Penn Law and History Department professor Sarah Barringer Gordon’s essay “The African Supplement: Religion, Race, and Corporate Law in Early National America” has been awarded the Lester J. Cappon Prize, which honors the best article published in the William and Mary Quarterly in the previous year.
Her essay explores how corporate law in the early Republic provided African Americans with religious rights that were denied in other venues, and how — as black congregants developed legal experience — they built and protected powerful African American religious institutions, including the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, which was incorporated in 1796.
“This is a well-deserved honor for Professor Gordon, whose work delves into the intersection of law and history,” said Ted Ruger, Dean of Penn Law. “This prize is just the latest example of the recognition our faculty members are receiving for their inspired, boundary-crossing scholarship.”
Gordon is the Arlin M. Adams Professor of Constitutional Law and Professor of History, and is a noted scholar and commentator on religion in American public life and the law of church and state.
“I enjoyed and learned from the research that went into this article, and received great critique from the readers and editors of the Quarterly,” said Gordon. “The Omohundro Institute and its publications are vitally important to scholars working in the many and varied fields of research that encompass early America.”
The Lester J. Cappon Prize has been awarded since 1963. Cappon edited the William and Mary Quarterly from 1955 to 1956 and again in 1963 and served as director of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture from 1954 to 1969.
Gordon’s work in American legal history has received numerous honors. Last year, she won a Guggenheim Fellowship for her book project Freedom’s Holy Light: Disestablishment in America, 1776–1876, which argues that separation of church and state in many jurisdictions was linked to the protection of slavery in the early Republic. At the same time, states conferred local control over religious institutions to lay members, which allowed congregations to achieve independence — as the AME did — and thus eventually undermined the attempt to screen out religious critics of slavery.
Her first book, The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America (University of North Carolina Press, 2002), won the Mormon History Association’s and the Utah Historical Society’s best book awards in 2003. Her second, The Spirit of the Law: Religious Voices and the Constitution in Modern America (Harvard University Press, 2010), explored the world of church and state in the twentieth century.