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  • Freedom's Coming: Religious Culture and the Shaping of the South from the Civil War through the Civil Rights Era
  • Matt J. Zacharias Harper (bio)
Freedom's Coming: Religious Culture and the Shaping of the South from the Civil War through the Civil Rights Era By Paul HarveyUniversity of North Carolina Press, 2005360 pp. Cloth $34.95

If you think you understand how religion and race work in the South, then obviously no one has explained it to you properly. Lillian Smith tried to explain it in her 1949 Killers of the Dream: "We were taught . . . to love God, to love our white skin, and to believe in the sanctity of both." But it was more complicated than that, she admitted. "No wonder that God and Negroes and Jesus and sin and salvation are baled up together in southern children's minds and in many an old textile magnate's too." I suspect that quotes like these find their way into Paul Harvey's most recent book, Freedom's Coming, because he, too, recognizes the difficulty of making sense of how evangelicalism could mean so much to such different southerners as klansmen, populists, and civil rights activists.

Freedom's Coming is a broad, sweeping history of the South from Reconstruction to the 1990s. Harvey begins by noting the parallels between political and religious organizing after the Civil War and by discussing the different religious meanings [End Page 111] southerners gave the War. He describes how the mainstream religious cultures of white supremacy and black independence left little room for white Unionists. Following other historians, Harvey presents both Reconstruction and redemption as religious movements, and he pays careful attention to the switch in white supremacist theology from paternalistic control in biracial churches to a justification of apartheid.

Freedom's Coming devotes considerable space to "thin but tough" groups of Christian dissenters who opened the South up for interracialism and undermined, if only in part, theological racism. The middle of the book is peopled by the likes of white liberals, Methodists, black Baptists turned naacp organizers, the Disciples of Christ and the Southern Farmer's Alliance, Clarence Jordan and Koinonia Farm, Lucy R. Morgan and cio labor movements, and Charles Jones and the Federation of Southern Churchmen. Harvey also investigates interracial spaces: places where black and white believers shared faith, ideas, and art. This Christian interracialism took place in music halls, Holiness-Pentecostal revivals, and over the radio. And although it was intermittent and often riddled with persistent beliefs in white superiority, it began to make fissures in the solid South. But what ultimately cracked it open was the mass movement of black southerners in the 1950s and 1960s. Evangelical piety, Harvey argues, was crucial to the movement's success, even if civil rights activists often expressed frustration that black churches and ministers were reluctant to get involved. For white churches, Harvey continues, the civil rights era was a time of "colossal moral failure," even though "there was considerable (if ultimately ineffectual) effort within white denominations to move beyond their history and legacy of theological racism."

In his final chapter, Harvey advances a provocative and compelling thesis. After the collapse of southern apartheid, conservative white Protestants abandoned and repented of theological racism. In its place, they placed increasing importance on what they deemed as God-given gender hierarchies. Advocating racial reconciliation and "wifely submission," the conservative leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention serves as the best example for Harvey's argument. Harvey fails to place this move in the context of Roman Catholics or nonsouthern conservative evangelicals, whose gender hierarchies are the subject of recent good sociological studies. Hardly a southern thing, patriarchy in American evangelicalism need not be so closely linked to the end of Jim Crow.

Harvey has done substantial primary research, but little of his story is new material. Rather, Harvey has found a way to string together ideas and examples from the best scholarly books on Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights movement. Because Freedom's Coming so perfectly digests the best new works on the South, this is the place to play catch-up on southern religious scholarship. The footnotes and bibliography alone are...


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pp. 111-113
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