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  • Conquering Salem: The Triumph of the Christian Vision in Turn-of-the-Twentieth-Century Texas
  • Joseph Locke (bio)

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Image from J. B. Cranfill, Courage and Comfort; or, Sunday Morning Thoughts (Nashville: The Southwestern Company, 1908), 124. In the years around the turn of the twentieth century, J.B. Cranfill and other Christian activists imagined a broader role for religion in public life.

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In the spring of 2010, the national media glutted themselves on the Texas State Board of Education’s crusade to reform state textbook standards. Major daily newspapers and news networks (and blogs and comedy shows) followed the state agency’s spectacular efforts to, as the New York Times reported, “put a conservative stamp on history and economics textbooks.” But the board’s conservative bloc, led by dentist-historian Don McLeroy, only saw itself “adding balance” to perceived liberal distortions. They could rescue the past from godless partisans, they believed, by emphasizing a train of conservative heroes, praising the glories of the free market, and giving the founders their religion back.1 Notable for its naked intentions and infused with an overt religiosity—and conveniently conforming to the national obsession with resurgent conservatism—the board’s maneuverings struck a nerve. The board seemed, without embarrassment or apology, to be “rewriting history.” But, of course, there is nothing new under the sun. This was not the first time Texans had battled over history.

If, in 2010, a Christian (and conservative) vision weighed on historical consciousness, it had not always done so. Throughout much of Texas history, in fact, majorities subscribed to a potent counter-vision, one that looked warily upon religious ambitions and demanded the defense of a mostly secular public sphere. Never inherently anti-religious or particularly anti-Christian (clergy and laity embraced it), the counter-vision thrived instead on anticlericalism: strict opposition to the involvement of the church or clergy in politics or public affairs. From this idea flowed [End Page 233] an entire worldview, a vision that shaped the way generations of Texans saw their world. That vision ran deep; it implicated politicized religion in many of history’s darkest chapters and saw government as a welcome safeguard against clerical machinations. It drew from historical images: medieval inquisitors and Salem witch hunters, “Mohammaden” savagery and primitive tyranny. In so doing, it defined the limited dimensions of an appropriate faith. While millennial dreams moved northern evangelicals to build a benevolent empire, southerners demurred. Christianity, they said, was a spiritual bond between God and individual souls, not a worldly weapon of reform. Such attitudes dictated political choices and propped up political demagogues, men such as Senator Richard Coke, who urged his followers to “scourge” political preachers back to their pulpits. Anticlericalism amalgamated these three topics—history, government, and religion—into a comprehensive, compelling, and animating vision. Nineteenth-century Texans imbibed deeply of it.

Christian activists, looking for a path into the public sphere, could not merely navigate these obstacles; they had to conquer them. Such was the experience of prohibitionists and other moral reformers as the twentieth century began. Convinced of the evils of liquor, gambling, prostitution, and other vices, Christians mobilized for reform across the South and much of the country. Time and again, however, deep-seated fears and suspicions united their opposition, sank their cause, and discredited their champions. Only when religious leaders crafted an alternative vision—a clerical vision—potent enough to challenge and overcome a crippling anticlericalism could they emerge victorious. Over several decades, they did so. Whereas the anticlerical vision relied upon the general rejection of religion in public life, Christian activists constructed an alternative around the conviction that religion deserved a larger role in the world. They believed that ministers should be heard and heeded, that politics should bend before morality, and that history bowed before God. This was the Christian vision. It inspired generations of religious Texans to successfully articulate a noble Christian history, justify a new aggressive faith, and reconceive the possibilities of government. By applying their brand of clericalism to history, government, and God, they transformed fundamental cultural assumptions and conquered decades, even centuries, of prejudicial images and associations...


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pp. 232-257
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