Thomas Erskine Clarke is a Professor Emeritus of American Religious History at Columbia Theological Seminary, best known for his books Dwelling Place (2005) and By the Rivers of Water (2013).
Erskine Clarke received a Bachelor of Arts from the University of South Carolina in 1963 and then went on to earn a Master of Divinity from Columbia Theological Seminary in 1966. He continued his education doing his graduate work at the University of Basel in Switzerland 1966-67 and earned a PhD from Union Presbyterian Seminary in 1970 . He has lectured or served as a consultant at a number of places including Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C.; McCormick Theological Seminary, Chicago; Garrett Theological Seminary, Evanston, Illinois; United Theological College of the West Indies, Kingston, Jamaica; University of Debrecen, Debrecen, Hungary; Nanjing Theological Seminary, Nanjing, China; and University of Stellenbosch, Stellenbosch, South Africa. During the last several years he has lectured at Clare Hall, University of Cambridge; Queens College, University of London; Yale University; The University of Virginia; The Georgia Historical Society; and The Morris Museum of Art, Augusta, Ga. He has also been a Visiting Fellow, Clare Hall College, University of Cambridge, and has been elected a Life Member of Clare Hall. He has been a frequent lecturer for seminars sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Clarke is now a Professor Emeritus of American Religious History at Columbia Theological Seminary and married to Nancy Warren.
His primary scholarly interest has focused on religion and slavery in the American South. His publications include Wrestlin’ Jacob: A Portrait of Religion in the Old South (1979); republished by the University of Alabama Press with a new Introduction in 2000; The Seminary Presidency in Protestant Theological Seminaries published in 1995 as a monograph in a special supplement of Theological Education by the Association of Theological Schools in the U. S. and Canada; Our Southern Zion: Calvinism in the South Carolina Low Country, 1690-1990 (University of Alabama Press, 1996). Wrestlin’Jacob was selected by Choice magazine of the American Library Association as an Academic Book of the Year. He received Author of the Year Award for Wrestlin’ Jacob from the old Dixie Council of Authors and Journalists. Our Southern Zion received the Francis Makemie Award from the Presbyterian Historical Society for “the most outstanding published book-length contribution to American Presbyterian or Reformed history.”
Dwelling Place (2005)
In 2005, Clarke published Dwelling Place: A Plantation Epic (2005, Yale University Press), a microhistory about the blacks and whites who lived on plantations owned and administered by Charles Colcock Jones (1805–1863) in the Georgian low country. This is an “upstairs-downstairs” history of a white, slave-owning family and of a black slave family over four generations. At the center of the white family was a Presbyterian minister, Charles Colcock Jones, who became known among whites as the “Apostle to the Negro Slaves” for his work among the Gullah-speaking people and his advocacy of humane treatment of slaves. The focus of the “downstairs” story is on the family of Lizzy Jones. Her sons Cato (a driver), Cassius (a basket-maker and laborer), and Porter (a skilled carpenter) are at the center of a dense network of slaves in the rice-growing region of the Georgia coast. Together with Cassius’s wife Phoebe (a seamstress) and Porter’s wife Patience (a cook), they helped create a remarkable African American community and struggled in a variety of ways against the deep oppression of slavery. Dwelling Place received the 2006 Bell Prize from the Georgia Historical Society for the best book on Georgia History; the Bancroft Prize given by Columbia University for a work “of exceptional merit” in American history; a Mary Lawton Hodges prize from the Institute of Southern Studies, University of South Carolina; and an "Award for Excellence in Documenting Georgia's History" from the Georgia Historical Records Advisory Board. Steven Hahn, in his review in The New Republic called Dwelling Place "one of the finest studies of American slavery every written," and David Brion Davis of Yale called it in the American Historical Review "one of the best and most important studies of American slavery I have ever read."
By the Rivers of Water (2013)
In 2013, Clarke published By the Rivers of Water (2013, Basic) about two of the most famous American missionaries of the first half of the nineteenth century--John Leighton Wilson and his wife Jane Bayard Wilson. This aristocratic young couple from Savannah and South Carolina sailed from New York in early November 1834 and began a strange seventeen year odyssey in West Africa. The Wilsons sailed along what was for them an exotic coastline, visited cities and villages, and sometimes ventured up great rivers and followed ancient paths. Along the way they encountered not only many diverse landscapes, peoples, and cultures, but also many individuals on their own odysseys.. The Wilsons freed their inherited slaves and helped some of them settle in the African American colony at Cape Palmas, West Africa. Leighton Wilson vigorously fought the international slave trade and French imperialism in Gabon. He wrote the first dictionary and grammar of the Grebo and Mpongwe languages. His book, Western Africa, was a careful and appreciative study of West African cultures and societies.
The Wilsons returned to New York because of ill health, but their odyssey was not over. As the Civil War approached, however, they heard the siren voice of their Southern homeland calling from deep within their memories. They sought to resist its seductions, but the call became more insistent and, finally, irresistible after the war began. In spite of their years of fighting slavery, they gave themselves to a history and a people committed to maintaining slavery and its deep oppression—both an act of deep love for a place and people, and the desertion of a moral vision. A sweeping transatlantic story of good intentions and bitter consequences, By the Rivers of Water(2013) reveals two distant worlds linked by deep faiths.
Among the many praises this book has already received, The Dallas Morning News says it is "Engrossing, elegantly written history…[Clarke] deserves another Bancroft for By the Rivers of Water, a memorable book” and the Library Journal, Starred Review says it is “Brimming with insights about interconnected individuals, peoples, and societies struggling with conscience and dignity to make moral choices amid clashing, if not collapsing, worlds, this work is required reading for anyone interested in a sympathetic understanding of early U.S. missionaries in West Africa, the perils of the U.S. colonization movement, Civil War tensions, or Atlantic world connections.”
- 2006 Mary Lawton Hodges Book Prize in Southern Studies, Dwelling Place
- 2006 Bancroft Prize, Dwelling Place
- 2006 Malcolm Bell Jr., and Muriel Barrow Bell Award, Dwelling Place
- Choice magazine of the American Library Association Academic Book of the Year, Wrestlin' Jacob
- Our Southern Zion: A History of Calvinism in the South Carolina Low Country, 1690-1990(1996)
- Exilic Preaching: Testimony for Christian Exiles in an Increasingly Hostile Culture(1998)
- Wrestlin' Jacob: A Portrait of Religion in Antebellum Georgia and the Carolina Low Country(1999)
- Dwelling Place: A Plantation Epic(2005)
- By the Rivers of Water: A Nineteenth-Century Atlantic Odyssey(2013)
- "Erskine Clarke". Georgia Center for the Book. Retrieved October 31, 2013.
- Anne Blue Wills (Volume 11). "Dwelling Place: A Plantation Epic (book review)". The Journal of Southern Religion. Retrieved October 31, 2013. Check date values in:
- Bertram Wyatt-Brown (Vol. 90, No. 3 (FALL 2006), pp. 453-457). "Dwelling Place (book review)". The Georgia Historical Quarterly. Retrieved October 31, 2013. Check date values in:
- Jeannine Marie DeLombard (Vol. 80, No. 1 (Mar., 2007), pp. 147-150). "Dwelling Place (book review)". The New England Quarterly. Retrieved October 31, 2013. Check date values in:
- Adam Rothman ((2006) 111 (4): 1173-1174). "Dwelling Place (book review)". The American Historical Review. Retrieved October 31, 2013. Check date values in:
- Dale Walker (October 26, 2013). "Book review: 'By the Rivers of Water: A Nineteenth-Century Atlantic Odyssey,' by Erskine Clark". The Dallas Morning News. Retrieved October 31, 2013.
- "By The Rivers of Water". Kirkus Reviews. September 1, 2013. Retrieved October 31, 2013.