Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout, and Charles Reagan Wilson, eds., Religion and the American Civil War. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998). 422 pp.
This book sets a new standard for the religious history of the American Civil War. A number of its essays break new ground while others consolidate existing literature in helpful overviews. Some confirm common understandings while others challenge what we thought we knew. Though the seventeen authors do not always agree with one another, all of them tell us things worth knowing. Together, they have established the new starting place for anyone who would understand the role of religion in these crucial years.
The focus on religion adds new dimensions to arguments some of the most influential contributors have
"Religion, in other words, was not merely a rationalization, not merely
ideology, but the very core of the Confederate nation. "
started elsewhere. Phillip Shaw Paludan, Eugene D. Genovese, Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, and Drew Gilpin Faust extend their important interpretations of nineteenth-century America. Thus, among other arguments, Paludan emphasizes the role of modernity, Genovese the coherence of proslavery theology, Wyatt-Brown the challenge to religion posed by the culture of honor, Fox-Genovese the differences between the self-understandings of Northern and Southern white women, and Faust the problematic role of elite women in the Confederacy. In each case, the authors use religion to expand or rethink interpretations with which they have been associated.
Other essays go into new territory. Randall Miller crams evidence and interpretation worthy of a monograph into his fascinating overview of the Irish and the Civil War. Daniel W. Stowell and Ronald C. White, Jr., examine Stonewall Jackson and Abraham Lincoln, respectively, figures closely associated with religious faith in the war. Kurt O. Berends emphasizes the role of the religious military press in the Confederacy, while Reid Mitchell, in a refreshing essay, revises himself and other historians by questioning whether Confederate soldiers were more religious than their Union counterparts. The postwar era receives welcome attention as well. George Fredrickson describes the Northern clergy's quasi-theocratic ambitions during and after the war, while Samuel S. Hill offers a typically thoughtful meditation on the legacy of the war for Southern religion. Paul Harvey explores the role of white Southern Baptist ministers in the South in the decades after the guns had fallen silent, while Charles Reagan emphasizes the uniqueness of the American devotion to a civil religion that existed apart from both church and state.
While the book covers an enormous terrain, one topic in particular is missing. “The black churches provided the seedbed for an African-American community consciousness that grew into political as well as educational, cultural, and reform interests.” (14), the editors acknowledge, but black religion is not treated in this volume. Clearly, no full understanding of this subject can exist without an understanding of the black experience.
Two essays seem especially original and important. Mark Noll's learned and supple overview of the Bible and slavery is disquieting even at the remove of over a century. "Several cultures, purporting to read the Bible the same way, were at each others throats,” Noll observes. “The Bible sanctioned slavery and by implication the society in which it existed. The Bible allowed for slavery but also pronounced judgment on societies where the slave-master relation was abused. The spirit of the Bible condemned slavery and so demonstrated the moral inferiority of any society where slavery existed." (49) Noll brings a welcome clarity to issues that have long been too muddy.
Most impressively, the case study of Richmond by Harry S. Stout and Christopher Grasso establishes a model for a new kind of religious history of the Civil War. It is rigorous in its treatment of both religion and history; it is dynamic and disciplined, tough-minded and comparative. It deals with both doctrine and institution, with content and context. Stout and Grasso demonstrate that religion constituted “the only terms out of which a national identity could be constructed and a violent war pursued.” (318-9) Religion, in other words, was not merely a rationalization, not merely ideology, but the very core of the Confederate nation.
Stout and Grasso show that all the familiar characteristics of American civil religion--national election, covenant, jeremiads, and providential destiny--flourished in the Confederacy as well as the Union. Indeed, it was the Confederacy and not its enemy who inscribed “Almighty God” into its Constitution and whose raised “God Will Avenge” as its motto. Jefferson Davis frequently invoked the Christian God even as Abraham Lincoln spoke in more mystical religious language. The Confederacy considered itself the first great Christian nation, the instrument of God’s will, the beginning of something rather than its end.
While other historians have portrayed religion as one of the great continuities of
" Religion lay at the heart of who
Americans were even as they killed one another in unthinkable numbers."
Southern history from the antebellum period to the present, Stout and Grasso make the arresting and plausible argument that it was during the Civil War that Southern religion changed from the “hard-headed civil religion of ‘Christian Sparta’” to the “heart-centered conversionist religion of evangelicalism. In the ashes of the last days of the Confederacy, a ‘modern’ southern evangelicalism would be born.” (343) Thus, the largest Protestant denominations in the country today took their defining shape from the experience of defeat and despair in the latter days of the war.
Religion and the American Civil War is a disturbing book. Its pages make abundantly clear that people of every political persuasion laid claim to God's word and turned to Scripture for proof and sustenance. Religion lay at the heart of who Americans were even as they killed one another in unthinkable numbers. Faith, theology, and church constituted the very language of self understanding, defined the limits of sympathy and imagination, provided the terms of vengeance and solace.
But if religion lies at the heart of everything from despair to exultation, from faith to doubt, from slavery to freedom, a sense of proportion may be hard to find. If religion is not mere ideology, what relationship does it bear to material life, politics, and warfare? Now that historians have established a central place for religion in the central event in the nation’s history, the even harder work can begin.