In today’s post, I am interviewing historian Paul Harvey of the University of Colorado – Colorado Springs. Harvey is one of America’s most distinguished historians of religion and race, and is the author of a new book, Bounds of Their Habitation: Race and Religion in American History.

[TK] The intersections between race and religion in America have inspired everything from courageous moral reform movements to the most loathsome kinds of bigotry. Why have racial and religious issues been so deeply intertwined in American history?

[PH] Because racial and religious formation have been fundamental to American history, always. America was a racially diverse (and violently contentious) society from European settlement through early American history. People from all over the world interacted in places that became a “new world for everyone,” as historians like to say. At the same time, religious interactions of all kinds shaped everyone from Spanish Catholics and English Anglicans to members of the Powhatan Confederacy to Muslims, Christians, and practitioners of African traditional religions coming in the slave trade.

The goal of my book is to bring these histories together, to suggest how they were always intertwined. The intertwining produced a deeply paradoxical society in the early republic, one that was racially diverse in demography but white supremacist in reality. It also helped to produce the the pluralist America of today.

[TK] Your book opens with Acts 17:26, which also supplies the book’s title: “And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation.” What led you to that verse as a frame for understanding race and religion in American history?

[PH] The reason is simple: starting in the eighteenth and then picking up quickly in the nineteenth century, that verse became the cornerstone for the biblical discussion of race and religion in American history. It remained so in the twentieth century. In brief, those who wanted a racially “pure” society liked to quote the second half—if God had created the “bounds of habitation” of various human races, who were we to argue with that?

Pluralists and Christian liberals (including abolitionists and social gospelers and civil rights supporters) liked to quote the first half—if we were all made of one blood, in God’s image, then how could slavery, segregation, and other racialized forms of oppression be justified? The paradoxical message of the verse (at least as Americans read it, through their own provincial racialized lenses) sums up much of the discussion of race and religion in American history.

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. "A slave auction in Virginia." The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1861.  Public Domain.
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. “A slave auction in Virginia.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1861. Public Domain.

[TK] The former slave and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass once observed, “Revivals in religion, and revivals in the slave trade, go hand in hand together.” Was it just coincidental that the Second Great Awakening happened in tandem with the vast expansion of American slavery in the first half of the nineteenth century, and the taking of Indian lands in eastern North America? Or were there deeper connections?

[PH] Certainly there were deeper connections. That’s not to say that slavery’s expansion in the “Second Middle Passage” (the taking of about 1 million African Americans from the older upper South states to the Deep South through the first half of the nineteenth century—a trade and transportation approximately triple in number of the first Middle Passage from Africa), and Indian land expropriation didn’t have economic bases.

But the movement of mass numbers of people, white and black, and the land expropriation of others, namely southeastern Native peoples, could really only be understood through religious lenses. Furthermore, Americans’ religious ideology gradually took on the language of Manifest Destiny, something that both reflected the reality of but also helped to empower that expansion. The migrations of peoples also fostered an intense search for new forms of community, a need that the revivalist preachers of the nineteenth century quickly learned to speak to.

[TK] Why has immigration been such an essential factor in the story of race and religion in America?

[PH] Because the cliché is true—America is indeed a land of immigrants, and each “stage” of American immigration history has its own particular religious component. That’s true of Caribbeans coming to the Southeast in the seventeenth century; Moravians and Anabaptists arriving to the Middle Colonies in the eighteenth century; the Irish mass migrating in the 1840s and 1850s (spurring the rapid growth of a nativist movement that found its expression in the “Know-Nothing Party”); the mass immigration of eastern European Jews and Catholics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century; and the astonishing demographic transformation of America since the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which created pluralism even in places that had formerly been the most monocultural.

Pluralism and nativism are ever the yin and yang of this history of race and religion as it relates to immigration, and that certainly remained true in the nasty debates of the last election.

[TK] You note that for “African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans, religion assumed a central place in quests for freedom” during the Civil Rights era. Most of us would immediately think of Martin Luther King Jr. as the pre-eminent example here, but how did religion influenced those broader movements?

[PH] Yes, the black civil rights movement is well known for its connection to Christian churches. Less known are the figures of the Latino struggle for freedom, above and beyond Cesar Chavez, including Catholic and Protestant social gospelers who aligned themselves with the farmworkers’ movements. I also tell the story of Indian quests for justice, led by both Christian figures such as William Apess (a Pequot Methodist preacher in the early nineteenth century) and Sherman Coolidge (an Indian Episcopalian of the early twentieth century), and extending down to figures deeply skeptical of Christianity such as Vine Deloria (author of the classic God Is Red) today.

In some sense, there have long been what we might call “civil rights movements” in American history, including figures such as Richard Allen (who formed the African Methodist Episcopal Church), Afro-Creole Spiritualists in Civil War-era New Orleans who heard the voice of the spirits address political issues of justice directly, or Bishop Antonio Martinez in mid-nineteenth century New Mexico, who fought ferocious battles with the Catholic establishment in the Southwest. My book attempts to draw together a series of biographical vignettes, so that each of the stories comes alive through vital individual voices.