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A Coat of Many Colors

Religion and Society along the Cape Fear River of North Carolina

Walter Conser

Publication Year: 2006

While religious diversity is often considered a recent phenomenon in America, the Cape Fear region of southeastern North Carolina has been a diverse community since the area was first settled. Early on, the region and the port city of Wilmington were more urban than the rest of the state and thus provided people with opportunities seldom found in other parts of North Carolina. This area drew residents from many ethnic backgrounds, and the men and women who settled there became an integral part of the region’s culture. Set against the backdrop of national and southern religious experience, A Coat of Many Colors examines issues of religious diversity and regional identity in the Cape Fear area. Author Walter H. Conser Jr. draws on a broad range of sources, including congregational records, sermon texts, liturgy, newspaper accounts, family memoirs, and technological developments to explore the evolution of religious life in this area. Beginning with the story of prehistoric Native Americans and continuing through an examination of life at the end of twentieth century, Conser tracks the development of the various religions, denominations, and ethnic groups that call the Cape Fear region home. From early Native American traditions to the establishment of the first churches, cathedrals, synagogues, mosques, and temples, A Coat of Many Colors offers a comprehensive view of the religious and ethnic diversity that have characterized Cape Fear throughout its history. Through the lens of regional history, Conser explores how this area’s rich religious and racial diversity can be seen as a microcosm for the South, and he examines the ways in which religion can affect such diverse aspects of life as architecture and race relations.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky

Series: Religion in the South

Front cover

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List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-x

During the years that I worked on this book, I became indebted to many people. At my home university, my colleagues in the Department of Philosophy and Religion and the Department of History were a frequent source of encouragement. The College of Arts and Sciences awarded me a research reassignment that proved useful, and the staffs of the Special Collections and the Interlibrary Loan Service at the William Randall...

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pp. 1-6

A highway traveler approaching Wilmington, North Carolina, from the west reaches a rise in the road where the city first comes into view. Within the panorama of trees, homes, and commercial buildings, one of the most striking sights is the series of steeples that punctuate the skyline. This scene should not be surprising, for there are more than 325 churches, temples...

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1. The Cape Fear and Its Indians

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pp. 7-34

Although sailors make their living with attention to wind and waves, there is nothing more pleasant for transatlantic mariners than the sight of land. Such happy thoughts filled the mind of Giovanni Verrazzano as he beheld the North American coast for the first time in March 1524. Verrazzano was an Italian sailing on behalf of the French monarch Francis I, and it had taken Verrazzano and his armed and well-provisioned crew roughly fifty days to sail across the Atlantic. Though the voyage began...

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2. Tensions in the Colonial Era

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pp. 35-74

In his novel The Warden, Anthony Trollope sketches a portrait of the religious landscape of England in the early nineteenth century. Serving as cathedral and county seat for Barsetshire, Trollope’s city of Barchester illustrates the complementary nature of political and ecclesiastical structures in English life. While its member of Parliament represents it politically, its resident...

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3. Religious Liberty and Denominational Expansion

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pp. 75-110

Fire is a fascinating element in human experience. We are drawn to it for warmth and light, and we use it to cook our food. Yet we also know better than to get too near, lest we be burned, for fire has devastating potential. Wilmingtonians in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were well aware of both the attractive and destructive features of fire. Prints and sketches of Wilmington from the time showed domestic scenes with families gathered around hearths and food cooking in stoves or over...

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4. Bonds of Association

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pp. 111-146

In his well-known study Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville sketched a portrait of early-nineteenth-century America. Like many other European visitors, Tocqueville discussed at length the institutional conditions he encountered. The Frenchman was intrigued by the political situation of the American republic, but what surprised him most of all was the vital importance of religion in the fabric of the nation. Tocqueville found that religious groups were quite varied and had a noticeable influence...

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5. Mystic Chords of Memory

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pp. 147-190

In the history of religions, sacred space has taken many forms. Natural locations such as mountains, mesas, and rivers; human edifices such as temples or cathedrals; consecrated sites such as churchyards and memorials have all served as sacred contexts for religious believers. Consequently, whether hallowed by human intention and interaction or simply perceived by the faithful to manifest the holy, landscapes can become holy places. And these holy places often contain monuments (the word originally meant...

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6. Religion and the New South

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pp. 191-226

In 1912 a Wilmington Chamber of Commerce brochure proclaimed the city the “gateway” of North Carolina and extolled its “delightful” climate and “luxuriant crops.” The account rated the port as “the best and safest along the Atlantic Coast” and Wilmington’s residences as “unequaled in the South.” Three years later, another tract praised the Port City as “a garden spot,” “a land of flowers and rare botanical growth, inhabited...

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7. Pluralism in the Port City and Beyond

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pp. 227-288

Among the many proponents of reform in the New South, one of the most single-minded was Hugh MacRae. A Wilmington entrepreneur, mining engineer, and land developer, MacRae believed that a significant obstacle to progress in the South was the lack of a dependable labor force. Economic modernization had no chance of success without reliable workers; efficiency was unattainable and regional growth impossible...

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pp. 289-292

In April 1760 the Reverend John McDowell described the Cape Fear region as “inhabited by many sorts of people, of various nations and different opinions, customs, and manners.” McDowell’s statement regarding the present could also serve as a prophecy of the Cape Fear’s future. At the end of the twentieth century the threads of Wilmington’s religious life extended to Bodh Gaya and Benares, Jerusalem and Mecca...


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pp. 293-332

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 333-360


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pp. 361-372

E-ISBN-13: 9780813171463
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813124056

Page Count: 384
Publication Year: 2006

Series Title: Religion in the South