Take & read: New books in American religious history

An ever-renewing narrative of community formed by difference

The books that have most caught my eye this year track a wide-ranging and multivalent landscape and focus on groups that have not been prominent in the received narratives of U.S. religious history—the great mythic mash-up that imagines pious but bighearted Pilgrims founding a Christian nation that nevertheless separated church from state and promoted religious freedom. That version of the story is neither good history nor a usable compass for contemporary times. These books build cultural competence by contributing to an ever-renewing narrative of U.S. religious history that views community as constituted by difference.

April E. Holm’s exhaustive research into antebellum evangelicals in Delaware, Maryland, western Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri has produced A Kingdom Divided: Evan­geli­cals, Loyalty, and Sectionalism in the Civil War Era (Louisiana State University Press). The book tracks the transformation of a political argument into a theological one, and it’s one that seems custom-made for the times we live in.

Holm recounts how the future mainline Protestant churches—Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists—divided the slaveholding South from the antislavery North in the decades leading up to Fort Sumter. But then she digs for the reason that, against expectations, those ruptures persisted after Lee’s surrender.