Review: A Kingdom Divided

Randall M. Miller

Professor of American Studies and History at Saint Joseph's University. 

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Randall M. Miller, "Review: A Kingdom Divided," Journal of Southern Religion (20) (2018):

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April E. Holm. A Kingdom Divided: Evangelicals, Loyalty, and Sectionalism in the Civil War Era. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2017. 276p. ISBN 978-0-8071-6771-7.

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April Holm makes a strong case for re-centering the issues of mid-nineteenth-century evangelical Protestantism, Civil War era politics, and religious identity in the border states, rather than remaining preoccupied with a North-South binary in trying to map the dynamics and direction of church identity and interest amid the divisions wrought by the slavery controversy, civil war, Reconstruction, and later sectional reconciliation. By focusing on Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian clergy and lay leaders, and relying on denominational publications from the 1830s to the end of the nineteenth century, Holm offers an unabashedly institutional history that emphasizes how border-state churches sought to retain their own unity by professing and practicing the spirituality of the church and neutrality in politics. That strategy worked well enough to keep most churches from coming apart during the crises of secession, war, and Reconstruction, and in the end led them to align with southern denominations.

More significantly, Holm argues, southern Protestant denominations that had left the national bodies over slavery and then supported secession and the Confederacy adapted the border-state churches’ stance on the spirituality of the church to provide a theological cover that hid their past politics. They could explain their break with northern churches and from the Union on the basis of theological principle rather than temporal self-interest; the abolitionized northern churches had corrupted their pulpits with politics, and southern churches had to separate from them to maintain the integrity and sanctity of the church. In the process, the border-state model became the southern one and the basis for border-state churches’ reconciliation and reunion with southern denominations, and it defeated northern denominations’ postwar efforts to bring the departed southern Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians back into reconstituted national bodies. In writing their church histories, border-state churches and southern ones together emphasized their common respect for the spirituality of the church and scorned northerners for politicizing the faith. Thus did the churches reinforce the Lost Cause mythology whereby the “South” won the war of memory by claiming a purifying theology rather than politics, race, or special interest as the reason for secession and war.

Especially telling are Holm’s descriptions of the means whereby border-state churches became “southern” during and because of the war. She points to the aggressive policies and practices of northern churches and the federal government to force loyalty in the contested border region as the catalysts that converted border-state churches into southern ones. External pressures to deliver pro-Union sermons and public prayers, take loyalty oaths, and promote the war effort left little room for moderation and none for neutrality. The government seized church property, arrested dissenters, and interfered with religious publications of “disloyalists.” Such demands and actions alienated border-state churches. Southerners were less able to impose their will on border-state churches, especially as the region came under Union control, so that southern churches appeared less “political” and threatening to border-state churches. The effect of the war, then, was to “sectionalize” the border-state churches, even as, and because, they insisted on political neutrality and the spirituality of the church, neither of which the federal government or northern denominations allowed.

Holm also makes the critical point that border-state churches were never neutral in fact. Although some leaders might try to separate morality from religion to escape having to take sides on issues of slavery, Union, or Reconstruction, they could not. As Holm concludes, claiming neutrality amid a moral crisis then or now is a self-delusion and a cop-out. In her words, “neutrality cannot be neutral” (197). Not to take a public position against slavery and secession was tantamount to standing for them, in effect “valuing church unity over the freedom of millions of enslaved African Americans” (196).  And though the border-state region was supposedly a land in-between extremes, it tilted southward. Holm’s border-state region—stretching from Delaware across to Missouri, though she largely looks at Kentucky and Missouri —was inclined southward for reasons of demography, economy, and culture. The circumstances of the war pushed the churches further south in interest and identity. One wonders if they were headed there anyway.

Holm has written an original and insightful book that should command attention, not only for her arguments regarding the ways politics could not be kept out of churches and the ways southerners used theology for political ends, but also for her demonstration that what churches say in public—in print, especially—had consequence. She does not take measure of the people in the pews, but she does show that institutionally the border-state churches were able to resist the schismatic tendency of American Protestantism, even amid, and sometimes because of, the stresses of nineteenth-century politics. That durability no doubt speaks for the congregants as much as for the clergy and lay leaders about what really mattered most to them. And it reminds us in our current scholarly emphasis on finding religion in the pews more than in the pulpits that we should take seriously what churches wrote and said about themselves, which, after all, was as much to explain themselves to themselves as to do so for others.