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Lauren F. Winner


"The Christianity of This Land"

Three fresh angles on religion in the American South.

Between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ," wrote Frederick Douglass in 1845, "there is the widest possible difference." He referred, of course, to the enmeshment of American Christianity with slavery. That deep complicity, encompassing not just slavery but also churches' participation in de jure segregation and in racism more broadly, has long been of interest to historians of religion in America, especially historians of religion in the South. Three recent books illuminate how slavery shaped Christianity in early America; how white Christians, North and South, helped scuttle a postbellum politics of equality; and how white and black Christian advocates of interracialism in the early 20th century were drowned out by advocates of segregation.

Too often our received notions of "religion in the South" are limited to Baptists in South Carolina, Methodists in Virginia, and their close kin. In her innovative and carefully researched monograph Masterless Mistresses, a study of the Ursulines who arrived in New Orleans in 1727, Emily Clark opens up the world of Gulf Coast Catholicism. Clark's title encapsulates some of her central concerns: to what extent were these women, indeed, masterless? What did a Francophone vowed femininity look like? Mistress denotes not only their femininity but also the Ursulines' adoption of the "custom of the country" (as one 18th-century novice put it). Until the Civil War, the community owned slaves, and the Ursulines' dealings with slavery constitute a third major theme of Clark's study.

Clark pays welcome attention to the piety and devotional lives of the Ursulines, exploring, inter alia, the relationship between Ursuline sacramental and devotional practice and slaveowning. The Ursulines had brought with them from France a devotional imagination in which suffering drew women closer to Christ. The hardscrabble colonial context transformed pious abstractions about bodily suffering into everyday realities, as the Louisiana ...

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