Daniel W. Stowell, Rebuilding Zion: The Religious Reconstruction of the South, 1863-1877 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998). Pp. 278.
Daniel W. Stowell has written an in-depth account of the rebuilding of white denominational organizations and the creation of black denominations among the Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians after the Civil War in Tennessee and Georgia. Stowell focuses on three constituencies: white southern Christians, white northern evangelicals, and southern African American Christians. The author rightly observes that "the competition among these three visions determined the shape of the religious reconstruction of the South in the decade and a half from 1863 to 1877" (p. 7).
Stowell's "top-down approach is in many respects a throw-back
to traditional denominational histories with their emphasis on structures, ministers, and
denominational leaders rather than on church members."
southern Christians enthusiastically supported the Confederate war effort and loudly proclaimed that God stood shoulder to shoulder with them in the struggle. Immediately following the Confederate defeat, white southern religious leaders had to convince their congregations that God had not deserted the white South, despite glaring evidence to the contrary. They defended slavery and secession, and appealed to their members to place their faith in Providence and await the fulfillment of God's holy design. Given their steadfast refusal to admit defeat, white southern evangelicals refused to reconcile with their northern brethren. Southern whites hoped to recreate their antebellum Zion, including their biracial white-controlled churches.
Not surprisingly, white northern evangelicals learned a far different lesson from their wartime experience. Flushed with victory, northerners saw the war's outcome as God's judgment on the South for the sins of slavery and secession. In their view, southern denominations were corrupt from top to bottom and were unfit to minister either to southern whites or to former slaves. Northern whites favored the reunion of denominations, but only if southern whites repented of the sins of slavery and secession and pledged their loyalty to the Union. Even though religious reunion failed, northerners still sought to work among southern Unionists, Federal troops stationed in the South, and former slaves. Northern denominations enjoyed some success among Unionists in the Upper South. Stowell routinely refers to southerners who joined northern denominations as "religious scalawags," an unfortunate and pejorative term that accepts the pro-Confederate perspective. The author's brief discussion of northern efforts to minister to former slaves shortchanges that topic; the American Missionary Association, for example, is mentioned only once in the text.
Southern blacks saw the war as an answered prayer and sought greater autonomy in their religious lives. Some former slaves tried to continue antebellum practice by worshiping in separate congregations within biracial churches, but the determination of southern whites to maintain control over biracial churches doomed that effort and resulted in the most drastic transformation in southern religious life -- the creation of the independent black churches. Stowell has little to add to the fine scholarship on this subject, and his focus on institutional history ignores the vital role black churches played in the social, political, and cultural lives of their members.
Indeed, the author's emphasis on institutional history is both the book's greatest strength and its greatest weakness. On the one hand, he provides the most thorough study available of the reestablishment of denominational organizations after the war, and his comparative approach offers important insights on the activities of all parties involved. On the other hand, his top-down approach is in many respects a throw-back to traditional denominational histories with their emphasis on structures, ministers, and denominational leaders rather than on church members. With thousands of white men dead, who filled southern church pews? With the southern economy in shambles, who raised the funds to repair and rebuild southern churches? The answer, of course, is women. Stowell's lack of gender analysis and his glaring inattention to the majority of church members is the book's chief weakness. What role did black women play in the creation of black churches? Did southern blacks create churches as patriarchal as southern whites? Did blacks in urban areas fare better than those in plantation districts? Without taking the activities of southern women into account, he leaves vital questions unanswered and misses a rich opportunity to compare the activities of black and white women North and South during a period of dramatic social, cultural, and political transformation.