Saturday, September 14, 2019

R. W. Officer Reports on Stone-Campbell Churches in I.T., 1890

During the second half of 1890, only a year after Meta Chestnutt first arrived in Silver City, R. W. Officer reported on the state of Stone-Campbell churches in Indian Territory. There were, he said, about 2,200 disciples in 54 congregations. Fourteen of those congregations met in homes. Thirty of the churches met in community school houses. Only ten worshiped in a building owned by the congregation. There were a total of nineteen preachers in I.T. Virtually all of them, "by the work of their own hands," supported themselves and their families.[1]

An entire region made up of congregations whose preachers were bi-vocational seems to have created mixed feelings for Officer. On the positive side, those preachers followed in the footsteps of Paul, the apostolic missionary who worked to support himself. Officer noted that to the church at ancient Thessalonica the Apostle wrote, "Ye ought to follow, [imitate] us: for we behaved not ourselves disorderly among you; neither did we eat any man's bread for nought; but wrought with labour and travail night and day, that we might not be chargeable to any of you; . . . "

But Officer knew from experience that strong financial support for missionaries and for their efforts led to success:
The different religious communities (denominations) sent missionaries to this country with the Indians when they came years ago, sustained them by their missionary societies through their boards, sent men to assist them when the interest demanded, sent teachers, and helped to sustain them. They sent money to aid in building institutions of learning, and had the assistance of the Church extension funds to aid in building church houses.[2]
Officer noted that when he first came to I.T. ten years earlier, he could not build on the work done by J. J. Trott, who had worked among the Cherokees some twenty years before. After his death, the mission outpost Trott had established "went down," so much so that his own children "took membership with the denominations in their communities."[3]

In the mid-1880s the Disciples' American Christian Missionary Society had sent Isaac Mode to evangelize the Creek Indians living in and around Wetumpka. Various hardships, especially Mode's inability to acquire the Creek language, "were of such a nature that he did but little, and from some cause resigned."[4]

Besides those failures, Officer had always known a variety of "religious neighbors" in I.T. who collaborated in "a kind of a union of action to spoil our efforts." Sabotage by outsiders was accompanied by "men claiming to be Christian preachers who seemed not to care for the cause." The progress that Officer and his colleagues witnessed in I.T. had not come easily. He and other Stone-Campbell missionaries had overcome difficulties that were "hard to imagine."[5]


[1] R. W. Officer, "Indian Territory," Octographic Review 33 (December 18, 1890), 6. The date of Officer's report is uncertain. The article appears after an editorial preface: "The following document had the misfortune of being delayed in Bro. Officer's hands before it was sent to us, and of being delayed in our hands after reading this office. Publisher."

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid. For a brief discussion of Mode's failed mission, see Stephen J. England, Oklahoma Christians (St. Louis: Bethany Press, 1975), 42.

[5] Ibid.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

R. W. Officer Writes from Minco about Meta Chestnutt

Part of R. W. Officer's report from Indian Territory in the fall of 1890 includes the following, written at Minco, I.T.:

Miss Meta Chestnutt of Nashville, Tenn., formerly from N. C. is teaching. I said once that she was a whole state convention by herself. I am not going to take it back. With brother and sister Erwin to co-operate with her I would not take a national convention for them, with the Y. M. C. A. thrown in, for the work needed in this country.

R. W. Officer, "Indian Territory," Octographic Review 33 (November 20, 1890), 2.

Clearly, Officer mixes his admiration for Miss Chestnutt and her educational mission with his objection to para-church organizations and religious societies, none of which are the church described in the New Testament.

Sunday, September 08, 2019

Protestant Dominance in 19th-Century America and Stone-Campbell Churches

During the nineteenth century, Americans could hardly fail to notice that although Protestant Christianity was officially non-established, it was the unofficially-established religion of the United States. Most American Jews and Roman Catholics simply tolerated its dominance.[1] The supremacy of Protestantism showed up at every turn. Buildings that belonged to Baptists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Methodists could be seen on street corners in virtually every town in America. Members of these and other sizable Protestant groups, like Lutherans and Episcopalians, participated in countless inter-denominational and non-denominational voluntary associations. These included the American Bible Society (established in 1816), the American Sunday School Union (1824), and the Evangelical Alliance (formed in the U.S. in 1867). In addition, a wide variety of educational and journalistic institutions served to reinforce the cultural influence of Protestantism. For example, from the 1636 founding of Harvard, America's first college, until the late nineteenth century Protestant higher education was nearly synonymous with American higher education. Even state universities operated much like Protestant schools. Finally, extended networks of business owners, ministers, educators, government officials, and benefactors created a sort of Protestant fabric that covered the entire country.[2]

Nineteenth-century Christian Churches and Churches of Christ--congregations affiliated with of the Stone-Campbell Movement--were part of that tapestry. It is true that some of these churches were prone to a sectarian spirit, and that the strict independence of all those churches created a situation in which congregations were so autonomous the movement was nearly anonymous. Yet they still made up a part of American Protestantism.


[1] William R. Hutchison, Religious Pluralism in America: The Contentious History of a Founding Ideal (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 59-60.

[2] Ibid., 61. See also W. C. Ringenberg, “Higher Education, Protestant,” in Dictionary of Christianity in America, ed. Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990), 530-32.

Saturday, September 07, 2019

J. Alba and Meta Sager at the Lake Mohonk Conference 1910

In late October of 1910, Meta Chestnutt and J. Alba Sager traveled from Oklahoma to New York to attend the annual Lake Mohonk Conference of Friends of the Indian. No evidence suggests that Mrs. Sager delivered a speech to the participants. In fact, her name never appears anywhere in the published report for that year. It simply lists "Sager, J. A." of the "Indian Service, Minco, Okla." as one of the conference participants. Ironically, only an asterisk next to Mr. Sager's name indicates that he was "accompanied by his wife," the president of El Meta Bond College.[1] It appears this was the only Mohonk Conference the Sagers ever attended.[2]

Five months later, on March 20, 1911, William Arthur Jones, a former commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, wrote a letter from his Mineral Point Zinc Company in Mineral Point, Wisconsin. Jones addressed his letter to "Mrs. M. C. Sager, Minco, Oklahoma."

Dear Mrs. Sager: --

I am just in receipt of a postal card of the cut of your college building. The picture shows that you have made wonderful improvement in the building and grounds since I last saw a cut of it. I congratulate you heartily on the success of the school, and only regret that the federal or state government is not more liberal with you in the way of appropriations. It was too bad you were unable to get a more extended hearing at Lake Mohonk last fall, as I am firmly of the opinion that the endorsement of the conference would have helped you materially in bringing out your plans for the future.

Please remember me kindly to Mr. Sager, and believe me

Sincerely yours,

W A Jones[3]

Although short, Jones's letter points to development at El Meta Bond College, and to a plan of Mrs. Sager's. Early photos of the school house at Minco show the three-story building towering over a stark landscape. During those early years, Meta, who had grown up in North Carolina surrounded by trees, saw to it that dozens were planted on the property. At least some of them survived and flourished so that later photos reveal a school house surrounded by trees.

The letter also indicates that Meta Sager had gone to Mohonk hoping to gather support for a plan. It would be something new, at least at her school, and that would require government funding. The specifics of her idea are unknown.


[1] Report of the Twenty-Eighth Annual Meeting of the Lake Mohonk Conference of the Friends of the Indian and Other Dependent Peoples, October 19th, 20th, and 21st, 1910 (N.p.: Lake Mohonk Conference of Friends of the Indian and Other Dependent Peoples, 1910), 187. The explanation of the asterisk next to Mr. Sager's name appears on page 185.

[2] See the annual Reports or Proceedings of the Lake Mohonk Conference. So far, I have been able to scan the following years: 1885-87 and 1894-1916.

[3] W. A. Jones to Mrs. M. C. Sager, March 20, 1911, box 3, folder 34, Meta Chestnutt Sager Collection, Oklahoma Historical Society. The William A. Jones Papers at the Wisconsin Historical Society contain no correspondence between Mr. Jones and Mrs. Sager. Susan Krueger, e-mail message to author, September 5, 2019. My thanks to the archivists at the WHS who conducted the search of the collection.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

The Historic Conferences at Lake Mohonk, NY

Beginning in 1883, Albert and Alfred Smiley, twin brothers and devout Quakers, hosted the "Lake Mohonk Conference of Friends of the Indian." These annual gatherings met at the brothers' Mohonk Mountain House, a 259-guestroom resort nestled in the mountains west of the Hudson River in upstate New York. There, white middle-class Protestant reformers delivered speeches, shared ideas, refined their plans, and issued recommendations. Their goal was to lift up and civilize the American Indian. Their plans always assumed the necessity of education and the importance of schools.

Many of the attendees held membership in the Indian Rights Association, the greatest such organization of the time, founded and led by William Welsh. Many of them had read Helen Hunt Jackson's 1881 book, A Century of Dishonor, which sought to do for Indians what Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, had done for slaves. In the words of historian Francis Paul Prucha, the conferences at Lake Mohonk "had tremendous impact on formulation of federal policy."[1]


[1] Francis Paul Prucha, ed., Documents of United States Indian Policy, 3rd ed. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000), 161. For an excellent overview of the origins, activities, and legacy of the conferences at Lake Mohonk, see Robert M. Utley, The Indian Frontier, 1846-1890, rev. ed. (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2003), ch. 7. Theda Perdue and Michael D. Green, North American Indians: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), ch. 5, esp. p. 90, note the significance of the Mohonk conferences to the period that emphasized assimilation and allotment.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Mrs. Sager on Modern Translations of the Bible

On Sunday night, April 28, 1935, Meta Chestnutt Sager wrote to her sister-in-law, Clara Dixon Chestnutt, and complained about preachers and the modern translations of the Bible she heard in the Christian Church at Chickasha, Oklahoma:

 . . . the New Testaments the preachers read from, that is when they do read a little squib, they have so much of their own stuff to say the Bible has little place, that these new translations do not sound like the Bible. Tonight, I tried not to listen, the blessed words had been so garbled into modern language that I just despise to hear it. When I do listen I say it over to myself in the old New Testament language. The Bible as it was translated by the old masters is beautiful and charming in its old form, but these modern smart "alicks" have made a mess of that wonderfully beautiful book.[1]


[1] Meta C. Sager to Clara, April 28, 1935, box 3, folder 26, Meta Chestnutt Sager Collection, Oklahoma Historical Society. One notes that Mrs. Sager placed alicks in scare quotes and also underlined the word, suggesting that she perhaps thought and wanted to say something else instead.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Meta Chestnutt Sager on the Christian Church's Neglect of the Poor and the Social Sources of Denominationalism

The long, rambling letters that Meta Chestnutt Sager sent to her sister-in-law, Clara Dixon Chestnutt, include reflections on religion in America during the Depression era. Here, a bit of context will help. In a 1929 book entitled The Social Sources of Denominationalism, H. Richard Niebuhr wrote at length about "churches of the disinherited." These Christian sects emerged partly because they provided religious homes for people whose poor grammar and shabby clothes didn't fit in at the established, middle-class denominations.[1]

Along this line, in a letter to Clara dated April 28, 1935, Meta wrote about the Christian Church in Chickasha, Oklahoma, where she attended:

I tell you the church does not care for the downright poor and uneducated. I'm glad there is a Holiness Methodist Church, a Nazarene Church and other little squads of poor people who worship God in some way. I'm sorry that Christian people have made it necessary for such to exist, but they have so much society doings in the churches that the poor and uneducated have no place in their midst, they are lost, and seldom go long, even if they start. The church is just so many cold storage stations. The most they think of is what they can have next. I tell you I get more joy out of going down to the jail and trying to lead those poor despised skeletons of humanity upon higher ground than I do at all the church services except the Communion service.[2]

According to Niebuhr the academic, and Meta Sager the keen observer, new sects in American did not strike out on their own because they were following some new doctrinal aberration or false teaching. It is tempting to conclude that heresy was not a source, so much as a consequence, of the proliferation of various Christian groups in the U.S.


[1] H. Richard Niebuhr, The Social Sources of Denominationalism (New York: H. Holt and Company, 1929).

[2] Meta C. Sager to Clara, April 28, 1935, box 3, folder 26, Meta Chestnutt Sager Collection, Oklahoma Historical Society.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Meta Chestnutt Sager on the Depression, Roosevelt, Prohibition, and Repeal

Among the more interesting parts of the Meta Chestnutt Sager Collection is a small group of letters Mrs. Sager (1863-1948) wrote from her home in Chickasha, Oklahoma to her sister-in-law, Clara Dixon Chestnutt, who was born in 1865. When the letters were written, during the 1930s and 40s, Clara was living somewhere in the eastern U.S.

Clara was the widow of Isaac Lamar Chestnutt, Meta's only brother and the first of four siblings. Until he died in in 1907, Isaac served as a preacher and educational leader among the Disciples of Christ in North Carolina and Virginia. The Dixons, Clara's family of origin, also provided leadership among the congregations in North Carolina, almost all of which were located in the eastern part of the state, in places like Lenoir, Pitt, Greene, and Craven Counties.

In letters she sent to Clara, Meta Sager revealed much of her political as well as her religious outlook. In one dated March 19, 1933, Sager wrote the following to her sister-in-law:

I suppose you have all felt more or less the depression, and have had the bank "strike." And I suppose, too, that Democrats there as here feel that Roosevelt will turn the nation upside down and set things right again. Well, I hope he can do it, but I'm not so sure be we are nearing the end. There are strange happenings on every side.

How do you people take the position of the President on the liquor question? I believe in the West the people are glad of the repeal, at least we may call it a repeal, for can a man get any drunker on pure whiskey than he can on beer and wine? I think the church people are getting what is coming to them for the manner many of them have acted under the 18th amendment. The church people have not tried in any great material way to have the law obeyed.  They have simply passed by on the other side and let the violator be. For my part I will never vote to license the sale or manufacture of any strong drink, altho [sic] I do not belong to any temperance society and never did. The Church embraces everything that is good, and if one can not give his influence for temperance there no outside manmade [sic] organization can be more effective. They have Moses and the Prophets and Jesus Christ, and if they will not hear them, neither will they hear a W. C. T. U. I am nearly seventy years old, and I still believe that the body of Christ established comprehends every good work.[1]


[1] Meta C. Sager to Clara, March 19, 1933, box 3, folder 26, Meta Chestnutt Sager Collection, Oklahoma Historical Society. For a good overview of the history and developments connected to the Eighteenth and Twenty-first Amendments to the United States Constitution, see Norman H. Clark, "Prohibition and Temperance," in The Reader's Companion to American History, ed. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991), 871-75.

Monday, August 19, 2019

R. W. Officer's Letters to Meta Chestnutt 1890

Sometime in June of 1890, the evangelist R. W. Officer sent a handwritten letter addressed to "Miss Meta Chestnutt, Silver City, I.T."

Dear Sister:

Yours to Bro T. B. L. was sent to me by him. Enclosed I send you his. Please, let me know where Silver City is, on or near what R. R. I will try to get to you as soon as I can after I learn where you are. I was near Silver City, New Mex. during the massacre a few years ago, but I am almost sure that is not the place. I am 60 miles N. of Denison, Tex on the M. K. and T. R. R. I hope I hear from you at once.

Your Bro
R. W. Officer
Atoka, I. T.
June, 90

P.S. Since I came to look I can't find Bro L's letter, but will say he requested me to fill his promise to you. R.W.O.

What seems clear enough is that Meta Chestnutt had sent a letter to her mentor and favorite preacher, T. B. Larimore, who lived in northern Alabama. Could Larimore, the popular traveling evangelist, come to Silver City, I.T., to preach to the community there?

In response to her request, Larimore, writing from Alabama, had contacted Officer, already in Indian Territory, to pay a preacher's visit to Miss Chestnutt and her fledgling church. Neither Larimore's letter to Officer, nor Chestnutt's reply to Officer survive. But when she wrote back to Officer, Miss Chestnutt no doubt told him that, already, she and many others at Silver City had moved seven miles west of there to a new settlement the founders called "Minco," a Chickasaw and Choctaw word meaning "chief."

Officer wrote her a second time in letter dated July 3, 1890, the day just before the official founding of Minco, I.T.:

Dear Sister: Yours of June 30th in hand. In reply I will say I start on next Saturday for your place. I think I will be there by Monday or Tuesday anyway. And will remain as long as I can. I will come in a buggy and the roads are not good, I will be bound to guess my way more or less, but I will get there as soon as I can.

Your Bro. R. W. Officer
Atoka, I. T.

Perhaps Miss Chestnutt complained in her letter to Officer about the lack of news in her remote locale. On the back of the foregoing note, he added a postscript: I will send you our town paper. R. W. O.

The correspondence reveals how religious leaders used the postal service and their personal networks in order to advance far-flung ministries in places like Indian Territory.


The letters quoted here are located in box 3, folder 33, Meta Chestnutt Sager Collection, Oklahoma History Center, Oklahoma City, Okla.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

U.S. Citizens and their Federal Government, c. 1900-1975

This post is my answer to a broad question: How and why did the relationship between American citizens and the federal government change between 1900 and 1975? Which personalities, issues, and events most powerfully shaped that transition?

The word citizen refers to an inhabitant of a political state. But the term also suggests the possession and use of civic rights and privileges.[1] So, then, the question is, How did the relationship between inhabitants of the United States, with legal standing, and their federal government change during the first three-quarters of the twentieth century?

One way of responding would be to ask, Which American citizens? For example, it was not until 1920 that the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution secured for women the most basic right of citizenship, the right to vote. Yet even with that, negative stereotypes of women were slow to fade, and walls preventing achievement were slow to crumble.[2]

Also, as late as 1940, in the eleven states that made up the Confederacy, fewer than five percent of eligible African-Americans were even registered to vote. That remarkable figure becomes even more significant when we note that, at the time, roughly three-quarters of all blacks in the U.S. lived in the South.[3] Consequently, any discussion of this topic must occasionally refer to certain groups as well as to all citizens.

Signing the 19th Amendment in KY

My answer will follow the sequence of time. And it will sometimes put a spotlight on specific groups. I will argue that two main ideas characterized the relationship between American citizens and the federal government during the twentieth century: security and belonging.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, most Americans related to the federal government primarily at the post office or perhaps through some involvement with the military. By that time, however, those few connections had already begun to grow stronger and more numerous. The period in U.S. history between 1877 to 1920—that is, from the end of a failed Reconstruction to just beyond the conclusion of the First World War—was characterized by struggles over a seemingly endless number of political and economic issues, almost all of which were related to America’s Industrial Revolution. These included
  • woman suffrage
  • prohibition
  • railroad regulation
  • maximum workloads
  • child labor
  • workmen’s compensation
  • black civil rights
  • graduated income taxes
  • banking reform
The crises associated with such challenges meant that America’s future seemed to require “giving to government a role radically different from that envisioned by the nation's founders.”[4]

At least some people in every time period imagine that, unlike people in earlier times, they uniquely stand on a precipice. Such anxiety certainly prevailed during the decades immediately following Reconstruction. For example, in an 1890 issue of the reform-minded literary magazine The Arena, Professor Joseph R. Buchanan noted that “the portents of the coming storm gather thick and dark in the sky.” He warned that “unless the power of money to oppress is modified or destroyed very soon, the present generation will witness the crash.”[5]

Over time, in response to what Robert Wiebe called that era's “search for order,” a vision emerged according to which the federal government would serve as arbiter between capital and labor, and between industry and consumers. For example, 1887 witnessed the establishment of the Interstate Commerce Commission. Designed to control the rates of railways, the ICC was signed into law by President Grover Cleveland as the very first independent regulatory agency in U.S. history. Its supervision of the railroads was nominal, at least initially. However, coming into the twentieth century, the powers of the ICC expanded.

In much the same way, the antitrust movement began as early as the presidency of Benjamin Harrison (1889-93). Yet, most of the legislation it generated was vague and effectively weak. The Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890 typified all of the early federal antitrust legislation. Attorneys representing business interests often succeeded in overturning its apparent intent.[6]

On September 6, 1901, Leon Czolgosz, an American-born anarchist, shot President William McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. In his book titled Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt's America, Eric Rauchway relates some of the events that unfolded after the president died and Czolgosz was quickly tried and executed. At least one renowned expert in the science of mental illness sought to determine what had caused Czolgosz to act. Dr. William Channing of Boston sent his assistant, Dr. Lloyd Vernon Briggs, to determine what he could. Upon interviewing dozens of Czolgosz’s family members and associates, Briggs concluded that the assassin had been driven to murderous insanity partly by an environment of social and economic inequity. By contrast, upon reading the evidence that Briggs had gathered, Channing thought otherwise. He concluded that Czolgosz was indeed insane, but only in the sense that no sane person assassinates the President of the United States.

As Rauchway points out, the new president, Teddy Roosevelt, noticed these two conflicting interpretations and used them to great political advantage. At times, Roosevelt sided with Channing’s view, insisting that there were anarchists in the United States who were sane enough to unleash chaos. Therefore, it was imperative that political leaders should protect the social order from radical forms of dissent. At other times, the new president sided with the Briggs interpretation, arguing that the pathologies of the American social and economic order had pushed the assassin towards insanity. Therefore, political leaders had a mandate to use the power of government to make the United States a more humane and just society.[7]

These compelling story lines did much to generate what has come to be known as the Progressive Era in American politics. From the turn of the century to the time of America’s involvement in the Great War, Presidents Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson served as the figureheads of a federal government that was intent on restoring moral values to political and economic life. For example, spurred by such works as Upton Sinclair’s best-selling novel The Jungle, in 1906 federal legislators passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, the first of many consumer protection laws introduced during the twentieth century.  President Wilson advanced a central banking system with the introduction of a Federal Reserve Board, and the Clayton Antitrust Act closed some of the loopholes in its predecessor, the Sherman Act. At the time, there were signals that the federal government’s greater supervision and assistance would come at a greater cost. A would be defender must be strong. Thus, the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution, adopted in 1913, provided that Congress would have the power “to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived.”[8] The Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution, also adopted in 1913, provides for the direct election of U.S. Senators.

Following the end of the Great War, presidential candidate Warren G. Harding's call for a return to “normalcy” struck a chord with millions of Americans. Campaigning in May 1920, Harding asserted, “The world needs to be reminded that all human ills are not curable by legislation, and that quantity of statutory enactment and excess of government offer no substitute for quality of citizenship.”[9]

Harding's successor, pro-business President Calvin Coolidge, fairly bragged but was hardly exaggerating when he said, “If the Federal Government should go out of existence, the common run of people would not detect the difference in the affairs of their daily life for a considerable length of time.”[10] However, unregulated speculation in securities and an agricultural sector that was desperate to gain a share of America’s economic growth were looming.

The stock market crash of October 1929 and especially the wave of bank failures during the months that followed led to a near-complete economic and social collapse for the United States. What came to be called the Great Depression was accompanied by the environmental catastrophe known as the Dust Bowl. Decades of soil erosion, combined with drought and high winds, turned the southern great plains into a veritable desert.[11]

The desperation of the times and the weakness of the nation led some analysts to fear that America might be vulnerable to fascist demagoguery. The task of simply trying to survive consumed the time and attention most Americans.[12] As the presidency of the unfortunate Herbert Hoover dragged on, millions of Americans stoically struggled through what they experienced as a shameful, guilt-ridden poverty.

In 1933, the newly-inaugurated president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, immediately responded to the crisis. He promised the American people “a New Deal,” and initiated drastic measures that only such drastic times would permit. On June 16, 1933, as President Roosevelt signed the last of the initial New Deal legislation, he remarked, “[M]ore history is being made today than in [any] one day of our national life.”[13] He was likely right.

The New Deal, consistently promoted with all the power of Roosevelt’s winning personality and contagious confidence, aroused widespread hope in the American people. It was a welcome change. Speaking to Congress on June 8, 1934, Roosevelt pointed to an American past when a person’s family members were nearby, a time when families within a small community could provide security for each other. The emergence of a larger, more mobile society had changed all that:
The complexities of great communities and of organized industry make less real these simple means of security. Therefore, we are compelled to employ the active interest of the Nation as a whole through government in order to encourage a greater security for each individual who composes it.[14]
At the time and ever since, observers and analysts have questioned the coherence, consistency, and real economic success of Roosevelt’s policies and programs.[15] But for all its real or imagined failings, the New Deal was a tremendous political success. It eased the terrible effects of the Great Depression. Policy intellectuals were brought into the political arena, and Americans became familiar with the idea that their government employed millions of people.[16] The presidency of Franklin Roosevelt changed everything. Its legacy was such that until 1980 all subsequent presidents, even Republicans Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, operated in a decidedly-liberal mode.

Nearing the end of the 1930s, the drumbeats of war in Europe, and an island nation with imperial dreams in the Pacific, required the U.S. to turn its attention outward. America’s involvement and eventual victory in the Second World War did much to rebuild the strength and solidify the authority of a nation that was by that time the world’s greatest economic and military power. In the wake of two world wars, the U.S. was now obsessed with national security. Yet, its obsession with real and imagined enemies directly related to its unfinished business at home. In the emerging Cold War, de facto apartheid in postwar America now provided the Soviet Union with plenty of material for its anti-U.S. propaganda machine.[17] It was time for the nation to reckon with what Gary Gerstle has called “a conviction that notions of racial superiority no longer had a place in America.”[18]

During and immediately after the Second World War, at least some blacks, mostly due to their military service, became more visible and significant to white America. With all due respect to black veterans, George Vecsey was correct when he wrote: “Every black politician, every black rap singer, every black athlete of today, every black citizen vaguely getting by, comes through Jackie Robinson.”[19] Professional baseball’s popularity at mid-century meant that Robinson’s ascendancy to the major leagues in 1947 would be nothing short of a sea change in American society. Part of the credit for the Robinson story belongs to Albert B. (Happy) Chandler. A U.S. Senator from Kentucky, Chandler became the baseball commissioner in 1944. Not long afterward, he assured reporters that blacks would soon be welcome to play in the major leagues. Significantly, decades later, as he looked back on the late 1940s, Chandler recalled that he “didn’t think it was right for these fellows to fight at Okinawa and Iwo Jima, and then come home and not be allowed to play.”[20]

Professional baseball, still slow to change, was one thing. Ubiquitous public institutions were another. By all accounts, the legal breakthrough that led to dozens of other victories on the racial front in America was the 1954 Supreme Court’s ruling in the case known as Brown v. Board of Education. The Brown decision was ultimately the result of a campaign of litigation launched by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People as early as the 1930s. The NAACP sought to abolish “Jim Crow” standards, according to which segregation in public accommodations and schools was legal. The opinion of the Court, penned by Chief Justice Earl Warren, exhibited a “brisk” and “nontechnical” style. The document ran to a mere ten pages, barely a note by Supreme Court standards. Above all, the Court’s ruling was unanimous, a rare occurrence.[21] As James W. Ely Jr. describes the ripple effect of the ruling, the Court’s decision not only struck down “the historical practice of racial segregation in public education,” it thereby “opened a new chapter in the history of equality in America.”[22]

Significantly, 1954 was not only the year of the Brown decision, it was also the year that Martin Luther King, Jr. became minister of Montgomery, Alabama’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. King’s leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, sparked by the activities of Rosa Parks in December 1955, catapulted him into the national spotlight. From that time until his assassination in 1968, his efforts as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which inspired allied groups like the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the predominantly white Congress of Racial Equality, created both backlash and subsequent progress. Slowly but steadily the civil rights movement, essentially a prophetic religious movement, led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These two pieces of federal legislation were the most significant laws passed since the Civil War Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.[23]

Good feelings did not last for long. Within a seven-year period, from 1968 to 1975, standing at the center of the world’s stage, the United States experienced devastating tragedy and humiliation both at home and abroad. Assassins took the lives of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. The Democratic National Convention in Chicago, broadcast on national TV, was surrounded by mayhem due to violent antiwar protests and a brutal police crackdown. The unrest generated by lingering racial tensions and the anti-war movement led to countless demonstrations, protests, and riots. In 1973, American military forces withdrew from Vietnam under an agreement that brought about what President Nixon called “peace with honor.” The next year--only after it became apparent that evidence of corruption and deceit would eventually force him out of office--Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, an unprecedented disgrace. The following year, the capital of South Vietnam, Saigon, fell to communist troops from North Vietnam, and its name was changed to Ho Chi Minh City. These developments forever changed the United States, and set the stage for the country's immediate future.


[1] Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd ed., s.v. “citizen,” accessed January 23, 2018,

[2] For a brief overview of the first wave of feminism, see Sara M. Evans, “American Women in the Twentieth Century,” in Perspectives on Modern America: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century, ed. Harvard Sitkoff (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 166-67.

[3] David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 18-19. For an evocation of how racism permeated American society in the early twentieth century, see Langston Hughes’s collection of short stories, The Ways of White Folks (New York: Knopf, 1934). Along the same line, Melton McLaurin describes small-town life in the American South during the 1940s and 1950s in his memoir, Separate Pasts: Growing Up White in the Segregated South. 2nd ed. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998).

[4] Philip Jenkins, A History of the United States (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997), 148. The story of Reconstruction as a short-lived success with freedmen as the central actors is told by Eric Foner in Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988). Robert H. Wiebe, The Search for Order, 1877-1920 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1967) described the transition from a United States characterized by “island communities”—small towns where personal relationships and face-to-face interactions were the norm—to a world in which the forces of industrialization and the growth of cities, fueled by massive immigration, impacted everything. Cf. Nell Irvin Painter, Standing at Armageddon: The United States 1877-1919 (New York: Norton, 1987), esp., ix-xliv. Here, I have used the expression “woman suffrage” because that was the phrase people used until sometime around 1900, at which point the modifier “women” or “women’s” was becoming more common.

[5] Painter, Standing at Armageddon, x.

[6] See Jenkins, A History of the United States, 188-92; John F. Stover, “Railroads,” in Reader’s Companion to American History, ed. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991), 906-910.

[7] Eric Rauchway, Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt’s America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2003).

[8] Arthur S. Link, Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era, 1910-1917 (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1954) discusses the sweeping reform legislation enacted by Congress from 1913 to 1917.

[9] Earlier in the same speech, Harding said: “America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality.” His presidential administration appears to have been a capitulation to an American political environment friendly to industry and cold to restriction and regulation. Jenkins, A History of the United States, 168.

[10] Kennedy, Freedom from Fear, 30, quoting Arthur M. Schlesinger, The Crisis of the Old Order, 1919-1933 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1956), 57.

[11] Donald Worster, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979). In this work, one of the most significant early contributions to the still relatively-new sub discipline known as environmental history, Worster argues that it was no mere coincidence that the Dust Bowl and Depression occurred in the same decade. “Both events revealed fundamental weaknesses in the traditional culture of America, the one in ecological terms, the other in economic” (5). The same excessive pursuit according to which financial assets were expected to generate increasingly more money, also pushed industrialized farmers to treat nature itself as capital. Worster insists that this was the origin of the Dust Bowl. See also Timothy Egan, The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great America Dust Bowl (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006). Even in those areas hardest hit by the Dust Bowl—parts of six states running from southwest Nebraska to the Texas panhandle—most people stayed. Egan, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, relates their misery and determination by telling the stories of several families.

[12] An entertaining and revealing primary source along this line is Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl and Depression memoir, Bound for Glory (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1943).

[13] Kennedy, Freedom from Fear, 153.

[14] Ibid., 245.

[15] See, for example, Anthony J. Badger, The New Deal: The Depression Years, 1933-40 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989). Nearing the end of the 1980s, Badger set out to provide a synthesis. His aim was not to tell, yet again, the story of the New Deal and the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. Instead, he wanted to take stock of New Deal historiography, which had been growing at an exponential rate up to the time of writing. The arrangement of the book is thematic rather than chronological. Although Badger tends to assume that New Deal initiatives were the best among difficult options, he concludes with a chapter titled, “Unanticipated Consequences.” Though it is now dated, the 51-page bibliographical essay that rounds out the book is still helpful.

[16] See H. W. Brands, Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (New York: Anchor Books, 2009), who presents a full-scale biography of Franklin Roosevelt, a son of privilege who became a “traitor to his class” by appealing to and serving the interests of the American masses. Brands argues that while Roosevelt was not himself a radical, his presidency radically altered the way Americans viewed the role of the federal government in the lives of citizens. See also the splendid new work by Alonzo L. Hamby, Man of Destiny: FDR and the Making of the American Century (New York: Basic Books, 2015), esp. 175-279.

[17] See Mary L. Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), who persuasively argues that “federal government action on civil rights was an aspect of Cold War policymaking” (15).

[18] Gerstle, American Crucible, 237.

[19] George Vecsey, Baseball: A History of America’s Favorite Game (New York: Modern Library, 2006), 119.

[20] Ibid., 120-21.

[21] Dennis J. Hutchinson, “Brown v. Board of Education,” 38.

[22]James W. Ely Jr., “Introduction,” in Oxford Guide to United States Supreme Court Decisions, 2nd ed., eds. Kermit L. Hall and James W. Ely, Jr. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), vii.

[23] Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988) assumes that the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. “is the best and most important metaphor for American history in the watershed postwar years” (xii). For obvious reasons, Branch also asserts that any biography of King must relate the story of the civil rights movement. He gives some attention to King’s predecessors, his family of origin, and his early years. However, this lengthy, engaging narrative, the first volume in a series of three, really takes off in 1954, when King became the minister of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery. It ends in 1963 with the March on Washington and, finally, the assassination of President Kennedy. Branch’s focus on King has drawn criticism from those who see the leadership of the civil rights movement through a wider lens. David L. Chappell, A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004) persuasively argues that the civil rights movement was a new expression of the biblical prophetic tradition, and was not the result of American political or cultural liberalism, which, on the civil rights front, had been impotent for many years.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Federal Census of the Texas Panhandle, 1880

The last day or two, I've been spending time with the federal census of 1880. It's amazing.

This was the first census following the Red River War (1874-75), the first census taken in the Texas Panhandle. The counties in this region were established by the Texas Legislature in 1876. So by 1880, they had been in existence only four years.

The contrasts are striking. Today, Randall and Potter Counties are home to more than 250,000 people. (In 2017, Randall County was estimated at 134,442, and Potter County at 120,458). But in 1880, these counties, not much more than squares on a map, had a grand total of 27 residents. Almost all of those residents were young men. Only one of those men was married. In what is the Greater Amarillo area today? Barely two dozen young guys, almost all of them, according to the census taker, "Herding Cattle" and "Hunting Mustangs." A few lonely cowboys. That was it 140 years ago.

Source: Ernest R. Archambeau, "The First Federal Census in the Panhandle--1880," Panhandle-Plains Historical Review 23 (1950): 22-132.

Friday, March 01, 2019

James J. Trott: Missionary to the Cherokees, 5

In spite of minimal help from congregations or from the Disciples' American Christian Missionary Society, by the end of 1859, James Trott had resumed his dream of working among the Cherokees, this time in Indian Territory. By then, Trott and his second wife had five sons and three daughters.[1] Not long before the outbreak of the Civil War, he was able to report:
We have already about 75 disciples in the Cherokee Nation, which we humbly hope and pray may be the first fruits of a glorious harvest. Some of these are the result of our humble efforts in the old nation more than twenty years ago. Some are the fruits of the able efforts of Bro. Graham, and the pious labors of Bro. Robertson; and some 50 were converted by the zealous efforts of brethren Goodnight and Phillips. We had the pleasure last fall of immersing three descendants of the red man, while on a visit to Grand Prairie, where we have a good prospect of establishing a High School. Having volunteered our humble efforts in this missionary field, free of charges to church or state, and having a large family to care for, we have not been able to devote as much time to preaching the word as we desired, and the cause demands.[2]
Trott's report indicates that he was enjoying at least some success in his mission. It also tells us that he worked among a network of fellow preachers. At least some of those men resided in northwest Arkansas and made trips across the border into Indian Territory in order to preach to Cherokees. 

But in 1862, troops entered the Cherokee Nation confiscating goods as they went. They helped themselves to provisions that belonged to Trott, and one of his sons, Timothy, was killed. At this, the family fled to Arkansas, and then to Missouri. Eventually, they found refuge in Kansas, but not before one of Trott's daughters, Elizabeth, died from exposure on Christmas Day 1862. 

One might guess that after the war, Trott would have stayed in Kansas, where the Disciples had made him the state evangelist, or gone back to Tennessee, where he had many friends and family. But in June of 1866, he returned to the Indian Territory to once again work among the Cherokees. Nevertheless, by that time deprivation and depression had taken their toll.

In 1868, James Trott set out for Tennessee, and died on December 19, 1868, not long after he arrived. He lies buried in Carmack Cemetery in Sumner County.[3]


[1] J. Edward Moseley, Disciples of Christ in Georgia (St. Louis: Bethany Press, 1954), 130.

[2] Report of the Proceedings of the Anniversary Meeting of the American Christian Missionary Society Held in Cincinnati, October 23, 24, 25, 1860 (Cincinnati: H. S. Bosworth, 1860), p. 16.

[3] Moseley, Disciples of Christ in Georgia, 130-31; Tolbert Fanning, "James J. Trott: Messenger of the Church of Christ at Franklin College, Tenn., to the Cherokee Nation," Gospel Advocate (March 25, 1869).