Walter H. Conser Jr. A Coat of Many Colors: Religion and Society along the Cape Fear River of North Carolina. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2006. xii + 372 pp. ISBN 978-0-8131-2405-6. Reviewed by Luke E. Harlow, For the Journal of Southern Religion.
Walter H. Conser Jr.'s A Coat of Many Colors is a sweeping survey of religious life in southeastern North Carolina from pre-European contact to the recent past. Though primarily focused on the region's chief city, Wilmington, Conser's scholarly gaze is broadly directed toward the lands that today comprise the nine counties along the Cape Fear River. Richly detailed and deeply researched, Conser—a professor of religious studies and history at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington—demonstrably writes with an intimate awareness of the region he describes. To be sure, A Coat of Many Colors is now the authoritative work on religion in southeastern North Carolina, but this volume is not simply a narrow provincial study.
|"Conser's main contention is that southeastern North Carolina's history serves as a microcosm for that of the South, if not the nation."
Consistent with much recent scholarly literature, Conser argues against a narrow definition of southern religion. Conser's main contention is that southeastern North Carolina
's history serves as a microcosm for that of the South, if not the nation. That history, Conser maintains, was always shaped by the realities of pluralism. Contrary to views that might see only a longstanding rural evangelical dominance in the South—"mostly Baptists and Methodists and maybe a few Presbyterians thrown in for predestinarian spice" (290)—Cape Fear religious life was from the outset "a coat of many colors," a reality that remains to the present: today Wilmington is home to Buddhists, Baha'is, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, spiritualists, and a wide variety of Christians who are not all evangelical Protestants nor even American-born.
In explicating his argument, Conser points to the heterogeneity of religious expressions, practices, and traditions that have existed in the Cape Fear region throughout its history. Much of this religious diversity can be attributed to immigration, facilitated by Wilmington's importance to the region, both in terms of population and economic productivity. Due in large part to its utility as a major port, from the 1840s to the 1920s, Wilmington was arguably North Carolina's most prominent city. Thus, while immigrants often came from outside the American context—in the cases of Europeans in the colonial era, Catholic challengers to evangelical hegemony in the nineteenth century, or Asians and eastern Europeans who came after the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act—they also came from within U.S. boundaries. In these cases, new patterns of life and religious practice came along and complicated the religious landscape of the Cape Fear region.
Readers familiar with the broad contours of southern religious history will be immediately familiar with many of the narrative strands in A Coat of Many Colors
—among them the toleration of religious dissent and ethnic diversity under English colonial rule in southeastern North Carolina, the rise of democratized, voluntary evangelical expression following the American Revolution, the dilemmas of race, slavery, and emancipation in the mid nineteenth century, and the twentieth-century transformation from New South to Sun Belt economy.
Yet Conser provides more than a local account of a national narrative. A Coat of Many Colors deepens scholarly understandings of these broader developments by weaving together insights from multiple disciplines. Especially important is architecture. Central to the entire volume is Conser's analysis of sacred space, and he is most often concerned with the styles of religious structures built by various faith groups in the region. Furthermore, A Coat of Many Colors also discusses how the use of space contributed to particular public religious expressions. In his chapter on memory after the Civil War, for example, Conser describes how autonomous black congregations, newly formed after the Civil War, "fostered space for individual African Americans—a public space that rarely existed anywhere else in the increasingly restrictive confines of the Jim Crow South." In Wilmington, as elsewhere in the South, the black church served as an open counter to Confederate Lost Cause monuments in the city: "Whereas whites celebrated Confederate Memorial Day, blacks commemorated Emancipation Day. And because Wilmington blacks could have no statue to black abolitionist David Walker to parallel that of (Confederate politician) George Davis, churches became the backbone of the black community and the arena where memories were shaped, displayed, and recalled" (168). In Wilmington's southern pluralistic environment, space could be mobilized for cultural gains otherwise not available to those on the outside of dominant religious traditions.
Especially in expanding scholarly understandings of the uses of religious space, Conser has no doubt made an important contribution with A Coat of Many Colors.
But, because of the book's overbearing emphasis on Wilmington
, some readers will likely wonder about the import of its insights beyond that city. The eight counties surrounding Wilmington
's New Hanover County
, Duplin, Pender, Robeson, and Sampson—receive comparatively scant consideration.
Conser writes that "Wilmington
has always had a more urban style than its rural neighbors, and it has drawn immigrants who brought their various ethnic and religious backgrounds with them" (4). Indeed, it is possible to conceive of a sizeable city like Wilmington
—home to a university, a port, and a history as an important urban hub in the state—as fostering a striking array of diversity.
It might be more difficult to imagine similar patterns in the rest of the region. But, in point of fact, the developments that Conser describes outside of Wilmington are suggestive: for example, due to the late nineteenth-century work of influential bishop (later Cardinal) James Gibbons, Sampson County cultivated a longstanding Catholic presence and tradition; because of post-1965 Asian immigration, Fayetteville became one of the state's most ethnically diverse towns; as of 2000, thirty-eight percent of rural Robeson County's population was Native American, contributing to a genuinely tri-racial social landscape. Extended discussion of similar trajectories beyond Wilmington would have greatly reinforced Conser's argument about depth of pluralism in the rest of the Cape Fear region.
This concern, however, is in some ways beyond the scope of Conser's analysis. His argument only goes so far as to suggest that southern religion should not be stereotypically considered rural and evangelical. In developing this point, A Coat of Many Colors
is an important contribution to the study of southern religion.
Luke E. Harlow, Rice University