Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Steve Longenecker's "Gettysburg Religion"

Steve Longenecker is professor of History at Bridgewater College in Bridgewater, Virginia.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Gettysburg Religion: Refinement, Diversity, and Race in the Antebellum and Civil War Border North, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Gettysburg Religion begins a thumbnail sketch of Abraham and Elizabeth Brien, African Americans who owned a very small farm on what became the Gettysburg battlefield. They represent the local African American community, including an AME Zion congregation.

The Briens illustrate the capacity of religion in the small-town Border North to embody large trends in American life and often to anticipate the future. Abraham and Elizabeth Brien were free but impoverished, second-class citizens, which became the lot of all African Americans after the Civil War. Other tendencies in Gettysburg religion similarly reflected or even predicted national characteristics. Refinement, for example, was pervasive as fellowships pursued improvement through material goods, better music, upgraded facilities, and polished behavior. In subsequent generations refinement grew even more deeply embedded in American society. Likewise, diversity in Gettysburg and the region was a forerunner of modern America. With racial, ethnic, and doctrinal variety intermingling with an assortment of denominations, including Anabaptists, Scottish Dissenters, Roman Catholics, and a recent immigrant fellowship, Gettysburg boasted of a mixture surprising for a small town. In this, the region anticipated the complex diversity of modern America.

The great battle turned Gettysburg religion inside out, but congregations recovered quickly and caution against popular wisdom that the Civil War created a huge watershed. The war’s most permanent influence on religious life was civil religion, which is yet another way that Gettysburg religion serves as a predictor of America yet to come.

In many ways, then, Gettysburg and its surrounding Border North religion belonged to the future and signaled a coming pattern for modern America. But on another level, the book simply aims to resurrect small town society and congregational life during the antebellum and Civil War periods.

Postscript: The thumbnails of the Briens and several others in the community are called “divertimenti,” a musical term. A divertimento is light, entertaining music that is nevertheless serious and perhaps difficult, and in this spirit the book’s divertimenti are hopefully interesting and entertaining while making helpful points. This is the author trying to have fun with his book.
Learn more about Gettysburg Religion at the Fordham University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue