Saturday, January 3, 2015

Antebellum Christianity

I have been reading The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd's wonderful book about slavery and the Grimke sisters.  It's been on my list since seeing this interview with her in O magazine a year ago.

It's a wonderful book on all sorts of levels; for more on the book, see this post on my creativity blog.  As you might expect from a historical novel, it's informative on all sorts of levels.  I'm particularly intrigued by its window into pre-Civil War religion.

The novel revolves around a wealthy Charleston family, the Grimkes (yes, those Grimkes) and their slaves.  The family has strong Episcopalian roots, but the main character becomes part of both Presbyterian and Quaker communities.  It was seen as somewhat shocking and low brow when she attended Presbyterian gatherings, but her Quaker yearnings are so strange and shameful that a cover story must be invented to explain her journey north.

It's an interesting contrast.  Now I see Quakers as very cool, one of few denominations to consistently live as an institution with harmony to its ideals--no pockets of shame in being in bed with less savory elements of empire.  But during the antebellum period, the book makes clear what a strange sect it would have seemed.  For one thing, women were allowed to preach, and in a time period where women were rarely educated at all.

The book also looks at the birth of the AME church, another church which would have seemed very strange to most antebellum people.   And not only strange, but dangerous--Kidd does a great job of showing how the church incorporated slavery/bondage and rescue stories from the Bible to inspire the slaves and free blacks who were part of the congregations.

I am not done with the book--I have about 100 pages to go.  I look forward to seeing how Kidd ties all these elements together.  I suspect I will learn more about nineteenth century Christianity along the way.

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