Christian Citizens: Reading the Bible in Black and White in the Postemancipation South by Elizabeth L. Jemison. University of North Carolina Press, 2020. ISBN: 978-1-4696-5969-5. $29.95.
In Christian Citizens, Elizabeth L. Jemison uncovers the links between Christianity, race, and white paternalism that were solidified during the Reconstruction era. An assistant professor of religion at Clemson University, Jemison argues that the period immediately following the Civil War was one in which whites and Blacks debated conflicting conceptions of civil and political citizenship with different conceptions of Christianity. For Southern whites, antebellum proslavery theology morphed into a postbellum segregationist theology. The rise of Black political and civil rights threatened the “God-given organic order” and its “duties of submission, not rights of equality” (2-3). Black Christians not surprisingly challenged this conception of Christian citizenship. Using similar Biblical themes and stories, Blacks linked their Christianity to their political and civil rights. In their conception, religious and political equality were not separable (9).
Jemison’s book unfolds chronologically and shows the changing ways that Blacks responded to white paternalism. Immediately after the Civil War, white Southerners naturally clung to their theology that viewed the Confederacy as a defense of “slavery and the biblical order it represented” (23). For these whites, emancipation was a “divine affliction” that threatened their gendered and racialized social order (36). In the last years of the Confederacy’s national life and in the years immediately following its official fall, whites “excused racial violence as a necessary part of maintaining social order, as it had been under slavery” (41). Formerly enslaved persons instead “linked their freedom and Christian identity” in their collective efforts to fight for political rights and self-determination (32). “Black communities defined Christian citizenship as their pursuit of equality and autonomy, and they argued that it was a religious and political goal that all Christians and citizens…should support” (47).
As Reconstruction continued, Blacks continued to “merge their goals as citizens and as Christians in a fluid defense of their intellectual, moral, religious, educational, and political equality” (51). Women were especially important by pursuing “true womanhood” (53). Southern whites, in response, were becoming increasingly more violent as they argued that Black equality threatened a God-ordained family order “best expressed in the antebellum household where a white man directed his wife, children, and enslaved people” (64). This violence revealed an inherent contradiction in Southern white citizenship claims; white southerners endorsed social stability and order but used disorderly and chaotic violence to overthrow democratically elected local governments to impose Democratic rule across the South (77). They called this effort “Redemption” in an effort to “sanctify” their violence. Their new paternalism “relied on the terror of lynching violence to bolster its defense of family and social order” (126).
With the withdrawal of external, federal support, white Southern control over the South became dominant, forcing Black Southerners to find other avenues to protest the horrors of lynching and white racist violence. With the disenfranchisement of Black men, “black women became more influential advocates as black Christians shifted their focus to pursuing self-improvement through education and to denouncing lynching as a threat to American Christian civilization” (137). For Blacks, education became a way to increase wealth, earn respect, and strengthen religious life. Blacks were left with few avenues for effective protest against white violence. Originally, arguments against lynching focused on the way this violence denied Blacks their civil and political rights. In the 1890s, anti-lynching rhetoric shifted to argue “that lynching was a fundamental attack on the rule of law in a Christian civilization” (146-147). Jemison claims that for white Southern Christians, the defense of the family was the primary religious and political goal. By studying how “competing Christian citizens created” religiously informed citizenship models, Jemison suggests that we might better “understand the stark religious and political divides of our own time” (168). The work of Black and white Southern Christians certainly had long-lasting effects. Black Southerners’ conception of Christian citizenship, for instance, would inform the twentieth-century Civil Rights Movement (152, 164).
Christian Citizens is an important work about the intersection of religion, race, gender, and nineteenth century Southern politics with important implications not only for Civil War/Reconstruction scholars, but also for modern political historians. Elizabeth L. Jemison’s work is likely to be debated, discussed, and expanded in the coming years.
Caleb W. Southern is a graduate student in the Department of History at Sam Houston State University.