- Baptized with Soil: Christian Agrarians and the Crusade for Rural America by Kevin M. Lowe
By Kevin M. Lowe. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. 264 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $74.00 cloth.
The standard telling of the American Progressive Era focuses on industrialism, the urban [End Page 148] poor, and secular government programs. In some ways, this is an obvious projection of current concerns into the past. Because of this, the cultural and economic history of rural America—including the Great Plains—waits in the wings, briefly appearing in the form of Dorothea Lange photographs. A dominant cultural force, mainline Protestantism, is equally overlooked. But this is changing. Kevin Lowe's book joins a crop of scholarship working to bring these important aspects of American history and culture back into focus. Understanding the current "New Agrarianism"—a label stretching from Wendell Berry to Whole Foods—requires attention to this gap. Even where such a history exists, it has mostly ignored the role of American Christianity. Lowe shows how twentieth-century agrarianism and American Christianity were intertwined.
Lowe's book takes two complimentary forms. The first is an intellectual history of Christian agrarianism. Lowe focuses on "ideas about farming, rural society, and Christianity, rather than farming itself " (20). This history of an ideology will have the broadest appeal, and can't be overlooked by anyone trying to understand the complex and sometimes contradictory attitudes toward farming, conservation, and religion in America. The final chapter shows how Christian agrarians formulated a theology of stewardship that anticipated Aldo Leopold's famous "land ethic" by more than a decade. This "Eleventh Commandment," seeking to conserve the "holy earth," was given expression by the assistant chief of the Soil Conservation Service, Walter Lowdermilk, to keep land from being "damaged by ignorance, negligence, and suicidal exploitation of lands by succeeding generations" (144).
The rest of the book focuses on the rural church. In these chapters, Lowe recounts various internal reform efforts in the face of shrinking rural population. These included church consolidation, training for ministers, and agricultural events and organizations. The grassroots Depression-era relief movement known as "The Lord's Acre" stands out. A sort of victory-garden tithing for rural churches, it saw the local community—and not the afterlife—as the proper venue in which to realize the kingdom of God. The flexible and customizable nature of the movement, along with its biblical basis, made it a widespread and even international success. Lowe's narrative also shows how mainline Protestants shaped the government's concept of the ideal farm and rural community. State support of industrial agribusiness was not always a given. Christian agrarians, from Liberty Hyde Bailey on, used the political and social influence of the churches to promote stewardship through extension offices, land-grant universities, and other government institutions.
Lowe's book fills an important hole in the history of rural America, American Christianity, and American environmentalism. Anyone seeking to better understand the current Great Plains attitudes toward farming, rural life, and the working American landscape would do well to read Lowe's timely contribution. [End Page 149]
University of Nebraska–Lincoln