Luke Harlow is Assistant Professor of History at The University of Tennessee. This interview is based on forthcoming book, Religion, Race, and the Making of Confederate Kentucky (Cambridge University Press, May 2014).
JF: What led you to write Religion, Race, and the Making of Confederate Kentucky?
LH: I had a big question I wanted to answer: what happened to proslavery theology when the Civil War brought emancipation? Thanks to a fairly robust historiography on antebellum and Civil War–era American religion (especially as it pertains to the slavery debates), we know, as Drew Faust memorably put it, that “The most fundamental source of legitimation for the Confederacy was Christianity.” I was interested in seeing how that insight played out beyond the Civil War itself. My hunch was that—much as in our own time—while the laws of civil society might change, Christians would continue to argue that the laws of God were immutable. Obviously the Civil War changed much, but I wondered if it was the stark divide on this topic that, for example, our American history survey classes suggest it was. I thought that taking a longer-range view could help us understand why certain well-known aspects of the Reconstruction story—how limited it was, why various kinds of social changes seemed so difficult to pull off, where the vehemence of the white counter-revolution came from—might be explained with reference to the antebellum past and the legacy of the slavery debates.
LH: The Civil War destroyed American slavery, but it did not destroy the faith that sustained slavery. The best evidence for this argument can be found by tracing the story of nineteenth-century Kentucky—a slaveholding state that remained with the Union during the war, but embraced the Confederacy after the fact.
JF: Why do we need to read Religion, Race, and the Making of Confederate Kentucky?
LH: To understand the American struggle over slavery and abolition, it is essential to understand the significance of conservative evangelical theology, as well as Kentucky, in defining the shape and parameters of that struggle. This book explains why.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
LH: I don’t come from a family of historians, but history was a big part of my childhood. Much of the credit goes to my parents, who encouraged me to read and write a lot as a child. They pushed me to seek answers in books to the questions I had. Also, I grew up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, which was founded by Moravians in 1741 and had a significant place in American industrial history. The sense of the local past was kind of inescapable and definitely a major aspect of my public school education. In some ways, that childhood was really important to my becoming a historian. But I did not have a sense of professional ambition until my freshman year at Western Kentucky University. Somewhere in my first semester I decided that history was the best way to understand the human condition. I had some really excellent professors at WKU who first taught me about the slavery debates, American religious history, and the Civil War era.
JF: What is your next project?
LH: I am kicking around two ideas, both that build on Religion, Race, and the Making of Confederate Kentucky. One is a religious history of the political defeat of Reconstruction, modeled on Richard Carwardine’s Evangelicals and Politics in Antebellum America. The other project I am tentatively calling The Proslavery Origins of American Fundamentalism. Molly Oshatz’s Slavery and Sin shows very clearly how the slavery debates paved the way for liberal Protestantism. The fundamentalist-modernist controversy tends to be written about in race-neutral ways, but I think placing debates over race and slavery at the center of the making of American fundamentalism would reveal a lot about the way that belief came together.
Marion Lucas says
Prof. Harlow: Congratulations on your informative comments on what will surely be a seminal work on the role of religion, race, and politics in the transformation of Kentucky society during the mid-nineteenth century. I look forward to reading your book.
Mother Hen says
What an interesting and informative take on our history. I can't wait to see how this work impacts our present understandings of race and religion.