Journal of Southern Religion
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 Eugene D. Genovese, A Consuming Fire: The Fall of the Confederacy in the Mind of the White Christian South. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998). Pp. xiv, 175.

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      A Consuming Fire is vintage Genovese. The book has elegance, vigor, originality, and single-mindedness. Reading his work conjures up the image of the author speaking his text in staccato Brooklynese, with cigarillo in hand for forceful punctuation and his face flushed by the excitement of his argument. The dustjacket photo confirms the impression. Brief though it is, this work enlightens us about several important aspects of cultural and religious life in the two Souths of the nineteenth century--the Old and New.
      The first among his major points is

"Genovese writes that James Henley Thornwell, Robert Dabney, Richard Fuller, and other leading figures in the slave states carefully distinguished the exigency of slavery from the particularity of race."

familiar. Genovese has long contended that the proslavery clergy supported their case with a Biblical expertise that far outstripped the unscriptural musings of their antislavery critics. In his view, the most erudite Southern divines did not exploit the narrative of Noah's curse to account for Africans' suitability for enslavement. Instead, they concentrated on the many Biblical references to slaveholding as a given, like death and taxes. Most Southern theologians had the good sense to limit their claims for slavery, leaving the hot-eyed politicians to exalt the institution as a "positive good." Genovese writes that James Henley Thornwell, Robert Dabney, Richard Fuller, and other leading figures in the slave states carefully distinguished the exigency of slavery from the particularity of race.
       The second proposition flows from the first: the attempt by slaveholding churchmen to achieve the Christianization of the masters, the conversion of the slaves, and the reform of the whole system. On the first two strategies, progress was indeed heartening by 1861 with a vast increase in churchgoing among whites and blacks. Regarding the third aim, the author is convincing that the evangelical clergy were more outspoken than historians recognize. They championed slave literacy (for reading the Bible), legal integrity of families and marriages, shielding slaves from inhuman cruelty, starvation, and other perils, and granting protections in the courts. Richard Fuller, he notes, had the temerity to suggest that absolute power of masters corrupted absolutely. More important, he shows how, before and during the sectional war, Southern ecclesiastics warned that God would not save from doom a slave regime opposing reformation of habits and legal constrictions.
      Wisely Genovese does not press his evidence too far. He admits that the clergy were ineffectual political lobbyists. They lacked the organizational drive that antislavery reformers gradually translated into popular anti-Southern sentiment. For their failure to alter laws, the slaveholding church fathers and white society in general cited abolitionist intervention. Slaves might distort the reform agenda as a step toward freedom and try to seize it on their own, with abolitionist aid. Genovese, however, does not underscore the fact that Yankee concern conveniently relieved the clergy from directly assailing abuses in a forceful way. Moreover, just how far would the Christianization of masters and slaves have proceeded without the pressure of outside criticism? The marshaling of scattered pulpit references to correcting evils cannot hide the suspicion that, in the vast number of sermons preached, few addressed the slave issue at all. Finally, those urban and urbane divines who underpin Genovese's argument were a tiny fragment of church leadership. For most rural preachers, silence was a properly discreet course. In any event, Genovese overstates the philanthropic boldness of Southern antebellum Protestantism.
       On the third point of this impressive if imperfect study, the Lamar lecturer brilliantly draws a distinction between the proslavery clergy with their inerrant Bible and the defenders of undisguised racism in the postwar period. With the Holy Scriptures silent as death about the moral rankings of human races, Genovese notes, the post-emancipation clergy adopted the views of the scientific racists. Antebellum Southern ministers had scorned Josiah Nott and company for their repudiation of Adam as father of all mankind. Genovese approves their position and contrasts it with the late nineteenth-century theologians who hypocritically accepted an American form of apartheid and racial imperialism.
       Despite the logic of Genovese's argument, the reader wonders if the differences between the pre-Civil War and postwar positions of the clergy were as sharply drawn as he claims. What separates an American expansionism, which nearly doubled slaveholding possibilities after the Mexican War, from the racist imperialism of the Spanish-American War? Moreover, in the face of Confederate defeat, most ministers did not, as Genovese claims, don the appropriate sack cloth. Methodist John Caldwell of Georgia in 1865 preached that God had punished the South for upholding the evil institution of slavery against His judgment. Caldwell had to flee or risk a likely martyrdom. Few worshipers wished to hear that secession had earned the South a tragic alienation from divine favor.
       Genovese's admiration for Christian proslavery logic should be tempered by these parallels. The Bible accepted the economic and social usage of bondspeople but also wine consumption and dancing, recreations that most proslavery clergymen thought sinful. The abolitionists, on the other hand, condemned all three with perhaps more consistency. In other words, Biblical literalism was more selective than he admits. Yet, while Genovese errs on the question of proportionality, he compels us to reconsider our sometimes smug explanations and wrestle with his interpretative genius, however much we might disagree with it.

Bertram Wyatt-Brown, University of Florida

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