LONGENECKER: Gettysburg Religion (2014)
Gettysburg Religion: Refinement, Diversity, and Race in the Antebellum and Civil War Border North by Steve Longenecker. Fordham University Press, 2014. Cloth, IBSN: 978-0823255191. $45.00.
Religion is a human endeavor. A church is not a building or an organization, but a collection of people who care about each other, pray with each other, bicker with each other, and love each other. And this is the promise of studying religion in the nineteenth century, particularly in a town like Gettysburg: Victorian religious expression is a public loosening of tight social strictures. It is one of those moments when the people of the past bare their true beliefs, crack open their skulls, and invite the historians of today to peep inside.
This seems like the real promise of Steve Longenecker’s new study Gettysburg Religion: Refinement, Diversity, and Race in the Antebellum and Civil War Border North. Longenecker sets out to study American society and its religious expression by using the community of Gettysburg as a microcosm of a larger American whole. Indeed, he argues, Gettysburg’s religious expression is quite typical—even “humdrum.” And being typical, it can easily stand in for the larger whole. But too often as Longenecker builds his argument, the larger trends of American religion are substituted for a deep investigation of that humdrum microcosm—the details of everyday religious life in Gettysburg.
Borrowing a form from the world of music, Longenecker uses “Divertimenti” interspersed between his chapters to introduce concepts and ideas through the lives of specific characters in Gettysburg’s religious drama. And indeed, these tantalizing vignettes offer some of the most vivid images of life within the diverse community that is Gettysburg. But they are brief and fleeting, lasting a few pages and barely long enough to do each character introduced real justice. Longenecker admits that Divertimenti are typically intended as simply, “light and entertaining pieces,” of music. But in this case, the diversions seem to be where the real story of Gettysburg’s religion lies—with the people who worshiped, prayed and sang.
Even though churches are inherently human systems, Longenecker’s portrayal paradoxically seems to bestow the buildings themselves with a distinct agency. Using church records and minutes as the backbone of his study, Longenecker paints a portrait of congregations making decisions. This often leads to a lack of nuance in accessing the complex political landscape of Gettysburg and its citizens. Though he is able to place church council decisions into broader societal contexts brilliantly, where Longenecker stumbles is in developing the rich interplay of Gettysburg society on the ground.
Longenecker does offer us glimpses into records seemingly lost to scholars for decades. His investigation of the records of the African Methodist Episcopal Church of Gettysburg (a set of papers notoriously hard to access, as they remain in private hands) offer researchers mining his footnotes tantalizing morsels to slaver over. But Longenecker’s treatment of the black and white citizens of Gettysburg, in spite of his access to some intriguing sources, is often one dimensional.
The book is troublesome in its extreme distance from the personal religious feelings and thoughts of Gettysburg's civilian minds. Often, broad descriptions of national or regional theological trends fill in for close investigations of the worshippers’ views and perspectives. Missing too is the real ethnic ramification and complex interplay between the Scotch-Irish leadership and business apparatus within the Borough’s limits and the German immigrant farming populations that extended beyond borough lines. Although broad discussions of the fractures in German and English Lutheran worship play into Longenecker’s discussion, the deep political and social ramifications of the strongly divided ethnic communities is never painted in all of its vibrant color.
Longanecker is correct in his observation that, for too long, historians have portrayed the North as a homologous culture instead of the complex, balkanized, and multifaceted place that it was during the war. The idea of a contiguous "Border North" to rival the long-studied Border South has been a long time coming, and deserves much broader investigation and attention. With the notable exception of works by historians Margaret Creighton and Edward L. Ayers, the civilians of south central Pennsylvania have been largely ignored—and for too long. Their individual stories deserve to see the light of day. The historical landscape of Gettysburg, then, is one that, a century and a half later, still waits to be peopled with its civilian population. Although Longenecker admirably attempts to begin that work, his study falls short of bringing the complex human networks of religion to full light.
John M. Rudy is Adjunct Instructor in the Department of Civil War Era Studies at Gettysburg College. He is finishing a book on Pennsylvania College during the Civil War.