- Gettysburg Religion: Refinement, Diversity, and Race in the Antebellum and Civil War Border North by Steve Longenecker
Steve Longenecker clearly loves the subject he writes about here, and the reader benefits accordingly. He treats the religious life of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, during the years immediately before, during, and after the great battle that made the small town famous. Gettysburg religious life—or rather lives, for diversity is emphasized—displayed remarkable variety, and Longenecker treats every denomination he covers with interest and respect. Each of the varieties of Gettysburg Christianity was represented by a single congregation. (There was no synagogue.) The records of these parish churches form a substantial part of the sources for this study. The author also delves into the histories of individual families and persons, enabling him to alternate between chapters describing general developments and brief divertimenti focused on particular individuals, usually obscure, often with poignant stories. He points out that Gettysburg had many immigrants and children of immigrants, so that ethnic differences often compounded religious ones.
The most conspicuous development identified by Longenecker among the mainstream evangelical Protestant churches—Presbyterian, Methodist, and Lutheran—is their gradual religious “refinement,” a response to the growing prosperity of the middle class in Victorian times. This refinement took such forms as more expensive physical plants and clerical training, pipe organs, choirs, and Sunday schools. But much of the author’s interest lies in the denominations that were not exactly mainstream.
Among Gettysburg’s various denominations were the Roman Catholics, most of them German by birth or ancestry. Longenecker describes them as “on the edges of the mainstream” (p. 87). He goes on to describe the distinctive qualities of Catholic religion that put them on that edge, including emphasis on sacraments, [End Page 955] devotions, use of Latin, and especially authoritarianism rather than republicanism. He goes on to discuss antebellum anti-Catholicism and the Know-Nothing political party, which drew support from both the major parties, Whigs and Democrats, of that era. He illustrates both Catholic and anti-Catholic opinion from sermons and the printed media. But in the end, he concludes that the most remarkable thing about Gettysburg Catholicism was the degree of toleration it received from the Protestant majority. The absence of antislavery in American Catholicism he attributes to Catholic reluctance to jeopardize this measure of tolerance by supporting an unpopular cause.
Other denominations outside the Gettysburg mainstream included the Dunkers and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church—both ethnic denominations, for the Dunkers were overwhelmingly German. Dunkers got the name from their practice of immersion baptism, in which the convert was dunked three times for Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Faithful to the simplicity of early Christianity, they remained resolutely aloof from the growing refinement of mainline evangelical churches. They practiced feet-washing to affirm the equality of all members—although Longenecker notes that some white Dunkers shrank from kissing black converts after washing their feet. The AME Zion parish, small and impoverished, nevertheless provided local blacks with a supportive religious community. But it took a big hit when the great battle came to Gettysburg. Many of its members fled the area, fearful of the invading Confederate soldiers, who would capture and enslave black people they found, even those legally free. The refugees did not necessarily return to Gettysburg afterward; yet the church somehow reconstituted itself and survived into postwar times.
Longenecker has produced a beautifully written book, beginning with its charming introduction. He finds Gettysburg interesting not only for its own sake but also as reflecting its region, “the Lower North.” More broadly, he also finds Gettysburg an example of the United States as a whole and of the process of modernization, which Gettysburg illustrates on an intimate scale. But while using local history to illustrate broad themes, such as the process of middle-class refinement, the author retains his interest in the idiosyncratic and individual. Longenecker has written a democratic history from the ground up and deserves our congratulations...