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Revealing a different church story during Reconstruction

In the South following the Civil War, there was a separation of black and white churchgoers who had previously worshipped together.

While there is no doubt that black members left white-controlled churches to start congregations of their own, research indicates that some black Southerners did not choose to join a separate congregation until years after emancipation.

The discrepancy in those details intrigues Charles Irons, associate professor of history and chair of the Department of History and Geography, and is the focus of his latest research for a book he expects to complete by next summer.

“The big surprise is that so many black churchgoers were reluctant to leave,” Irons says. “... The overall Reconstruction literature—the big story—is solidarity and separation. That’s just not the church story.”

In his previous research, Irons saw that prior to the Civil War, Sunday was not the most segregated time in the South. Blacks and whites did attend church together. “Those communities were not equal,” Irons says. “They were not egalitarian, but they were multiracial.”

Irons expected that immediately after the Civil War those “forced” communities would disappear, as most of the literature indicated. “I kept reading the church minutes just out of curiosity,” he says. The story he discovered was different than he expected.

“Anytime one notices that the scholarly record does not respond to the documentary record, it kind of gets the juices flowing,” Irons says. From there, he delved deeper.

Irons received a $6,000 summer stipend in 2010 from the National Endowment for the Humanities to do some of the research. He used the money to examine historical records from the Reconstruction era in Virginia and North Carolina.

African-American churchgoers did not leave many records in the 1860s, so finding documentation that accurately reflects what was happening in Southern churches during that first decade after the Civil War has presented challenges.

“I have to work from the records of white churches pretty frequently,” Irons says. “There are also a lot of observers, Northern missionaries—black and white—who give a lot of good records. I’m trying to cobble together a story from as many different sources as I can.”

Among the records Irons is consulting are those from Baptist and Methodist congregations in North Carolina and Virginia. Minute books from churches dating back to the 18th century, which are part of the North Carolina Baptist Historical Collection housed at Wake Forest University and the Virginia Baptist Historical Collection, located at the University of Richmond, have been significant sources of information for the research.

Although the Methodist church published quarterly reports on each conference, the uniformity of the records makes them less helpful when searching for details. “Each church answers a series of questions every quarter and submits it, and they are published and are aggregated on an annual basis so they are magnificent for the big picture. But you don’t get the fine-grained stuff you get for the Baptists.”

Irons is very drawn to the Baptist records. “I go to the state repositories all the time, and the fine-grained stories you get are really fantastic,” he says.

The details indicate that the “scholarly story of black solidarity in thought and action following emancipation is much too simple a story,” Irons says.

In many churches, there was separation with 30 to 40 black members leaving to form a church of their own. “But if you look closely at the records, you notice 80 black members stayed in the church,” Irons says. “So what’s that about, right? Some of those members—a third of them—stay in for at least two years and 5, 6, 7 percent stay in until they die. These are very different kinds of stories.”

There are a variety of reasons why some blacks chose to leave the white-controlled churches and others opted to remain, despite their newfound freedom. One thing Irons’ research has already revealed is that people didn’t always do what was expected—a discovery that continues to have relevance today, especially as it relates to religion, politics and racial solidarity.

“I think it’s important to at least puncture myths that are not true and on which we base some of our decisions,” Irons says. “We acknowledge the present is complicated. … Why can’t we understand that the past was as complicated as the present?”

Irons joined Elon’s faculty in 2003. He received a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and doctorate in American history from the University of Virginia. He teaches a variety of courses, including the United States and North Carolina through Reconstruction, United States history through 1865, America’s Civil War and North American slavery. His first book, The Origins of Proslavery Christianity: White and Black Evangelicals in Colonial Antebellum Virginia, was published in 2008.

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