Review: The End of Days

Nathan Saunders

Nathan Saunders is Associate Director of Randall Library at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington.

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Nathan Saunders, "Review: The End of Days," Journal of Southern Religion (19) (2017):

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Matthew Harper. The End of Days: African American Religion and Politics in the Age of Emancipation. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2016. 211 pages. ISBN 978-1469629360.

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Matthew Harper opens his exploration of the relationship between freed people’s religious beliefs and their political activities with W.E.B. Du Bois’s observation that “to most of the four million black folk emancipated by the civil war, God was real.” With respect to Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction North Carolina, Harper has proven Du Bois’s assertion as well as the corollary hypothesis that religious beliefs regarding the end times— or eschatology—profoundly influenced African American political activity. Throughout The End of Days, he shows how African American eschatology focused on the sometimes compatible, sometimes competing, hopes of an end to racism on one hand and a special destiny for African Americans as a people on the other. These hopes informed a wide variety of opinions and behaviors, from the personal decision to migrate or remain home, to how to vote in numerous state and local prohibition referenda.

Harper explains the relationship between African American eschatology and political activism primarily by examining how ministers and other leaders in North Carolina employed certain theological motifs in their political speeches and writings. As he explores newspapers, meeting minutes, and pamphlets, he also engages the standard works by Charles Reagan Wilson and Daniel Stowell, as well as works on African American religious history by Paul Harvey, Eddie Glaude, and others. In particular, Harper builds on Glaude’s examination of the importance of the Exodus to African American religious consciousness. At the same time, he devotes most of his text to exploring less well-known themes such as Jubilee or less familiar passages such as the story of Esther. These explorations of understudied theological motifs constitute Harper’s main contribution to the study of African American religion in the later nineteenth century.

The first chapter examines various religious interpretations of emancipation for newly freed people. Based upon discussions surrounding the 1865 Freedmen’s Convention, Harper argues that African Americans understood emancipation in eschatological terms because that momentous event signaled the inevitable unfolding of God’s plan regardless of earthly political setbacks. Harper next explores how African Americans used the story of Esther to explain their plight as they faced increasing Klan violence and the impeachment of Governor William Holden. He next turns his attention to how African American religious leaders understood the Exodus theme in relation to the Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction debates over migration to either Liberia or the American West. He then contrasts Exodus rhetoric with the motif of the Year of Jubilee. According to the Mosaic Law, the Year of Jubilee occurred every fifty years and involved the freeing of all slaves, land redistribution, and the cancellation of all debt. In this chapter in particular, Harper adeptly demonstrates how African American leaders held nuanced and competing understandings of biblical passages and skillfully shows how those understandings translated into the concrete decision either to leave for a new Promised Land or to remain and wait for Jubilee.

Harper also deftly explains how African American preachers used the jeremiad both to call for prohibition and decry white racism. As with the migration debate, he demonstrates how differing opinions on prohibition related to theological beliefs and influenced preaching styles. In Harper’s final chapter, he discusses how psalms of lament and Isaiah’s prophesies of the suffering servant informed discussions regarding the decline of African American political power after the election of 1898. In a brief epilogue, he explores why Emancipation Day celebrations waned in importance by the World War I era, as well as how African Americans who had not experienced emancipation fit the Great Migration into their own eschatology.

With each topic, The End of Days weaves together historical narrative and deep readings of religious texts. The chapters progress in roughly chronological order so that readers gain both a broad overview of Reconstruction in North Carolina as well as an orientation to African American religious life. Harper also carefully shows that African Americans were far from monolithic in their understanding of each theological theme. He also shows how whites responded to African Americans’ theological rhetoric as it related to both the Esther story and the Year of Jubilee. Finally, in the introduction and epilogue, Harper is careful to point out how African American eschatologies related to white theologians’ formulations. His succinct explanation of the difference between narrative theology and systematic theology is especially helpful.

Harper justifies focusing solely on North Carolina by noting its unique position on the border between the Upper and Lower South, the rapidity with which Redemption came to the state, and the strength of African American institutions. These characteristics do indeed render the Tar Heel State an interesting case study. Readers might find themselves curious as to how African American leaders in other states employed these same, or perhaps even different, theological motifs to address their own political situations. That Harper is able to pique readers’ curiosity in this way serves as a testament to his skill as a writer and historian. State politics act as a centripetal force pulling debates over economy and society toward the center of state power, so Harper’s geographical delimitation is both legitimate and provocative.

The relationship between religious beliefs and the social and political experiences of Reconstruction for both whites and African Americans continues to provide fertile ground for scholarship. The End of Days is a welcome contribution to this body of literature and provides a good model for studying connections between theology and political consciousness during Reconstruction.