Review: Houses Divided

Amy Whitfield

Amy Whitfield is Associate Vice President for Convention Communications at the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention.

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Amy Whitfield, "Review: Divided Houses," Journal of Southern Religion (22) (2020):

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Lucas P. Volkman. Houses Divided: Evangelical Schisms and the Crisis of the Union in Missouri. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. 306pp. 978-0-19-024832-1.

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In Houses Divided, Lucas Volkman tackles an old question in a new way.  Examining how schisms arose in Civil War-era Missouri, he seeks to explain the extent to which ecclesiastical strife affected the larger battlefield. As national denominations split into North and South, their constituents influenced the most common interactions. Furthermore, conflict lingered in aftermath of the war, forcing churches to declare either that they had always supported the Union or fought to defend the Lost Cause.  Houses Divided demonstrates how “all politics is local” played out even in the pews.

Many historians, including John Patrick Daly and John R. McKivigan, have examined how Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian conflicts impacted national political schism.  While all document divisions in the major denominations, they vary on the significance of these fractures. More importantly, most focus primarily on matters at the higher levels of ecclesiastical leadership, with a broader national or sectional perspective. By contrast, Volkman offers a local approach, explaining: “This work breaks new ground by assessing the schisms of all three major evangelical denominations as local denominational and congregational developments rife with implications for the larger crisis of the Union from 1837 to 1876” (xiii).

Volkman explains how the conflict over slavery ultimately drove the missionary impulse, even shaping the movement to plant churches and reach the lost.  While national organizations headquartered in the North attempted to drive the conversation and speak against slavery, southern sympathizers filled rural pews. The schisms played out differently according to each denomination’s unique polity structures, but the divisions were nonetheless clear. Baptist autonomy led many congregations to chart their own course and join the newly established Southern Baptist Convention, some Methodists churches splintered into pieces, and Presbyterians fractured along geographic lines with antislavery urban congregations and proslavery rural ones.

Additionally, questions about property located the growing divide in the land itself. Whether women in benevolence societies donated their inherited land for religious purposes or congregations wrestled over buildings, church property could be given and taken away on the basis of one’s position on slavery. In particular, the case of Farrar v. Finney brought the conflict to life as the African Methodist Episcopal Church in St. Louis aligned with northern Methodists and the all-white Fourth Street Methodist Church aligned with southern Methodists. The battle over buildings arguably forms one of the most intriguing narratives of the book and shows the extent to which racial strife affected churches at all social and economic levels, quite literally where people lived and worshiped.

This study of denominational histories reveals how a flood of media sought to influence churchgoers, much like social media today. This religious media spoke not just timeless truths, but rather reacted to and interpreted the issues of the day. Newspapers, pamphlets, and tracts aimed to shape opinions on both sides by appealing to biblical and theological arguments supporting or condemning slavery, often inciting fear to rally the masses. Whether addressing the Kansas-Nebraska Act or championing the rights of African Americans, this public square hosted wars of words rather than civil discourse.  Missouri’s evangelical media during the Civil War, while in a different format than we see now, demonstrates that there is truly nothing new under the sun.

Volkman’s exploration of clergy Union loyalty oaths demonstrates how political battles impacted religious life, continuing long after the political conflict was supposedly settled. Both during and after the Civil War, Unionist and anti-slavery advocates pressured clergy to demonstrate their loyalty—failure to do so was viewed as sin. Making matters more difficult, they expected southern evangelicals to proclaim that they had stayed loyal to the Union, and ostracized them if they could not. Union officials seized their property, suppressed their newspapers, and otherwise sought to maintain control. Institutionalization of the abolitionist cause blurred the lines of religious liberty.

Reconstruction brought new civil liberties for African Americans, including the full right to worship and protect their own church property. But the war’s end brought new challenges for those who had supported the proslavery cause. Past or present political loyalty affected not just ecclesiastical power, but civil and religious authority as well. Different denominations in many cases learned how to coexist in peace, though the split between northern and southern evangelicals had lasting repercussions.

Volkman interacts thoroughly with primary sources. In addition to personal accounts, he analyzes tracts, legal opinions, and trial transcripts. While the study of religious influence on national conflict may not be new, this approach breaks new ground in building the case from the local to the national. It takes us to the front lines, where conflicts varied as much as the people and churches involved in them.

While we often look at denominations from ten thousand feet, many times the “divided houses” are on the ground. Volkman demonstrates that small slices influenced the entire pie. Houses Divided helps us better understand the religious dimensions of the Civil War.