Book Reviews

DORN: Challenges on the Emmaus Road (2013)

Posted 4/16/2014 Reviewed By George C. Rable

Challenges on the Emmaus Road: Episcopal Bishops Confront Slavery, Civil War, and Emancipation by T. Felder Dorn. University of South Carolina Press, 2013. ISBN: 1611172497. $49.95.

From the first page to the last, Challenges on the Emmaus Road is an old-fashioned denominational history. T. Felder Dorn presents an insider's account of the Episcopal Church during a most tumultuous period in its history by focusing on the lives and work of its bishops. Almost all of the chapters are short, and the approach is straightforward description with only occasional interpretation or analysis. In recent years, historians have offered increasingly sophisticated studies of religion during the Civil War era, but Dorn does not attempt to ground his work in the existing literature. The result is a reasonably well researched though at times tedious institutional history that is more useful for reference than for reading.

Yet given the dearth of attention to mid-nineteenth century Episcopalianism, there is much of value in these pages. If nothing, else there is good information and revealing quotations extracted from church conference and diocesan proceedings. The focus is on slavery and sectional questions, and here the watchword is "caution." Southern Episcopalians upheld slavery without contributing much to the intellectual defense of the institution – and certainly without becoming strident sectionalists. Relatively few African Americans (whether enslaved or free) found Episcopalianism attractive, and consequently missionary efforts proved disappointing. For many years, northern bishops remained largely silent on slavery and other sectional questions to avoid offending their southern brethren or undermining church unity. Both northern and southern bishops in their own ways adopted strategies that no doubt eased their consciences and put off any day of reckoning. On the eve of the Civil War, the southern bishops were either unionists or reluctant secessionists, and their northern counterparts largely shunned political controversy.

The church itself divided in a relatively peaceful, suitably Episcopalian way. As with other denominations, the clergy aligned with their sections and seldom challenged the political and social orthodoxy. Thus Leonidas Polk of Louisiana and Stephen Elliott of Georgia took the lead in forming the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States of America, while northern bishops maintained a mild, low-key commitment to the Union. Even in October 1862, the northern bishops meeting at the General Convention in New York remained silent on the slavery question. Dorn recounts the wartime experiences of each northern and southern episcopate, but other than Elliott's several war-related sermons and the newly ordained Alabama bishop Richard Hooker Wilmer's insistence that no prayers be offered for the President of the United States, there is not much to say beyond noting the southern bishops' general support for the Confederate cause. Vermont Bishop John Henry Hopkins wrote two defenses of chattel slavery that provoked a heated response from Pennsylvania Bishop Alonzo Porter, though aside from some sharp words directed against Bishop Polk after he became a Confederate general, the northern bishops dodged political issues even in the midst of civil war.

Not surprisingly, the reunification of a church that had so gingerly divided was relatively easy. For sure, some of the southern bishops retained strong Confederate sympathies, and a watered-down resolution on a national day of thanksgiving outraged a vocal minority of northern bishops. Even though papering over persistent sectional hostilities was not entirely successful, reunion was quickly accomplished. In dealing with the postwar years, Dorn focuses on missionary efforts directed at freed people. Despite establishing a Freedman's Commission that set up several schools in the southern states, financial problems limited the scope of these efforts and the church won relatively few black converts.

Dorn presents his story calmly and with much restraint. He concludes that southern bishops had defended slavery because they read the Bible literally, but as Lincoln observed in his Second Inaugural, both sides read the same Bible. Like many devout Americans, northern and southern Episcopalians seldom examined the cultural assumptions of their day with a critical eye.  And though they did not exactly embrace civil religion, their often gentle faith failed to test the sectional pieties of the war years.

George C. Rable is Charles Summersell Chair in Southern History at the University of Alabama and the author of God’s Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War (2010).


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