- At the Altar of Lynching: Burning Sam Hose in the American South by Donald G. Mathews
Tom Wilkes, known to the white people who murdered him as Sam Hose, faced an accusation of killing a white man and "ravishing" his wife in Newnan, Georgia, in 1899 (p. 14). White locals mutilated him and burned him alive. While his body smoldered, a member of the lynch mob yelled, "Glory! … Glory be to God!!" (p. 1). This book brings together an astonishing array of archival sources, theological texts, and anthropological theory to understand this moment of moral horror.
Donald G. Mathews, in At the Altar of Lynching: Burning Sam Hose in the American South, has done scholars and teachers a great service at a critical moment. He examines a series of simple premises lurking in a complex story. The nature of the Wilkes death could easily lend itself to a sensationalistic style. Mathews avoids this route. His style suggests a meaningful recognition of human suffering and, not unrelated, a profound respect for his evidence and the claims he can make from it.
There are odd moments when the reader worries whether Mathews will maintain this tone. Early in the book, the author relates a compelling story about how his grandfather's refusal to allow a mob to kill his black foreman led to his own beating by the mob, an act of violence from which his immediate family never fully recovered. This very personal tale could easily have become sloppily self-indulgent or have failed to demarcate the meaning of limited violence against white people in a society founded on violence against black people. Mathews, however, handles it with the skill and meaningful explication that he brings to the rest of his massive evidentiary base.
Readers will find themselves astonished at how deftly Mathews blends his mountain of primary source research with a wide-ranging discussion of the economics and politics of the late-nineteenth-century South. He makes thoughtful use of anthropological and theological models that never descend into theoretical opacity, even if he somewhat ponderously continues the historical discipline's fascination with name-checking Clifford Geertz and Michel Foucault.
Mathews does provide his readers with brief, clear, and thought-provoking definitions of key terms. For example, "religion" is "the complex symbolic representation of the social order through which we learn transcendence" (p. 42). Then, he takes readers right back into the sources, confronting them with how whiteness shaped evangelical religious expression. More important, we are [End Page 201] never far from the lynching tree and burning pyre. He does not let readers forget the enormous human cost of the white evangelical South's "blending of white dominion and salvation. The fusion of purity and danger" (p. 281).
There are two areas of concern with this outstanding and often elegant work of historical scholarship. First, most readers will immediately note the similarity of Mathews's themes and thesis to the work of Orlando Patterson in Rituals of Blood: Consequences of Slavery in Two American Centuries (Washington, D.C., 1998). Bizarrely, there is only a very brief allusion to Patterson's work that does not come close to doing justice to its influence. Most scholars of racist violence will want to know more about how Mathews demarcates his own interpretation of lynching from Patterson's seminal study.
Second, it seems clear that Mathews wants readers to see the religious elements of lynching at the southern crossroads of damnation and guilt. He places special emphasis on the crucifixion and the concept of blood atonement in a way that, again, evokes Patterson's work without fully crediting it. Beyond this lapse, it is worrisome that Mathews limits himself when talking about the repertoire of southern religion in the 1890s. These are the same years that a growing interest in a particular kind of apocalyptic thinking took hold of the white...