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Nicole Myers Turner

Soul Liberty

The Evolution of Black Religious Politics in Postemancipation Virginia

University of North Carolina Press 2020

New Books in African American StudiesNew Books in American StudiesNew Books in Christian StudiesNew Books in HistoryNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in Political ScienceNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books in Religion & FaithNew Books Network July 6, 2020 Susan Liebell

In her nuanced case study of postemanciaption Virginia, Nicole Myers Turner, (Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Yale University) challenges assumptions regarding the intersection...

In her nuanced case study of postemanciaption Virginia, Nicole Myers Turner, (Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Yale University) challenges assumptions regarding the intersection between black religion and politics in this “signal moment of political and cultural transformation in the African-American experience.”  Using traditional archival records from churches, political institutions and personal documents — as well as ArcGIS to create layered maps of black religious and political participation — Turner interrogates the integral role black churches played in postbellum Virginia politics. Black political engagement is an understudied facet of the postemancipation period but Turner explores developing relationships between two realms of life and how politics were shaped by the racial positioning of the denominations and of black people within those denominations.

In her new book Soul Liberty: The Evolution of Black Religious Politics in Postemancipation Virginia (UNC Press, 2020), Turner argues that the relationship between black religious institutions and political institutions drastically shifted as the Reconstruction amendments established rights for black citizens. That shift, and the myriad challenges black citizens encountered in their newfound citizenship, necessitated that they pursue a means for education and political power. Soul Liberty focuses on the political involvement and bargaining through which black communities achieved these goals. The term “soul liberty” captures the “combination of religious freedom, righteousness, equity and justice” that fueled remarkable institution building in the period. For example, she highlights the interracial coalitions forged with the Republican and Readjuster parties and political magnates, such as William Mahone: one of the first white politicians to recognize the political power of black churches. Turner trenchantly investigates how women in the church were pushed away from ministerial positions, and thus, often ignored as religious and political leaders. She identifies several aspects of churches and their political connections in which  women demonstrated agency, such as voting on ministerial positions and tenure, leading discussions, and fundraising. She also diagnoses theological education and its male focus as the main reason that women were held out of leadership positions in the ministry. She provides a nuanced account of the election of John Mercer Langston, the first African-American congressman elected in 1890.

Soul Liberty uses the powerful tools of archival research and GIS to illustrate the transformation of black churches, explicitly and implicitly, into centers of political organization. It is currently available in three forms: print book, verbatim open access e-book, and enhanced open-access e-book, which allows the reader to manipulate some of the layered maps that Turner created with her research. A website based on her research is available at mappingblackreligion.com.

Benjamin Warren assisted with this podcast.


Susan Liebell is associate professor of political science at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. She is the author of Democracy, Intelligent Design, and Evolution: Science for Citizenship (Routledge, 2013) and, most recently, Retreat from the Rule of Law: Locke and the Perils of Stand Your Ground” in the Journal of Politics (August 2020).