated debate Eddie Glaude, Jr. furthered in 2010 over the existence and meaning of “the Black Church.”

Edited by noted Baptist historians Edward R. Crowther and Keith Harper, the volume opens with a piece by Sandy Dwayne Martin contrasting southern whites’ post-Civil War “lost cause” mythology with African Americans’ “vindicated faith” understanding of that same event. Charles F. Irons follows with a detailed discussion of interracial congregations in North Carolina during Reconstruction. Irons uncovers in church minutes a number of instances when freed people chose to continue worshipping in white congregations, a discovery that complicates portrayals of African Americans as fleeing white churches as quickly as possible after the War. Eric Michael Washington next discusses the concept of Ethiopianism as it relates to the personalities and events in the formation of the Baptist Foreign Mission Convention, giving special attention to pioneering African American missionaries Lott Cary and William Colley. April C. Armstrong then explores the complex friendship between two female champions of foreign missions—Southern Baptist Annie Armstrong and National Baptist Nannie Helen Burroughs. Paul Harvey follows with a treatment of sometimes competing cultural influences on African American worship between the Civil War and the rise of black gospel in the 1940s, arguing that African American religious history in the fullest sense requires both traditional denominational history and the newer methods of cultural history. Alan Scot Willis continues the discussion of competing norms with a look at the often incongruous opinions espoused within the pages of a single denominational publication. Courtney Pace Lyons hones in on female pastor Prathia Hall’s work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Southwest Georgia. Crowther contributes a piece on the nature of the office of president in the National Baptist Convention. The volume closes with Andrew M. Manis’s account of the funeral of Birmingham and Cincinnati civil rights champion, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth.

Most of the essays treat one topic in detail, although those by Washington, Martin, Harvey, and Crowther tend toward synthesis and summary. This variety in essay type—and not simply topics covered–is welcome. As readers make their way through the volume, they gain a sense of the individual trees as well as the entire forest. Taken together, these four summarizing essays help readers understand the ideological motivation for African American foreign missions efforts both before and after the Civil War, the political and social situation in which African Americans in the South found themselves during Reconstruction, the tension between cultural respectability and freedom of expression that shaped African American worship, and the broad history of the nation’s largest African American denomination. They therefore provide a nice primer for those unfamiliar with the history of African American Baptists.

As for those essays that treat one topic or set of sources, Irons’s discussion of why some African American Baptists chose to remain in white congregations after the Civil War is illuminating in that it simultaneously mines seemingly mundane historical documents while also interacting with significant scholarship on African American history. Willis’s essay on one denominational newspaper highlights in a special way the abiding tensions of accommodationism and Black Nationalism that dominate so many aspects of African American Baptist life. Armstrong’s chapter on Annie Armstrong’s influence over early female missions enthusiasts in the National Baptist Convention makes excellent use of personal correspondence to highlight the cultural assumptions underpinning interracial interactions between church women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Those who read the volume straight through will perhaps come away with the sense that the essays are a bit uneven. The well-written pieces on Hall and Shuttlesworth provide glimpses into the life and work of understudied civil rights activists and religious figures, but they also tend toward hagiography instead of critical historical inquiry. Martin’s essay orients readers to the wider narrative of African American life after Reconstruction, but unlike the essays that follow it, adds little to existing scholarship on African American Baptist history. Classroom instructors will most likely pick and choose essays rather than assign the book as a whole, and scholars of African American Baptist life will of course not find all the essays germane to their research. The collection is nevertheless valuable both as a single unit testifying to the complexity of its subject, and as a resource to consult when choosing individual readings for a syllabus.

In the Afterward, the distinguished historian Wayne Flint writes that “[b]y adding layers of detail, historical reality almost always becomes more complicated, nuanced, even confusing” (253). Between Fetters and Freedom highlights the complicated, nuanced, and confusing historical reality of African American Baptists. In the process, it gives new students a taste of the history of African American Baptists since Reconstruction, while also provocatively pointing to topics that call out for more thorough historical study.

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