Week 12: Religion and the South

  • Chappell, David L. A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow.Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
  • Fones-Wolf, Ken, and Elizabeth A. Fones-Wolf. Struggle for the Soul of the Postwar South: White Evangelical Protestants and Operation Dixie. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015.

This weeks readings turn our attention towards the south in two major respects: race and class. The first text, David Chappell’s A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow, explores liberalism, the civil rights movements, and segregationists all through the lens of religion. Chappell’s intent is to highlight the place of old-time religion in all three of these groups. It was prevalent in the Civil Rights movement (leading Chappell to identify the movement as a religious revival), it was lacking in the segregationist impulse as they could not muster traditional conservatives to their cause, and liberals experienced “pulpit envy” as they yearned for the conviction and loyalty that old-time religion fosters. In addition to Chappell’s text, this week’s readings also had Ken and Elizabeth Fones-Wolf’s text, Struggle for the Soul of the Postwar South: White Evangelical Protestants and Operation Dixie. They position their text to provide narrative where “the sacred [becomes] a major element in the story of the CIO’s crusade for unionism and economic justice” [5]. The Fones-Wolfs are interested in illustrating how business and evangelical faith became intertwined to a point that the working class South pushed back so staunchly against unionism, expanding government and liberalism.

In both texts, religion plays a supremely important role in negotiating power and authority between the various groups. Religion or faith mitigates the working class and racial world for the mid-twentieth century. Over the course of his interviews and analysis, Chappell even notices that “The words of many participants [in the civil rights movement] suggest that it was, for them, primarily a religious event, whose social and political aspects were, in their minds, secondary or incidental” [87]. Chappell goes on to describe the similarities in rhetoric, both from the leaders and from the followers, between revivals and the civil rights movement. Additionally, the Fones-Wolfs articulate the powerful connection between religion and business in the establishment of the Christian Free Enterprise. For southern working class whites, they “saw the world as a contest between good and evil…[and] this popular religiosity provided a framework within which working people assessed unions, employers, politics, and conflict.” [6]. In large part, these texts are not political histories focusing on religion but religious histories focusing on politics. Religion was the avenue through which power and authority was handled and dispersed throughout the communities.

Tweed would whole heartedly agree with the narratives provided by both Chappell and the Fones-Wolfs. Most predominantly, these texts illustrate the way in which religious adherents were able to intensify joy and confront sorrow. The prophetic religion of the civil rights movement provided a platform for leaders and followers to understand their plight and move forward with their goals.  Furthermore, Chappell offers a narrative of religion crossing boundaries while the Fones-Wolfs illustrate religions ability to make homes. One is a story of change and progress while the other is a story of entrenchment and resistance to change. Religion facilitated both with its primitive or old-time tenants and emphasis on individuality and autonomy.

While my research does not provide me with many oral histories, the manner in which both texts utilized  religion as an avenue to truly understanding an important part of the larger narrative of the twentieth century (industrialization and the working class south, civil rights and segregation) is intriguing and thought provoking. It purports the question of how Mormon conversions can be a conduit to study other parts of the larger 19th-century story. How does conversion affectWithin my study of Mormon conversion, what  they both provide interesting models of exploration and analysis. Gender dynamics, immigration, urbanization, slavery, capitalism etc. all have correlations to Mormonism and thus could be implicated in the conversion process. In addition, someone writing in the margins of Chappell’s text noted “depicting a social movement through an intellectual history…what gets lost?” What is lost (or more importantly gained) from approaching urbanization through a religious avenue? These types of questions are important as I develop the framework and boundaries of my dissertation.

Week 12: Religion and the South

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