Bishop McIlvaine is an historical figure most Americans will not readily recognize. Richard W. Smith’s exhaustive biography looks to rectify the oversight by yielding center stage to this forgotten evangelical luminary.
Smith gets right to the point: “Charles Petit McIlvaine was a descendant of the prominent Makilvanes of Ayrshire, Scotland,” he begins. Thus kicks off a highly detailed account of a historical figure who knew how to walk both politics and religion to positive outcomes. With one foot in England and the other in the new country, the Protestant Episcopalian bishop used the power of his cloth to massage opinion in the Motherland in support of Lincoln’s Union war effort. As a vital part of geopolitics, it was important for an American president to maintain a strong relationship with the Motherland, and McIlvaine, although not universally revered, proved invaluable to Lincoln in his ability to sway England to a pro-Union (and thereby, emancipation) stance.
It’s obvious that Smith, a professor at Ohio Wesleyan University whose research is about race and slavery in America, knows his material. Yet there are too many unnecessary and distracting specifics here that digress from the main focus of the biography. Endless details about travels, correspondence and tactical war moves will exhaust even the most resolute of readers. Smith seems a very capable historian but unfortunately struggles to bring his subject to life. Even toward the end of the book, Bishop McIlvaine remains largely in the shadows, obscured by an excess of minutiae.
The separation between church and state has been one of the cornerstones of American democracy and its fluidity as evidenced here will be of special interest to historians and civilians alike, but a narrative nonfiction format placing the Bishop against his larger historical context, rather than this stilted, textbook-like approach, might have served readers better. As it stands, only those with an academic interest in Bishop McIlvaine will want to tackle this challenging volume.
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