Joe Creech. Righteous Indignation: Religion and The Populist Revolution. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2006. xxx + 183pp. ISBN: 0-252-07315-0. Reviewed by Andrew J. Wood, for the Journal of Southern Religion.

The late nineteenth century agrarian revolt has long captivated American historians. Students of southern populism have suggested various explanations for its development and varied characterizations of its core values and legacy. C. Vann Woodward and Lawrence Goodwyn envisioned Populists as economically minded progressives seeking government regulation of industry. Such reformers' nascent working-class consciousness provided a potent challenge to American capitalists. In contrast, Richard Hofstadter portrayed Populists as narrow-minded small-town reactionaries resentful of their declining political status. While many historians have affirmed the importance of producerist economic ideals and republican political values for southern Populism, few have considered the importance of religion in fostering the movement. Even as historians note that Populist and Farmers' Alliance gatherings were similar to revival meetings, they often overlook the ways evangelical theology (e.g., eschatological judgment, moral earnestness, the humility of Jesus, and universal atonement) influenced southern Populists' political, economic, and social claims.

"As Creech shows, the Populist uprising in North Carolina was not merely a political revolt with religious overtones, but the political manifestation of restorationist Christians' righteous indignation."  


With Righteous Indignation: Religion and the Populist Revolution, Joe Creech has masterfully filled this void in southern historical scholarship while providing a "via media" between viewing populists as "liberal progressives or paranoid reactionaries" (xxiv). Creech, Professor of Humanities and History at Valparaiso University, tells the story of 1890s North Carolina Populists. His thesis runs counter to the usual assumption that separation of church and state dominated in the South during this period. He argues that "like the evangelicals that filled Populism's ranks, Populists can best be understood as part of a restorationist movement" (xxiii). Populists were neither reactionaries nor progressives; rather, taking their cues from the past as a means to reform or "restore" the present, they were advocates for changes steeped in tradition. The restorationist brand of evangelical Christianity that fueled Populists' protest provides the key to understanding their worldview. Creech's interpretation stresses religious and political motivations over economic concerns. For Populists, economic stagnation both evidenced and resulted from a more serious religious and political declension. As Creech shows, the Populist uprising in North Carolina was not merely a political revolt with religious overtones, but the political manifestation of restorationist Christians' righteous indignation. For these Populists, what was "at stake in the political battles of the 1890s was the nature of North Carolina's soul—the future viability not only of American liberty but of the Kingdom of God itself" (viii). 

Creech interprets nineteenth century North Carolina Populists in the context of producerist republicanism and the doctrines and polity of Protestant evangelicalism. Populists did more than integrate these streams of thought; they understood them as a whole cloth consisting of the divine principles upon which moral, religious, and civic governments must be built. Their restorationist message combined a biblical anthropology with Jeffersonian ideals and decried "the forces of tyranny and centralization: corporate capitalism, denominationalism, and party plutocracy" (vii). God's polity, in church and state, was democratic. Oligarchies—whether economic, political, or ecclesiastical—signaled tyranny and were inherently sinful and destructive of political and spiritual liberty. Thus these Populists embraced the mantra vox populi, vox dei and venerated the ballot as symbolic of the conscience of a free people, heirs to the liberty born of the Protestant Reformation and the American Revolution. The 1890s political revolt was thus a sacred movement infused with religious zeal. Populists merged the themes of democracy and divine rule—republicanism and righteousness—into a movement of considerable strength if not longevity.

Reading southern evangelicalism as a multifaceted movement with inherent tensions between its countercultural and conservative roles, Creech argues that North Carolina evangelicalism was "an established antiestablishmentarianism" (7). He sees three different strands of evangelical Protestantism in North Carolina: the leaders of the predominant groups (e.g., Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians), the reclusive countercultural groups (e.g., Primitive Baptists, various sects, and holiness groups), and the activist countercultural groups (e.g., Methodist Protestant Church, Free Will Baptists, Disciples, O'Kelleyites, and Quakers). North Carolina Populists mostly came from the third group, which Creech describes as "something of a restorationist coalition" (13). Together they affirmed and participated in the public sphere and traditions of the state while engaging in restorationist or separationist religious protests against the Protestant establishment ("churchianity"). Strongest in the rural areas of the state, these bodies shared founding myths that stressed ecclesiastical reform, spiritual independence, the language of jeremiad with its attending fear of creeping corruption, opposition to episcopacy and state-churches, and a "decentralized ecclesiology" (144). Informed by such religious tenets, these evangelicals expected that maintaining "purity," however defined, would often require a revolt and a new organization devoted to those pure ideals. They were ready for the People's Party. 

Once convinced that the same forces of centralization and tyranny at work among Republicans now corrupted Democrats as well, many middle-class rural white farmers joined the People's Party. Though perceived by white North Carolinians as largely an intra-Democratic spat, many Black Republicans from eastern North Carolina similarly frustrated with their Party's false promises became Populists. Yet despite some successes their movement would not overcome the state's Democratic establishment, as the common opponents of Populism saw the threat it posed to one party and one race rule. Whether motivated by simple racism or fear of the Populists' growing power (or the double threat of thousands of black Populists), the Democratic backlash between 1898 and 1900 was violent, severe, and complete. 

In many ways, Creech tells the story of a heroic revolt that ended in failure; a dream not merely deferred but defeated: the "loss of a uniquely democratic vision of America" (183). Creech suggests that after this defeat (and with it the end of nineteenth century style evangelicalism), ex-Populists chose to embrace apolitical premillenialism or Pentecostalism, or simply leave politics to others. For many, America was past saving; saving a few individuals before the rapture was the only mission left. In Creech's narrative, widespread premillenialism and uniformly apolitical conservative evangelicalism resulted from disenfranchisement. 

Creech's concise and lucid study provides remarkable evidence that serious attention to religious history can richly inform social and political history. It seems likely that Righteous Indignation will be influential with a wide range of scholars from various disciplines. His arguments for restorationism as the key to Populism are convincing, as is his vision of nineteenth century southern evangelicalism as more complex, diverse, and political than many interpreters have imagined. Creech helps us envision the wide range of options southern evangelical Protestants had until the retrenchments of the turn of the century. At times, his analysis seems incomplete. As with many similar works, African American sources appear underrepresented. His portrait of the holiness movement as countercultural and reclusive is confusing considering the strong connections he found between the People's Party and holiness leaders and membership. Yet, Righteous Indignation is a timely reminder to contemporary political observers that southern evangelicals' engagement with American politics did not begin with Ronald Reagan and Jerry Falwell. Righteous Indignation should be of interest to scholars researching North Carolina, Populism, rural-urban tensions in southern religion, restorationist and separatist traditions of American religion, and religion and politics in American life. 

 Andrew J. Wood, Auburn University


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