American Religious Experience Reviews

Eugene D. Genovese, A Consuming Fire: The Fall of the Confederacy in the Mind of the White South. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998. xvi + 180 pp.


Eugene Genovese always provokes a passionate response from his readers. At various times, readers cheer, frown, scratch their head, or vociferously disagree with his conclusions, often with the urge to toss the book across the room. In this regard, A Consuming Fire does not disappoint. It is thrilling and frustrating, often surprisingly innovative and infuriating, and offers interpretations that will lead to many future arguments among historians.

A brief, densely packed book, A Consuming Fire considers the various responses of Protestant religious leaders to the intellectual and religious quandaries spawned by slavery and the American Civil War. Genovese, who previously claimed that Southerners experienced no guilt over the institution of slavery, slightly modified his interpretation of slave owners by stating that some experienced guilt because they did not live up to a version of Abrahamic slavery espoused in the Bible. The institution of slavery, according to many Southern clergy, needed reform to accord with scripture — not removed, as most were confident that scripture justified slavery’s existence. Concern over the morality of owning slaves was not the issue; the practice of true "Christian" slavery was the main concern.

Many clergy promoted limited reforms of slavery intended to appease God, including efforts to convert slaves to Christianity, promote literacy, and legally protect the sacred institutions of slave families, for example, marriage and protection against selling and separating families. An angry God might crush the South if slave owners did not practice "Christian" slavery. Warnings issued from scripture counseled slave owners to live as Christian masters and manage their slaves based on the principles of scripture — God often humbled Israel through the military conquest of heathens (like Yankees). Genovese’s interpretation parallels the economic advice expressed in journals like DeBow’s Review. These journals argued that the South’s institutions and social system were remarkably stable and successful, although the economic institutions required a bit of "tinkering" (more emphasis on manufacturing and industry) to ensure long-term economic accomplishment. The South’s labor system, featuring cradle-to-grave protection for slaves, was far superior — and, they claimed, closer to true Christianity — to the crass, market-driven, capitalistic and socially devastating free labor system of the North. By exercising Christian duties to slaves, slave owners insured God’s blessings.

Yet after making an impassioned case for evangelical reformers, Genovese falls short in explaining why reforms did not take place. Southerners did not vest political power in the voices of religious orators. Reforming the institution was not within the clergy’s power. Perhaps, the paradox of Southern intellectuals was their belief that the South could form a close-to-perfect society if the South made a few reforms. However, the proposed reforms did not have the political backing necessary to establish the changes. In addition, one wonders how many Southern preachers included slavery in sermons. Most of Genovese’s illustrations come from the clergy (or bishops) of affluent urban congregations, churches where the ever-so-moderate reforms of slavery might be expressed. If Christine Heyrman in Southern Cross is correct, the institution of slavery was probably not a common sermon topic in evangelical churches. Genovese draws broad conclusions from inadequate evidence, placing too much trust in calls for reform from too few clergy. He rescues himself from this wrong turn with an enlightening and interesting explanation of why reforms did not take place — the reforms would lead to a social revolution that would undermine the master-slave relationship. Southerners, according to Genovese, were concerned that changes in slaves’ status would lead to recognition of certain rights of slaves, thus chipping away the institution’s foundation. Thus, Southerners did not seriously consider the reforms.

Widespread sinfulness and unrepentant sinners threatened the cause of the South, posing a greater danger than the Union army. According to Genovese, many Southern ministers saw the increase in church attendance and conversions during 1861 as a positive sign that the South was turning its face toward God. During the war, however, the clergy increasingly stressed the importance of spiritual diligence during this earthly conflict. Genovese stated, "the clergy and the press railed against the impiety, corruption, and profiteering that threatened to bring God’s wrath down on the Confederacy" (p. 47). Many Southern clergy perceived one sin certain to incur God’s wrath, the price-gouging of Southern merchants. Southerners’ crisis of faith deepened as the Union army advanced, as God’s blessing of the Confederacy was questioned. The Confederacy’s defeat was traumatic for white Christians. In the words of Ellen House, "We have depended too much on Gen. Lee too little on God" (p. 66). Defeat of the Southern army was God’s wrathful sentence, a judgment similar to Israel’s defeat by heathen powers described in the Old Testament.

Southern clergymen, who resisted scientific racism before the war, clearly broke from the past by embracing it after the war. Genovese claimed that Southern ministers were quick to embrace Imperialism as a substitute for the ideals and visions of the proslavery world view. Imperialism provided the allure of a white-dominated world. After the war, Southern parishioners were no longer overly concerned with the salvation of blacks and their status. Racial segregation in churches accompanied a growing apathy among whites to the religious condition of blacks. Interestingly, contemporary Sunday worship services are the most segregated element of American society.

Genovese concludes that postwar Southern clergy, who once based their defense of slavery strictly on scripture, plunged into arguments supporting segregation from sheer prejudice — as if prejudice did not exist before the war’s conclusion. Here, again, Genovese missed the mark. The strength of the biblically based proslavery argument was its defense of slavery in general, not its defense as a racist system. Seeking God’s approval, Southern clergy did not build proposed reforms on a foundation of racism, but on an established defense of the institution of slavery. Most scriptural evidence fell in the rubble of the collapsed institution of slavery. Genovese states, "Attempts to justify segregation scripturally and theologically fell back on the always frail interpretation of Noah’s curse" (p. 96). Genovese disparages postwar Southern clergy for opposing racial integration by political rather than scriptural arguments. What other choice was available? Is it possible scripturally to justify racial segregation without resorting to Noah’s curse? This evidence might reveal that Southern divines could not develop a scripturally based argument because it was virtually impossible. Besides, Genovese’s quotations of postwar clergy reveal the main emphasis: defending the South’s "way-of-life." Under slavery, the significant issue was the proper "Christian" use of power over slaves, while under emancipation the main concern was preserving the white-based social strata. The shift in focus revealed the Southern clergy’s belief that the legal and political system better protected their "way-of-life," perhaps because they had no scriptural ammunition to defend segregation.

A Consuming Fire is a catalyst for dispute among historians. Genovese offers several interesting interpretations alongside a few questionable assertions. Historians of the South will have a marvelously frustrating experience while wrestling with Genovese’s work.

John Hicks West Virginia University
Religion and Culture in the U.S. South Student