- African American Religions, Politics, and Hopes in the Post-Emancipation South
These books make important contributions to understanding the varied roles that African American religious beliefs and practices played within particular communities as they navigated rapidly changing political contexts and racial climates during the Civil War and subsequent decades. While the importance of African American religion in shaping the experience of Emancipation, Reconstruction, and the rise of Jim Crow has become a given, this recognition can default to assumptions of a monolithic perspective, most often represented by African American Protestantism. Despite similar political and racial experiences during the tumultuous second half of the nineteenth century, African Americans remained diverse in many ways, including the religious traditions they drew upon, how they engaged those traditions, and the contexts in which they did so.
Taken together, Emily Suzanne Clark's Luminous Brotherhood and Matthew Harper's The End of Days, open up the worlds of very different communities in the post-Emancipation South. Both studies provide rich detail and analysis to reveal the religious beliefs and practices that helped two religiously and geographically distinct groups navigate the increasingly treacherous waters of the post-Emancipation South. The authors do not make broad claims that the particular stories they tell are universal or representative. Rather, the contribution of each is its specificity. In turn, that particularity is the broad claim that these books make: the experiences, perspectives, and religious resources that African Americans drew upon in the post-Emancipation South were diverse and varied, functioning in different ways for different people in different places. What is also clear in both books is that religion was a crucial resource [End Page 607] for many African Americans in the decades following the Civil War. At one level, both books look at elites within their respective communities—educated leaders often invoking a world of ideas, books, and history. But it was never just ideas or otherworldly speculation without immediate consequences and possibilities. Spiritualism for Clark's Afro-Creoles and eschatology for Harper's North Carolina Protestants, were about concrete, actionable experiences that closed the gap between past and present. Both groups turned to religion to work for a better future in this world, rather than a strategy to displace real suffering with ethereal hopes.
Emily Suzanne Clark's Luminous Brotherhood is the first extended analysis of Afro-Creole spiritualism in New Orleans. While the number of black Spiritualists in New Orleans was small, they were not without importance. Afro-Creoles were part of the city's educated elite, woven into New Orleans' networks of black leadership and institutional life. Clark's careful reading of the séance registers (mostly written in French), provides new insight into New Orleans' Afro-Creole community for which, despite its achievements, there is a thin historical record. The Afro-Creole Spiritualists in New Orleans, who called themselves the Cercle Harmonique (Harmonic Circle), existed and kept records from 1858–1877, peaking in the early 1870s. Its duration coincided with a period of rapid change for the city's Afro-Creole community, whose antebellum-era distinctive status between black and white largely disappeared as the city moved toward a hardened racial binary in the decades after the Civil War. During this time, the Cercle's spirit guides—mostly figures from history, along with civic and religious leaders—helped Afro-Creoles navigate the changes taking place. Those attending séances found support from the spirits, who affirmed efforts to advance racial unity and equality in the messy material world of the post-Civil War American South. While receiving assurance their work would be recognized and rewarded in the next (spirit) world, the members of the Harmonic Circle were also concerned with achieving results in this realm. The spiritual republic, as they called the world of...