Because Confederate monuments are so much in the news these days, I pulled out my copy of George C. Rable’s 2010 “God’s Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War.” Written by an award-winning historian from the University of Alabama, this volume of almost 600 pages provides an excellent overview of both Northern and Southern approaches to the war from the standpoint of religion.
Rable covers the religious aspects of the war from every perspective, including the common soldiers, the generals, the elected leaders, the ordinary citizen, the preacher and theologian. He quotes extensively from sermons, the pronouncements of religious organizations and tracts of the day.
In terms of his source material, Rable noted that during the Civil War era, “The published sermons are staggering in quantify and diversity, if not always profundity.” (p 5) Asked by a friend how he managed to read through so many sermons, he confessed that he had to take them in small bites.
It should not surprise the reader that two regions of the country arrived at diametrically opposed viewpoints on God, the Bible and slavery. Referring to both Northerners and Southerners, Rable noted that they engaged in “… often careless … ransacking of scripture ... (which) … produced a nationalistic theology at once bizarre, inspiring and dangerous.” (p. 4)
We people of a religious stripe are still “ransacking scripture” to bolster our viewpoints on everything from gender equality and LGBTQ issues to abortion and racism. Rable’s observation about how religious people approached slavery and secession sounds eerily familiar in terms of many of today’s issues: “For clergy and laity alike, the war became a holy crusade.”
Southern clergy and laity used the Bible to support slavery, partially because they believed the issue was clear and partially because their use of the Bible would force Northerners (they hoped) to argue against the Bible, thus proving Northerners to be atheists. Methodists in Wisconsin, on the other hand, approved a statement linking secession to “… committing treason against the whole race and to Heaven.” There’s not much wiggle room in either approach.
For much of the 1830s-1850s our leaders tried various compromises, but as Fort Sumter drew nearer, the so-called middle ground was rapidly shrinking. By 1860 there were few people left sitting on the fence about slavery and how to combat it. One New Jersey Episcopalian priest had an experience which probably could have happened in most churches North or South by 1860. Trying to be conciliatory, this parson preached a sermon allowing as how both sides were wrong on certain things. That sermon might have worked well in 1845 or even 1855, but when he preached it in the fall of 1861 his congregation hissed at him and walked out in the middle of the sermon.
If you love the Civil War, this book is a rare find. If you love to see how people of faith understood God’s will, tragedy and a controversial topic, you’ll be richly rewarded in these pages. And if you’ve ever buttressed any current event with a Biblical argument, you’ll probably identify yourself somewhere in this fascinating exploration.