Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Preaching, Politics, and the Civil War - Interview with Timothy L. Wesley

It's my pleasure to introduce Timothy L. Wesley, Ph.D., author of the recent book, The Politics of Faith during the Civil War (LSU Press, 2013).

My review of this excellent book appears at the end of this post.  Dr. Wesley was also kind enough to answer some interview questions.

About the book, from the publisher:

In The Politics of Faith during the Civil War, Timothy L. Wesley examines the engagement of both northern and southern preachers in politics during the American Civil War, revealing an era of denominational, governmental, and public scrutiny of religious leaders. Controversial ministers risked ostracism within the local community, censure from church leaders, and arrests by provost marshals or local police. In contested areas of the Upper Confederacy and border Union, ministers occasionally faced deadly violence for what they said or would not say from their pulpits. Even silence on political issues did not guarantee a preacher’s security, as both sides arrested clergymen who defied the dictates of civil and military authorities by refusing to declare their loyalty in sermons or to pray for the designated nation, army, or president.

The generation that fought the Civil War lived in arguably the most sacralized culture in the history of the United States. The participation of church members in the public arena meant that ministers wielded great authority. Wesley outlines the scope of that influence and considers, conversely, the feared outcomes of its abuse. By treating ministers as both individual men of conscience and leaders of religious communities, Wesley reveals that the reticence of otherwise loyal ministers to bring politics into the pulpit often grew not out of partisan concerns but out of doctrinal, historical, and local factors.

The Politics of Faith during the Civil War sheds new light on the political motivations of homefront clergymen during wartime, revealing how and why the Civil War stands as the nation’s first concerted campaign to check the ministry’s freedom of religious expression.

About the author, from the publisher:

Timothy L. Wesley teaches history at Pennsylvania State University, where he is a fellow with the George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center. He and his wife Linda live in State College, Pennsylvania.

More, from the Richards Center:


Ph.D, The Pennsylvania State University, 2010
M.A., Tennessee Technological University, 1997
B.S., Tennessee Technological Uiversity, 1996

Dr. Wesley is a historian of the American Civil War and Reconstruction Era and the U. S. South.  His current scholarship examines the boundaries of church and state on the Civil War homefront.  He is particularly interested in the wartime debate over political preachers and clerical disloyalty and the ways in which religious freedoms and civil liberties were compromised in and by that debate.

My interview with Dr. Wesley:

Jim Schmidt (JS): Please tell us a little about yourself, why you pursued history as a profession, your research and teaching interests, etc.

Timothy Wesley (TW): Thanks, Jim. For about a decade, I taught in the public schools in Tennessee.  I loved it, but started to feel a need to explore the history of the Civil War Era in greater depth than I could as an educator at that level.  So, I started back to grad school at Middle Tennessee State University, and after a while, was taking courses at night and in the summer, teaching (adjunct) their at MTSU and at a local community college, teaching 8th grade history, and coaching football.  Too much.  My wife and I decided we had to fish or cut bait, and so…I applied and was accepted at Penn State, to be a part of the Richards Center and to work with Bill Blair.  It was a golden opportunity that was too good to pass up, and so my wife and I left our jobs as public school teachers, sold our house in Tennessee, and were off to grad school.  The rest, as they say, is “history.”

I am interested in the lived experiences of those people who are too often silent or absent altogether from the historical narrative, a social historian, in other words.  Among other things, this explains my use of frequent and extensive quotes…giving the historical actor voice.  However, I am not simply interested in the way the historically marginalized survived and experienced their condition within their societal group.  I am especially concerned with how those folks interacted with their larger world and society.  Thus stems my related focus on political forces as they shaped or informed the private and public lives of men and women of every distinction in America.

JS: What inspired the line of inquiry that led to the book?

TW: It really was a classic tale of necessity.  In researching the period in grad school, I kept encountering the late-antebellum debate over the so-called politicization of the pulpit, and wondered how that debate shaped the late prewar religious/political climate and, moreover, how it played out during the war itself.  I looked for a good work on the subject, and found that there really wasn’t one.  Thus I took up the topic.  It really was a beautiful discovery in terms of topics, because it combined my preoccupation with societal forces like religion and my more directed but equally enduring interest in civil liberties and freedoms in Civil War-era America.

JS: How does your book differ from other recent monographs on religion and the Civil War, such as George C. Rable’s God’s Almost Chosen People or Mark A. Noll’sThe Civil War as a Theological Crisis, etc.?

TW: These are great books, of course.  Dr. Rable’s book is much more comprehensive, dealing with many more aspects of the religious life of the country than does The Politics of Faith. Politics of Faith is much more focused on mainstream denominational preachers and their politics or lack thereof and how such considerations shaped the wartime experiences of parishioners and ministers alike, as well as how such considerations defined clerics as loyal or disloyal in society’s estimation.

And Dr. Noll’s book, in my estimation among the best brief treatments of religious concerns in America that anyone has authored, likewise privileges a broad perspective.  He ingeniously looks at topics as diverse as biblical literalness to the ways in which European religious thinkers viewed the war.

JS: In addition to your excellent book, what 4 or 5 books would you recommend to someone building a library on religion in America in the 19th-century?

TW: First of all, thank you.  This is a tough question, and really I could name dozens and dozens of works.  I think I’ll answer thematically.  When looking at the tumultuous marketplace of religious ideas and the chaos of the early century, I love Paul Johnson and Sean Wilentz’s Kingdom of Matthias (in addition to its brilliance, it too, like Dr. Noll’s book, is brief enough to use in surveys and even high school classrooms).  I’m also quite a fan of David Rowe’s God’s Strange Work about William Miller and the “End of the World.”  For the middle decades and war years, one can’t go wrong with Dr. Noll’s aforementioned The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, Robert Miller’s Both Prayed to the Same God, and Mitchell Snay’s Gospel of Disunion:  Religion and Separatism in the Antebellum South.  The best edited volume is Randall Miller, et al, Religion and the American Civil War.  Concerning African American spirituality, I love William Montgomery’s classic Under their Own Vine and Fig Tree and Albert Roboteau’s Slave Religion.  And for the later years, any list must include Charles Reagan Wilson’s Baptized in Blood:  The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865-1920.

JS: One thing that impressed me greatly about the book was how much you used the words of ministers from letters, diaries, etc., just as much as a military historian might use the equivalent sources from soldiers. Were you surprised at how much primary resource material was available for your study?

TW: I was in the beginning, yes.  But it speaks to how central religious concerns were in American life at that time, and to how much secular society was sacralized.  For instance, sermons were reprinted in secular newspapers all the time, and national and local religious figures were often celebrities.  Even more than the number of such sources, however, I was blown away with the consistently impressive literary acumen of many of these ministers, be they local stump orators or national figures.  It’s why I love delivering papers at conferences, etc., about preachers…you always have the best quotes, because these folks cold certainly turn a phrase.

JS: Another aspect that impressed me so much is that several times you challenged conventional wisdom based either on faulty assumptions of previous historians and/or the new material you found supported a new conclusion. Can you talk a little bit about this as it relates to your book – it must also be very satisfying as a historian.

TW: It is a fine line to walk I suppose…I do want to offer new interpretations based on the material I have encountered, but I am constantly aware that the folks who have offered differing interpretations are world-class historians and scholars, men and women I respect a great deal.  I think when I have offered a “new” take on broader issues like the importance of ministers during the period or the ideological independence that mainstream denominationalists exhibited during the war, in most cases I have simply filled in the gray areas that others have left unexplored. In other instances, however, as with identifying a “middle ground” of clerics who were neither cheerleaders for the Union or Copperheads in support of the Confederacy but instead were men torn because of their understanding of their religious obligations and limitations, I do take on the existing historiography in earnest, I suppose.  It does feel good, yes, to engage the literature and offer a new point of consideration, but I have not done so lightly or without being fully convinced that such an interpretation is warranted.

JS: You discuss the brutal treatment of southern Unionist preachers in the antebellum era and during the war in your book; it’s both inspiring and heartbreaking. Did reports of this mistreatment get covered in the north? Did any of these incidents make a particular impression on you?

TW: They were reported, yes, and often much was made of such accounts.  In publications by groups like the Pennsylvania Relief Association for East Tennessee, for example, such atrocities were always offered as proof of the truly base nature of Rebels.   There were lots of heartrending accounts of such events to chronicle; I think the one that sticks with me the most is the old minister who was forced to watch the Rebels hang his son before they hanged him on the same gallows.

JS: Today, controversial statements/sermons by ministers often become attached to a political candidate or party; during the Civil War, the controversies seemed to remain attached to the ministers themselves.  When did this shift occur, do you think? Is there an explanation?

TW: Good question, one I think that equally informed folks can fundamentally disagree about.  That said, here’s my take in brief.  I think there was still enough diversity of religious opinion within parties---and diversity of political opinions within denominations---that one could still see distinctions between the two in the antebellum North, if less so in the Old South.  Ethnoculturalist explanations of party behavior notwithstanding, the mid-nineteenth century was still one in which Americans were doggedly attached to their ideological independence.

However, as the denominational church became more secularized after the war, ministers became more like everyone else. They jumped on any number of political bandwagons and felt compelled to comment as American society changed in fundamental ways before and certainly ever after the turn of the century (ironically, in the process clerics became less politically determinative in many ways). In such a climate, religious voices have lent some “sacred” justification and a moral imperative to political campaigns that might be conservative, progressive, or somewhere in between (it is difficult to think of the emergence of “law and order” conservatism in the second-half of the twentieth century, for example, without likewise considering the related rise of the evangelical right).  Whatever the case, throughout the twentieth century members of the clergy saw their public profile expand when they became political.  They gained societal relevance by becoming identifiably political and identifiably politically affiliated.

JS: You are clear in your introduction that for several reasons – lack of primary material, low incidence in the population, etc. – that some faith traditions (e.g., Judaism) are not fully explored in your book. Another burgeoning “faith” tradition in the mid-19th century was Spiritualism, (which at least boasted of many thousands of practitioners). In addition to exploring underrepresented faith traditions, what other work in the intersection of faith/church-state relations would you like to see professional historians pursue?

TW: Another good question.  There are a number of topics that might be explored, owing to the relative newness of our scholarly interest in the religion of the period. Personally, I’d love to see someone write about Southern women and how their faith encouraged them to act defiantly during the war and then how the memory of that Christian activism informed their gendered political efforts of the post-war decades (as with memorialization societies, for example).

JS: Are you working on another book project?

TW: I am currently trying to flesh out a project on how reconciliation was accomplished on a local level in the loyal Upper South and Tennessee.  Such a study is a natural sequel to my current book. The episodes involving preachers being yanked from pulpits by military authorities during services or fired by their congregations in The Politics of Faith made me wonder how communities patched these differences after the war.  However, I envision the reunion of churches as forming only a part of a much broader narrative.  Throughout places like Kentucky, Maryland, West Virginia, and Tennessee, soldiers had to live with their former enemies, families hurt by wartime guerrillas encountered their former persecutors in numerous public spaces, the formerly enslaved forged new relations with former masters, ex-Confederates tried to win back property confiscated during the conflict, and church congregations and denominations sought to rebuild their fractured faith traditions. For the Upper South, the fighting may have ended with the surrenders of Confederate armies, but numerous conflicts among neighbors did not.  This project is still very, very tentative, and could change, but at present I believe it is a rich field in which to labor as a historian.

Tim - Thank you so much for your thoughtful and interesting answers! Best wishes for continued success in your teaching, research, and writing!

My review of  The Politics of Faith during the Civil War:

This is an excellent book about the influence of home-front ministers during the Civil War era, every bit as interesting a subject as the oft-covered role of ministers as chaplains to the opposing armies.

The research is excellent: the author deftly uses the words of wartime preachers from letters, diaries, newspapers, sermons, etc., in the same way a military historian would use the same sources from soldiers.  While the sources can be mined from the extensive endnotes, I do wish they had also been organized in a useful bibliography.

The book is organized more systematically than chronologically:

The first chapter describes the political stands of preachers for and against abolition as expressed from the pulpit, and the consequential arguments over whether the politicization of the pulpit was proper.  He also describes the difference between northern and southern preaching styles and philosophies, and the dwindling freedom of abolitionist-minded preachers in the south.

The next few chapters focus on the northern ministry.  Readers will be surprised to learn how many ministers were placed under arrest in the northern states for purported (or real) treasonous speech.  If the ministers were not sanctioned by the government, they would be sanctioned by fellow ministers in the denomination or by the flock.  He systematically describes several schools of thought on political preaching: separate sphere, separate duty, separate component.

The next several chapters give equal consideration to ministers in the South.  The very best chapter in the book is the author's description of the brutal treatment of abolitionist or Unionist preachers in the Confederacy, including the murders of several brave ministers who dared to preach against the slaveholders and the Confederate government.

The final chapters discuss the role of African-American ministers.

The author acknowledges in the Introduction that owing to several factors - lack of primary source material or low numbers in the population - some faith traditions are underrepresented in the book; there is a heavy emphasis on Protestant traditions, some on Catholics, and little or none on Judaism or non-traditional movements (Spiritualism, etc.).

Throughout, the author provides both anecdotal evidence and analysis.  Perhaps a little lopsided towards anecdotes in the beginning chapters and towards analysis in the later chapters.  More balance would have been nice, but overall his arguments are convincing.  He challenges conventional wisdom and also points to the fact that neither northern, southern, or African-American ministers (north and south) were homogenous in their preaching.  For example he distinguishes the reception of political preaching in the upper South as opposed to the deep South; he also explains disagreements among African-American preachers over important topics such as colonization or encouraging enlistment of ex-slaves and free blacks in the Union army.


Many thanks to LSU Press for providing a review copy.

[Although it didn't affect my review, I was both excited and bemused over the cover art on the dust jacket: it features mt favorite Civil War chaplain, Father Peter Cooney, a Holy Cross priest from the University of Notre Dame attached to the 35th Indiana.  That said, this book is most decidedly *not* about chaplains among the troops but about home front ministers, so the choice - certainly the publisher's and not the author's - is a bit confounding].

1 comment:

Mark said...

It's amazing how the role of preachers effected American communities in peace and war from before the Revolution through the Civil War to the present. Cool interview:)