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  • Houses Divided: Evangelical Schisms and the Crisis of the Union in Missouri by Lucas P. Volkman
  • Luke Ritter
Houses Divided: Evangelical Schisms and the Crisis of the Union in Missouri. By Lucas P. Volkman. Religion in America. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. Pp. xviii, 306. $74.00, ISBN 978-0-19-024832-1.)

Historian Lucas P. Volkman's Houses Divided: Evangelical Schisms and the Crisis of the Union in Missouri is a definitive study of the multifarious causes of intra- and interdenominational divisions amid Missouri's Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches before, during, and after the Civil War, from 1837 to 1876. Volkman details how local circumstances and theological disputes, especially in regard to slavery, further polarized northern and southern evangelical worldviews and thus fueled the antebellum and postbellum antagonism surrounding important constitutional controversies. The religious divisions in Missouri galvanized people during the Kansas crisis of the 1850s. They continued to shape constitutional issues regarding church property, test oaths, and African American rights. [End Page 450]

Disagreements among congregations became even more tense when property was at stake. The Declaration of Rights in the 1820 Missouri constitution restricted people who served an official function as bishop, priest, or teacher in behalf of a religious organization from running for office. It did not, however, prohibit such officials from serving as the trustees of corporate property. The courts faced the important dilemma of developing criteria for deciding which faction of a denomination was entitled to church grounds. Women contributed to the expansion of church property ownership during the antebellum era, Volkman explains, because they frequently bequeathed inherited property. Since most church organizations entrusted African American congregations to a white minister from a parent white church, legal disputes over property, such as in the Missouri Supreme Court case Farrar v. Finney (1854), did not bode well for de facto independent African American denominations.

In the years leading up to the Kansas crisis, veritable "print warfare" pitted evangelical Christians against one another, as northern denominational outlets condemned bondage as a sin, while their southern counterparts adamantly defended the institution of slavery on biblical grounds (p. 85). Once the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist churches divided into antislavery northern and proslavery southern denominations in the 1840s, "[denominational publishing house editors," Volkman explains, "no longer had to consider or accommodate the contrary sentiments and beliefs of co-denominationalists on the other side of the Mason-Dixon line" (p. 95).

Houses Divided offers fresh insights on the continuing role of these evangelical schisms through the Civil War and Reconstruction. The militancy of the Civil War era in Missouri ushered in religious persecution of southern-sympathizing ministers and congregants, demands of especially strict loyalty oaths, and the seizing of southern church property, all of which forged a new civil religion, according to Volkman, based on "[a]bolitionist religious commitments to civil and political equality for African Americans and loyalty to a perpetual Union" (p. 160). Missouri's test oaths became especially problematic for members of southern denominations. In Missouri, northern evangelical churches required of members an oath denouncing slavery and slaveholding as a sin, and the Radical Republican government mandated a test oath that compelled everyone, even pastors, to swear their past and present loyalty to the Union. Some objected to the government's requirements on the grounds of religious liberty and free speech. After a famous U.S. Supreme Court case, Cummings v. State of Missouri (1867), the test oath was removed, and pro-Confederacy pastors and congregants gradually won back church property that had been seized during the war.

Ultimately, Volkman shows the utter lack of reconciliation between the northern and southern factions. The schisms remained in place after the Civil War and Reconstruction eras—if anything, they deepened. Presbyterians grew more divided, and African Americans evacuated white denominations, creating independent organizations such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Volkman concludes that few religious people in Missouri came to terms with the very issues that divided evangelical denominations in the first place—slavery, secession, and the legacy of the Civil War. Overall, this situation decreased [End Page 451] evangelical Christians' willingness "to support social reform," Volkman concludes, and increased their "desire to separate religion...


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