Edward J. Blum

Response to W. Fitzhugh Brundage

It is difficult to articulate how honored I am that Professor Brundage offered his time and intellectual energy to review Reforging the White Republic. His work—whether on lynching, historical memory, race relations, or southern culture—has been an inspiration to countless junior scholars, and I am most certainly in that mix. His compliments mean a great deal to me. I hope that he and other readers will take my responses to his critiques as evidence of the profound respect that I have for Professor Brundage. Also, I want to thank the editors of the Journal of Southern Religion for providing me the opportunity to respond.

Professor Brundage makes a series of critiques of Reforging the White Republic, and each has significant merit. He wonders, first, whether I paid enough attention to the differences among white Protestants, since much of my book focuses on what they came to share by the end of the century. Professor Brundage is right that there were many factors that divided white Protestants by section, denomination, and creed. In most cases, white Protestants retained their sectional denominational structures, and they fought bitterly over how to read and interpret the Bible, what to make of evolutionary theory, how to adjust to the rise of industrial capitalism, what the proper procedures were for missionary efforts abroad, and what the appropriate relationship should be between the church and the state.

During the late nineteenth century, though, it seemed that white Protestants were able to put many of their differences aside. Theological and doctrinal differences rarely held back northern and southern whites from joining interdenominational movements, such as Dwight Moody's revivals or the Woman's Christian Temperance Union. If doctrinal and theological distinctions mattered so much, then how could they have found ways to join in such efforts?

What white Protestants shared in common trumped their antagonisms, and they seemed to agree that the United States was a “white man's country.” By their actions and their words, Protestants considered people of color (within the nation and outside of it) to be inferior beings. The general feeling and lived reality of white supremacy was the tie that bound white Protestants together and made their internal dissensions marginal. For instance, if a white northern Presbyterian minister clashed with a southern Methodist pastor over the concept of biblical literalism, would either man encourage the brutal lynching of the other? Would either man sit idly by if church members captured his opponent and burned him alive? Would the Methodist divine pen tracts to justify the colonization of all Presbyterians? Or would the Presbyterian cleric construct an intricate theological work declaring that Methodists were soulless beasts whom God hated and whom no Presbyterian must marry or bear children with? Of course, the answers to each of these questions is no. But add race to the configuration, and everything changes. Northern and southern white Protestants did legitimate lynching and Jim Crow, and white supremacist tracts, such as Charles Carroll's The Negro: A Beast had widespread readerships.

Put simply, it seems to me that the disagreements among white Protestants fade in importance when viewed in the light of the morality of race relations and international colonialism by the end of the century. Protestants would kill for white supremacy, not for biblical literalism or evolution.

Next, Professor Brundage suggests that David Blight and I neglect the moral underpinnings of the reconciliationist position. And, once again, Professor Brundage's words of caution should be heeded. There was nothing morally reprehensible about advocating a genuine national reunion. Abraham Lincoln certainly spoke with the heart of a peacemaker when he hoped for “malice toward none” in his Second Inaugural. I should have stressed in the opening chapters of my manuscript, especially in the chapter titled “The Apostles of Forgiveness,” that it was reconciliation as a moral concept that gave it so much appeal and power. This is why reconciliationists, such as Henry Ward Beecher and Horace Greeley, continually drew upon religious rhetoric. In fact, I argue in the third chapter that a host of northern Protestants from 1865 to 1875 worked endlessly to form “reunion” into the central moral imperative of Reconstruction.

I think that Professor Blight and I quickly cast the reconciliationist vision as immoral, because we both found that in most cases it was followed by either racism or purposeful naïveté. Consider Henry Ward Beecher, the powerful New York minister. He honestly wanted northern and southern whites to reunite following the war; he wanted the carnage to stop; and he wanted peace, accord, and love—all admirable desires—to shine upon the landscape. Yet Beecher threw logic aside in his push for reunion. He suggested that southern planters—rather than government officials within the Freedmen's Bureau or African Americans themselves—would be the best individuals to oversee Reconstruction. Southern planters, he maintained in late 1865, should be put back in charge of southern society. No wonder Frederick Douglass thought that Beecher had lost his mind. These were the same individuals who had held African Americans in bondage for centuries; this was the same class that had chosen war over a Republican president. And, sadly, other calls for reunion—such as Horace Greeley's—were built upon the claim that ending slavery might have been a mistake.

The problem, it seems, was that among whites there were too few Lincolns. He was able to advocate “malice toward none” and call for a “just and lasting peace.” Lincoln also, in perhaps the least often quoted lines from his Second Inaugural, proclaimed that while everyone wanted the war to end “if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'” In short, Lincoln appeared willing to accept national pain and poverty if it would atone for the sin of slavery. Then and only then could a “just and lasting peace” be realized. I did not find any comparable figures following his death, except perhaps Thaddeus Stevens.

Professor Brundage also wonders why I did not include Mark Noll's suggestion that white Protestants were tied to theological approaches that made genuine commitments to racial justice impossible. In America's God, Noll finds a great deal of theological consistency between the antebellum and postbellum periodsthat white Protestants read the Bible and crafted their theologies in ways that held them back from creative and dynamic approaches to race relations and an assortment of other issues. Yet Professor Noll and I approach religion very differently. Noll primarily focuses on the ideas and views of theologians and leading ministersand he finds them articulating many of the same ideas after the war as they did before it. I approach religion as a lived reality, one where emotion, action, interaction, and ideas collide to form an entire world of perception. This is why I highlight the revivals of Dwight Moody, the mass confusion during the 1878 yellow fever epidemic, and the march toward imperialism in 1898. I went looking for religion in action and enacted faith. And at the location of action, one finds incredible discontinuity between the antebellum and postbellum eras, at least for a few years. When one takes into account the thousands of northern white Christians who ventured to teach African Americans, the notion that northern white Protestants were straight jacketed by antebellum theologies falls apart. I found evidence of amazing transformationsof northern whites enduring much pain and agony in their efforts, denouncing southern whites, standing against the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan, and aligning themselves with men and women of color. I focus on the evidence of men and women going to the South, being changed, and becoming new folk. Professor Noll tends to highlight theologians saying or writing concepts and that those works have authority. I wonder if this is true. Perhaps if some of those theologians would have joined the rank-and-file who were invading the South with primers and Bibles, they would have realized that their theological positions were not keeping up with religious lived realities. Perhaps Marie Waterbury, a teacher among African Americans, articulated the distinction I see between the power of religion in the mind and religion on the ground. For her, the experience in the South was a spiritual watershed, one that pushed her beyond spiritless God-talk and theology-speak.

            No more talks about our Lord

            No more searching for his word

            No more longings for his grace

            She hath seen him face to face.(1)

By focusing on the everyday lived experiences of white and black Americans, I intended to show a crucial disjunction between the antebellum period and the postbellum period—in which, for a moment, interracial alliances and solidarity became a reality. If ever there was a time for the white republic to fall, it was at the end of the Civil War. And if ever there were people to tear it down, it was the blacks and Yankees in the South teaching, worshiping, and living together.

Finally, I want to raise the question “who won the peace” following the Civil War? Of course, the typical adage is that the South won.  Yet this troubles me. By defining the rise of Jim Crow and racial violence as “southern,” I think we let the North off the hook too easily. Northern whites were just as responsibleby their sins of commission and omissionfor the undoing of radical Reconstruction. And they may have been even more responsible for the rise of America's racialized empire by the end of the nineteenth century. If we mean that “white supremacy” won the peace, which is what I believe we mean, then we should call it that and not link it so exclusively with a section.  The perceived sectionalization of racism remains an important problem. It allows northern whites to discuss racism as something “down there” in the South, rather than permeating American society. Last I checked, Chicago, Newark, and Los Angeles were not “southern” cities, yet historical narratives jump so smoothly from racism as a southern problem to the urban riots of the late 1960s with few explanations of rampant discrimination and racism in the North.

My work is essentially a moral history of national reconciliation, one that finds the North and the South lacking substantially and one that provides a sequel to the issues at stake in Harry S. Stout's forthcoming Upon the Altar of The Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War (Viking, 2006). I hope that Reforging the White Republic can encourage discussions of how white Protestants fund and fuel the dangerous and violent notion that somehow white supremacy, big business, American nationalism, and international imperialism are sacred entities beloved by God. In these ways, my book is a jeremiad that echoes W. E. B. Du Bois' prayer with his students at Atlanta University in the early twentieth century: “Give us in our day, O God, to see the fulfillment of Thy vision of Peace. May these young people grow to despise false ideals of conquest and empire and all the tinsel of war. May we strive to replace force with justice and armies of murder with armies of relief. May we believe in Peace among all nations as a present practical creed and count love for our country as love and not hate for our fellow men. Amen.”(2)

Read Brundage's Rejoinder

1.M. Waterbury, Seven Years among the Freedmen (Chicago: T. B. Arnold, 1891), introductory poem.

2. W. E. B. Du Bois, Prayers for Dark People ed. Herbert Aptheker (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1980), 58.

© 1998-2005 by The Journal of Southern Religion. All rights reserved. ISSN 1094-5253