Sparks, Randy J. 1957-
Sparks, Randy J. 1957-
Born October 10, 1957. Education: Rice University, Ph.D., 1988.
Tulane University, New Orleans, LA, professor.
The Papers of Hilde Bruch: A Manuscript Collection in the Harris County Medical Archive, Houston Academy of Medicine-Texas Medical Center Library (Houston, TX), 1985.
On Jordan's Stormy Banks: Evangelicalism in Mississippi, 1773-1876, University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 1994.
Religion in Mississippi, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 2001.
(Editor, with Bertrand Van Ruymbeke) Memory and Identity: The Huguenots in France and the Atlantic Diaspora, University of South Carolina Press (Columbia, SC), 2003.
The Two Princes of Calabar: An Eighteenth-Century Atlantic Odyssey, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 2004.
Historian Randy J. Sparks specializes in the history of the American South and in American religious history, and according to Journal of Southern History contributor Wayne Flynt, is a "bright, fresh voice" in the field. In On Jordan's Stormy Banks: Evangelicalism in Mississippi, 1773-1876, Sparks explores the rise of evangelicalism from its roots in the antebellum Baptist and Methodist churches. According to Sparks, an egalitarian strain informed religious life in Mississippi during this time, as Anglo-American settlers sought to break away from what they saw as the elitism of the Roman Catholic tradition established in the region by the earlier Spanish settlers. This new egalitarian religion sought to create a community without gender and class distinctions, and welcomed blacks as full members. Such rites as camp meetings, foot-washing services, and love feasts emphasized the equality of all members of the community, with members listening to one another's sermons with respect. In Sparks's analysis, this evangelical impetus in Mississippi began to weaken as the region became wealthier in the later 1800s and more powerful church members sought to find ways to justify the emerging class hierarchy. Finding Sparks's argument "unabashedly pro-evangelical," Journal of Interdisciplinary History reviewer Ted Ownby pointed out that this bias is a major asset in the book, because it allows Sparks to examine the "cracks, doubts, and even guilts within that perspective."
Religion in Mississippi is much broader in scope, covering the history of religion in that state from the late 1600s through the twentieth century. Sparks begins with the arrival of French Catholics in the area in 1682, and also discusses the role of Jewish settlers in the antebellum period. Drawing heavily on his work in On Jordan's Stormy Banks, he provides a thorough analysis the evangelical movement, including the new opportunities it offered for women and enslaved blacks. In Flynt's view, Sparks's chapters on the post-Civil War period "break new ground … and are largely reflective of the broad patterns of southern religion." Sparks argues that, beginning in the early 1900s, Mississippi Christians began to grapple with serious social issues and that, though they did not succeed in transcending the racist and paternalistic underpinnings of their society, their attitudes were relatively progressive for that time and place. Though he expressed some disappointment that Religion in Mississippi does not engage more deeply with historiographical matters, Flynt added that the breadth of the book's scope precludes such specific analysis and makes the volume particularly interesting to nonspecialists. In a review in Southern Cultures, David Edwin Harrell, Jr., praised Sparks's thorough research and engaging writing, and noted that his chapters on evangelicalism, in particular, are excellent. Harrell also felt that Spark's discussion of religion and civil rights "adds needed depth to this tragic era."
In The Two Princes of Calabar: An Eighteenth-Century Atlantic Odyssey, Sparks tells the story of two African princes who were captured and brought to America. They escaped, were captured and sold again, and escaped a second time and made their way to Bristol, England, where they eventually gained their freedom. Relying on a wide range of contemporary documents, including the princes' correspondence, Sparks presents a story that Journal of African History contributor Paul E. Lovejoy called a "fascinating introduction to the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the second half of the eighteenth century." Old Calabar, in present-day Nigeria, was a major slave-trading port during this time. In 1767 the city's leading merchant families became locked in an intensifying rivalry as supplies of slaves dwindled. Seeing the opportunity to exploit this situation to their commercial advantage, the captains of five British slaving ships in the area banded with allies in the city's New Town district to instigate an ambush against the dominant Old Town merchants. The survivors of the ensuing massacre were taken captive and sold as slaves. These included the two princes Sparks refers to in the book's title: Little Ephraim Robin John, and Ancona Robin Robin John, members of the Old Town district's ruling slave-merchant family. The massacre, in effect, brought Old Town's dominance in the local slave trade to an end.
The two Robin Johns were sold first in the West Indies, but were abducted in a failed escape attempt and sold to a merchant in Virginia. After his death they arranged another escape by sea; the captain betrayed them and brought them to Bristol. There they made contact with slave traders whom they had known in Old Calabar; eventually, they were able to plead their case before Lord Mansfield, who had just issued his ruling in the Somerset case (1772) that slavery was unlawful in England. The Robin Johns argued that their enslavement violated English rules concerning captives. Their case resulted in a settlement by which they were freed. The Robin Johns converted to Methodism and returned to Nigeria, where they resumed their involvement in the slave trade.
As Anthony S. Parent, Jr., pointed out in a review of the book in the Journal of Southern History, Sparks uses the princes' experience to show how much it differed from that of the majority of slaves who made the Middle Passage across the Atlantic. The Robin Johns, wrote Parent, "fully understood what was happening to them. Not only could they communicate with their captors, but they may have actually known them. They knew that their destination was likely an American plantation. They also knew that other Efiks had been taken away as pawns, later to be ransomed and returned to their relatives." Sparks also discusses the apparent contradiction between the princes' embrace of Christianity and their reengagement with the slaving business on their return to Africa, noting that their attitude was essentially similar to that of other Africans and Europeans at that time.
The Two Princes of Calabar received significant critical attention. Biography writer Anthony Foy observed that "Sparks ably spins a web of connections around [the princes'] experiences that gives their story real historical heft," but added that the book "will … frustrate readers expecting the two African princes to be agents at the center of their own narrative, rather than the instruments motivating a history that ultimately overshadows them." Lovejoy praised the book as a provocative and stimulating work, while Parent deemed the book "highly readable and engaging."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
American Historical Review, April 1, 2003, Samuel S. Hill, review of Religion in Mississippi, p. 512; June 1, 2004, Philip Benedict, review of Memory and Identity: The Huguenots in France and the Atlantic Diaspora, p. 863; June 1, 2005, Joseph E. Inikori, review of The Two Princes of Calabar: An Eighteenth-Century Atlantic Odyssey, p. 759.
Biography, spring, 2005, Anthony Foy, review of The Two Princes of Calabar.
Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries, March 1, 1995, review of On Jordan's Stormy Banks: Evangelicalism in Mississippi, 1773-1876, p. 1141; April 1, 2004, S.R. Boettcher, review of Memory and Identity, p. 1526.
Church History, March 1, 2003, Kurt Berends, review of Religion in Mississippi, p. 222.
English Historical Review, December 1, 2005, Helen Berry, review of Memory and Identity, p. 1445.
International History Review, September 1, 2005, Ralph A. Austen, review of The Two Princes of Calabar, p. 597.
International Review of Social History, August 1, 2007, review of The Two Princes of Calabar, p. 328.
Journal of African History, July 1, 2005, Paul E. Lovejoy, "An Atlantic Odyssey from Old Calabar," p. 347.
Journal of American History, December 1, 2002, Frederick A Bode, review of Religion in Mississippi, p. 1151; June, 2005, Douglas Hamilton, review of The Two Princes of Calabar, p. 196.
Journal of Economic History, March 1, 2003, Peter A. Coclanis, review of Money, Trade, and Power: The Evolution of Colonial South Carolina's Plantation Society, p. 273.
Journal of Economic Literature, December 1, 2002, review of Money, Trade, and Power, p. 1383.
Journal of Interdisciplinary History, fall, 1996, Ted Ownby, review of On Jordan's Stormy Banks.
Journal of Southern History, February 1, 2003, Wayne Flynt, review of Religion in Mississippi, p. 156; November 1, 2003, Cara Anzilotti, review of Money, Trade, and Power, p. 868; February 1, 2007, Anthony S. Parent, Jr., review of The Two Princes of Calabar, p. 151.
Reference & Research Book News, December 1, 1994, review of On Jordan's Stormy Banks, p. 4.
Southern Cultures, spring, 2003, David Edwin Harrell, Jr., review of Religion in Mississippi.
Southern Quarterly, fall, 2003, Robert W. Hamblin, review of Religion in Mississippi.
William and Mary Quarterly, January 1, 2006, Christopher Hodson, review of Memory and Identity, p. 188.
Tulane University, History Department Web site,http://history.tulane.edu/ (February 22, 2008), Randy Sparks faculty profile.