Monday, October 13, 2014

The Author's Corner with Steve Longenecker

Steve Longenecker is Professor of American History at Bridgewater College. This interview is based on his new book, Gettysburg Religion: Refinement, Diversity, and Race in the Antebellum and Civil War Border North (Fordham University Press, 2014).

JF: What led you to write Gettysburg Religion?

SL: I noticed that a map of the election of 1856 depicted a stark divide between the northern North, which voted for Fremont, and the southern North, which went for Buchanan. It looked like a straight latitude line through the middle of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, and I determined that a border North must have existed as a counterpoint to the border South. The border North went on my list of questions to investigate.

Years later I began the project at Gettysburg. I was on sabbatical and just for fun spent a few days investigating Dunkers/Church of the Brethren (my faith tradition) who lived on the battlefield. I found a great story and was hooked.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Gettysburg Religion

SL: The religion of Gettysburg and the surrounding region, the Border North, reveals much about larger American society and about how trends in the Border North mirrored national developments. In many ways, the Border North belonged to the future and signaled a coming pattern for modern American.

JF: Why do we need to read Gettysburg Religion

SL: I believe in my thesis and intend to contribute to scholarship, but mostly I hope that people read the book for fun. Gettysburg Religion has interesting detail and a new perspective on one of America’s most famous small towns. Gettysburg, for example, was surprisingly diverse with African Americans, Catholics, Dunkers, Scottish Dissenters, and recent immigrants in addition to the mainline fellowships. Additionally, the Border North was on the edge of bondage—Gettysburg was only seven miles from slave territory—and the region had surprisingly complex race relations. Gettysburg Religion also resurrects small town religion, including peculiarities that make human behavior so fascinating and congregational life, which was sometimes inspiring and other times irrational. The book, then, is unique not just for its point about the Border North but also for bringing back to life average persons in the small-town mid-nineteenth century.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian? 

SL: I committed to teaching history when I was in the fourth grade. I realized that I really loved history and that it came easily for me, and teaching felt like the natural path to pursue this talent.

JF: What is your next project? 

SL: I am examining the religion of Confederate chaplains after the war. Chaplains are legendary for their very public advocacy of the Lost Cause, but their personal faith and congregational life are less well-known. I have found that sometimes the religion of Lost Cause chaplains was more complex and more progressive than the simplistic, very conservative public faith they espoused as celebrants of the Cause of Lee and Jackson. Although the project is too new to speak definitively about the organization of the book, at this point the doctrine of the two kingdoms comes to mind: some chaplains (but not all) had one set of beliefs in God’s kingdom and another in the worldly kingdom. The project will interpret the Lost Cause as communal balm to justify the devastating cost and mistake of the Civil War rather than civil religion or a romantic, anti-modernist rant.

JF: Thanks Steve, sounds good!

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author's Corner