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In Religion, Race, and the Making of Confederate Kentucky, 1830–1880, Luke E. Harlow shows how a “slaveholding state that remained with the Union” during the Civil War “came to see itself as a part of the Confederate project after the fact” (p. 1). His focus on “conservative evangelical Protestant theology,” he claims, helps to explain “the American struggle over slavery and abolition more broadly” (p. 1).
This book joins a growing number of studies that show how Kentucky became Confederate after Appomattox. Harlow’s work is unique in that he connects the politics of the antebellum and postwar eras to the theological beliefs of Kentucky’s main evangelical denominations. By making this link he shows the deep-seated nature and religious foundation of a culture of white supremacy in the former slaveholding state. This is a significant point and in setting it out Harlow contributes considerably to our understanding of how culture shaped and limited the expansion of civil rights in the postwar era and how an emancipationist understanding of the Civil War failed to take hold in large parts of the United States between 1865 and 1880.
The body of the text focuses on the relationship between “literalist”/conservative readings of the biblical text as a proslavery document, the challenges to slavery made by Kentuckians who supported emancipation schemes focused on gradualism and colonization, and heterodoxies of abolitionism, which was seen as unnecessarily politicizing the church. This relationship helped bolster Kentuckians’ opposition to radical politics and confirmed their dedication to conservative constitutionalism. Kentuckians believed Union victory [End Page 719] and emancipation changed nothing in regards to biblical truth. As one Methodist publication noted after the war, the new legal realities did not change the fact that slavery remained a “divinely approved institution” (p. 221). The result was that the religious culture that had developed during the debates over gradualism and colonization fostered a postwar ideology that was shared with the former Confederate states and served as the foundation for segregation.
Harlow has thoroughly researched the printed materials and public speeches related to political and theological debate about slavery and emancipation. However, in presenting his findings he too often allows his compelling story to become bogged down in long quoted passages that obscure more than they illuminate. The end result is a difficult read. There are also problems with the evidence Harlow selected. The attention to the main characters who articulated their denomination’s official positions on gradual emancipation, colonization, abolitionism, and the relationship between church and state does provide a structural understanding of the state’s unique place in the nation during the war. Some attention to the reception of these statements, however, would have been helpful from both the perspective of understanding the reach of ideas and the tempo of the narrative. Finally, Harlow tantalizingly introduces the presence of independent black churches in Kentucky and points out that these churches “visibly rejected white arguments for a proslavery gospel in ways that were more than symbolic” (p. 81). Unfortunately, Harlow spends only five pages unpacking the meaning of the churches. Black agency returns near the end of the book but only briefly in a discussion of the division of the formerly biracial churches after the end of the war.
That said, this is an important book that adds significantly to our understanding of the nature of white Kentuckians’ embrace of Confederate identity and opens the door for explaining how difficult it was, among white Americans, to establish a memory of the Civil War that favored emancipation as the great social outcome of the war. [End Page 720]
DARYL BLACK is executive director of the Seminary Ridge Museum in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. He is the author of “‘Of Course We Claim to Be Americans’: Revolution, Memory, and Race in Up-Country Georgia Baptist Churches, 1772–1849,” in Remembering the Revolution: Memory, History, and Nation Making from Independence to the Civil War (2013) and “Relics of Reunion: Souvenirs and Memory at Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military...