- Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and American Nationalism, 1865–1898
Far too often religion has been treated as ancillary to the main narrative of American history. While all readily admit the importance of religion to everyday life in the nineteenth century, few historians seem to have the patience or inclination to examine the voluminous religious literature of the period. In his important new book, Edward Blum has endeavored to correct this imbalance, at least when it comes to our understanding of Reconstruction and postwar white reconciliation. Blum sees religion, specifically Northern Protestantism, as the driving force in the creation of a unifying white nationalism that enabled Northern and Southern whites to overcome the bitterness of war. During Reconstruction, Blum argues, a struggle took place within Northern Protestantism over two competing visions of American nationalism. Immediately following the war, certain Northern clergymen along with missionaries working in the South advanced a radical "civic nationalism" based on democracy, freedom, and loyalty to the Union that embraced African Americans as fellow countrymen deserving full political rights and complete social equality. This civic nationalism, however, was quickly eclipsed by an older "ethnic nationalism" based firmly upon white racial superiority. This reforging of the white Republic, Blum contends, was guided and sanctified by Northern Protestant leaders and organizations.
The book is divided into seven chronological chapters. The first two focus on the religious proponents of civic nationalism immediately following the war. The remaining five chapters deal with the growing momentum toward white reconciliation throughout the rest of the nineteenth century and the eventual triumph of white ethnic nationalism. From the early "Apostles of Forgiveness," namely Henry Ward Beecher and his sister Harriet Beecher Stowe, to the revivalism of Dwight Moody, to the Northern reaction to the outbreak of yellow fever in the South in 1878, to the actions and ideology of the Women's [End Page 96] Christian Temperance Union, and finally to the global missionary movement and the concomitant rise of American imperialism at the end of the century, Blum charts the steady march toward white reunification under the banner of a religiously sanctified ethnic nationalism and at the expense of racial justice.
Blum's work contains a number of important revelations. Readers familiar with the extent of racial prejudice in the North will be surprised at the commitment of Blum's early Protestant missionaries to racial equality, their willingness to challenge theories of racial inferiority, and their close personal identification with Southern blacks. While some may question the underlying motives of these civic nationalists with more skepticism than Blum, there can be no doubt, based on Blum's impressive research, that a significant number of Protestant leaders were articulating these quite radical views. Likewise, Blum's treatment of Dwight Moody is excellent and his careful analysis reveals the ways in which Moody's message and his massive revivals helped to bridge the sectional divide between Northern and Southern white Protestants. Blum's single most important contribution to the field might very well be his discussion of the underlying significance of the yellow fever epidemic. Shocked by the suffering caused by the outbreak and impelled by the demands of Christian compassion, Northern Protestants rushed to the aid of white Southerners. The epidemic, Blum argues, presented the perfect "pretext" for "spiritual reconciliation" and linked Northern and Southern whites with new bonds of sympathy and gratitude (147). Whereas before, Northern aid had been primarily directed toward Southern blacks, now whites received the bulk of Northern charity and afflicted blacks were left to fend for themselves. Blum makes a very convincing case for why this epidemic represented a "pivotal moment in postwar national reconciliation and the marginalization of African Americans" and rightly begs the question of why this event has not attracted more attention in Reconstruction histories (147).
Apart from some minor quibbling, my main criticism of Blum's book stems from his amorphous use of the term "Protestant." Throughout the book we are told that Protestants thought this or believed that, but we are...