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WRESTLIN' JACOB: A Portrait of Religion in the Old South by Erskine Clarke

WRESTLIN' JACOB: A Portrait of Religion in the Old South


Pub Date: April 1st, 1979
Publisher: John Knox

Not a portrait, but a miniature: the contradictory career of Charles Colcock Jones (1804-63), missionary to the blacks of Liberty County, Georgia, and guilty slave-owner. Jones was a Presbyterian who spent much of his life preaching to slaves and organizing congregations (with himself or other whites in charge) on the plantations and elsewhere. But for all the tenderness of his conscience, he still managed to break up two black families by selling, or letting others sell, the spouses of his slaves. Jones' life makes an interesting study in the ironies of self. deception, and Clarke is adept at drawing these out. He also has a vivid sense of landscape, which gives his story visual intensity and local flavor. But he fails to integrate it into the broader picture of the ""Old South."" We see a thin band of opinion and behavior, but not where it fits on the spectrum. Clarke writes in a sort of intellectual vacuum, barely referring to the enormous mass of recent scholarship on slavery (Genovese, Rose, Fogel and Engerman, etc.). And he evidently finished his book before the publication of Albert Raboteau's informative Slave Religion. None of this qualifies as a serious flaw, but it does indicate the conceptual limits of Clarke's picture. On its own terms the book is a series of eloquent, colorful vignettes, the best of which recreate life in Charleston, S.C., its churches, mansions, and hovels, in the early and mid-19th century. If these vignettes have a static quality, it may be owing to the character of Jones, who never questioned his values or understood his environment. A minor contribution, academically, but a sensitive evocation of the past.