Review: God's Almost Chosen Peoples
George C. Rable. God's Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010. 586 pp. ISBN: 9780807834268.
Conrad Cherry’s three-decade-old documentary collection God’s New Israel: Religious Interpretations of American Destiny includes three “sermons” from the Civil War years. The first two, “National Responsibility Before God” by New Orleans Presbyterian Benjamin Morgan Palmer and “The Battle Set in Array” by New York Congregationalist Henry Ward Beecher demonstrate vividly the shared and deeply contested scriptural bases for Confederate and Union claims to ultimate righteousness. Indeed, each preacher turns to the book of Exodus to show that his side is the new Israel and the other a regurgitated, Pharaoh-led Egypt. Many of my colleagues in American religious history use these documents when teaching the Civil War. In addition to being compact, they capture very nicely the results of the denominational schisms of the late 1830s and 1840s, how far apart from their former brethren sectional clergy felt after fifteen years of waxing tension. The third “sermon” in Cherry’s collection is Abraham Lincoln’s “Second Inaugural Address.” Read against Palmer and Beecher and in light of the four years of war that separate their speeches from his, Lincoln is refreshingly balanced and non-martial, projecting a tone that the nation would have done well to adopt. These are the building blocks of many classroom discussions of religion and the American Civil War.
One question students inevitably ask upon reading these sermons is the extent to which they corresponded to the views of those who wore either blue or grey. George Rable’s God’s Almost Chosen Peoples allows us to say with certainty that mixed in among a majority of soldiers who cared little about religious matters there were Beechers and Palmers who saw their cause as divinely ordained and looked for evidence of divine favor or divine wrath in the outcome of battles. Rable also presents fascinating evidence for the presence of more than a few Lincolns, men who recognized the paradoxes of their war, reflected with humility on the divine will, and were unsure where the war was heading. Through extensive archival research and an impressive command of the historiography—both classic and new—Rable paints a picture of a nation and a soldiery that often, though not always, turned to the divine when wondering about the meaning of the sacrifices they placed “upon the altar of the nation.” The answers they both heard and told themselves, Rable argues, reflected a patriotic orthodoxy of righteousness on one side, perfidy on the other, and redemptive suffering through war.
Rable’s attention to the voices of the sacrifices is an especially admirable feature of this very impressive book. Notable too is the extent of his synthesis of Civil War scholarship from the past fifty years. By weaving his archival work into narrative strands taken from the work of Bell Wiley, C.C. Goen, Mitchell Snay, James McPherson, Charles Regan Wilson, Harry Stout, Drew Gilpin Faust, and Mark Noll, Rable has written a book that collects the best insights of these scholars in one place and affirms them with a wide array of popular voices from the period. This aspect alone ensures that God’s Almost Chosen Peopleswill be a valuable resource for years to come. At the same time, because Rable has mixed thematic inquiry and chronological presentation, his is not an easy book for the Civil War novice. Though the narrative thread of the book runs from pre-war America to Lincoln’s assassination and (barely) beyond, the evidence supporting the arguments he makes in individual chapters (e.g, “Carnage,” “War’s Purpose,” “Declension,”) often comes from across the war or appears without a date. Rable’s arguments are well substantiated and convincing, but he sometimes makes them at the cost of the reader’s orientation within the war.
This book could use refinement on the topic of civil religion, a term Rable uses throughout but defines in very general terms (3). For Rable, civil religion is defined by a belief in American chosenness and a providential understanding of American / Confederate history. These are two ideas that have shaped American civil religion, to be sure, but were they its only constituent elements? Are expressions of one belief or the other always evidence of civil religion? When clerical or lay voices reflect on God’s relationship to the United States, do we understand their thoughts better as civil religious expressions, or as contributors to the millennia-long conversation about “the thorny relationship between national purpose and the divine will?” (p. 203) Civil religion is a notoriously elastic term. When it is stretched to include all clerical and many lay pronouncements on God’s relationship to the nation, from the most enthusiastic endorsements to the most stinging jeremiads, it loses much of its explanatory power.
George Rable has given us the latest in a string of excellent books on religion and the American Civil War. Admirable for its balance and for its deft handling of complex sources, God’s Almost Chosen Peoples is the kind of in-depth study of the role of religion in American wars that will appeal to a wide range of scholars of American history. His work should inspire current and future scholars to explore further the place of religion in the macro- and micro-narratives of the conflict.