The book: Elizabeth Jemison ’08 explores how Black and white Christians used their faith to radically different political ends in the aftermath of the Civil War in Christian Citizens: Reading the Bible in Black and White in the Postemancipation South (UNC Press). She argues that Black Christians saw their freedom as citizens supported by the United States Constitution and the teachings of the Bible, while white Christians used their faith to justify racial hierarchies.

Focusing on everyday Protestants in the Mississippi River Valley, Jemison investigates how white evangelicals turned to an antebellum slave-owning paternalistic order that often served to defend to a violent white supremacist social order. 

The author: Elizabeth Jemison ’08 is an assistant professor of religion at Clemson University and a historian of American religion. Her research centers on questions of race, gender, and politics in the 19th- and 20th-century Christianity.

Opening lines: In 1875, Rev. Charles Burch led ministers and lay members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Louisiana in discussing their rapidly changing political situation. African American Christians feared that their remarkable political, economic, and religious progress since emancipation was at risk amid “the counter revolution now in process.” White supremacists were attacking their civil and political rights. Across Louisiana, White Leagues, new paramilitary allies of the Democratic Party, terrorized Republican voters loyal to the party of Abraham Lincoln. As Baton Rouge’s senior AME Church leader, Burch denounced this “unhuman butchery” caused by “relentless… race prejudice” as unchristian and unlawful. As “innocent private citizens,” African Americans “as a race of people… are fighting our foe with unequal arms.” Like black citizens across the region, AME Church members merged religious and political arguments to defend their Christian citizenship and equal rights. They believed that the U.S. Constitution and the Bible together defended the equal civil and political rights of black citizens, and that it was the job of the Christian citizens to protect the rights of all.

            Neighboring white southern Christians, such as fellow Louisianan Presbyterian minister Rev. Dr. Benjamin M. Palmer, found these arguments for racial equality incomprehensible. Palmer rejected Reconstruction’s efforts “to level all distinctions and to trample on all authority” by weakening white men’s authority as heads of their family. Palmer, who pastored New Orleans’s First Presbyterian Church from the 1850s through 1900, had led the creation of the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate State of America in 1861, and he preserved its antebellum logic in later decades. Palmer revived an afterlife of proslavery theology when he defended the white Christian family, modeled on the slave-owning household where a white man controlled his wife, his children, and his enslaved people, as “the last hope of order, government, and law in society at large.” This paternalistic family hierarchy was “the school in which men are trained for their duties of citizenship.” For Palmer, the central problem of his era stemmed not from racial violence against black citizens, but from emancipation’s attack on the antebellum slave-owning household’s paternalistic order. Southern Presbyterian Rev. Benjamin Palmer and AME Rev. Charles Burch both lived and preached in southern Louisiana as prominent leaders of their respective denomination, yet they held mutually exclusive ideas of their duties as Christian leaders and United States citizens.

Review: “A thorough exploration of how Black and white Christians drew on their faith in the aftermath of the Civil War to make radically divergent claims about an ideal political order … [an] enlightening investigation.” —Publishers Weekly