Mark A. Noll.  The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006. 199pp. ISBN: 9780807830123.  Reviewed by Kent T. Dollar, For the Journal of Southern Religion
For antebellum Americans, a belief in divine providence and adherence to Scripture provided purpose and stability in their lives.  But, according to Mark Noll's latest book The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, religious leaders in the years leading up to the Civil War were unable to provide a definitive answer on the most difficult question of the period:  Does the Bible condemn or condone slavery?  Americans were also at odds over the workings of a providential God as both Northerners and Southerners tried to understand the meaning of the war and God's role in it.  Relying primarily on the writings of nineteenth-century theologians and other religious thinkers, Noll concludes that the clashes over these two issues revealed a theological crisis and resulted in a major turning point in American religious thought. 

[Noll] contends that a 'fundamental disagreement existed over what the Bible had to say about slavery at the very moment when disputes over slavery were creating the most serious crisis in the nation's history.'  


An expansion of the Steven and Janice Brose Lectures he delivered at Penn State University in 2003, Noll's slim volume focuses primarily on the slavery question.  He contends that a “fundamental disagreement existed over what the Bible had to say about slavery at the very moment when disputes over slavery were creating the most serious crisis in the nation's history” (29). Indeed, Southerners argued that Scripture sanctioned slavery, while those opposed to the peculiar institution insisted that it did not.  Noll points out that the supporters of slavery rested on a literal interpretation of the Bible, while abolitionists maintained that slavery violated the spirit of the Bible.  Opponents of slavery furthermore contended that Scripture condemned slavery as it existed in America, for the system was riddled with abuses.  Thus, the nation's most trusted religious authority, says Noll, was “sounding an uncertain note” on this critical issue (50).

In addition to the slavery question, Noll argues that Americans were also at odds over the workings of a providential God.  Before the war, American theologians demonstrated confidence in their ability to fathom the meaning behind worldly events.  During the war, both sides claimed that God supported their cause; however, the ways of God had become uncertain. God appeared at times to be “acting so strikingly at odds with himself,” especially when it came to battlefield defeats, and for Southerners in particular, the ultimate defeat of the Confederacy (75). This sense of “providential mystery” carried over into the postwar years as many abandoned the idea that God controlled worldly events (88).  Noll devotes only one chapter to this important topic and leaves the reader wanting to know more. 

In order to provide a broader framework, Noll also includes foreign theological commentary, both Protestant and Catholic, on the issue of slavery and the Bible.  Although Noll admits that his work here is preliminary, his use of these often overlooked sources makes these two chapters the most intriguing of the book.  In short, European and Canadian Protestants as well as Europe's liberal Roman Catholics evinced their intense opposition to slavery.  Indeed, they were more opposed to slavery than they were in favor of the North.  The second strand of foreign commentary came from conservative European Catholics, who did not categorically condemn slavery, but did criticize the institution as it existed America.  But, conservative criticism went much further as Catholics took advantage of the opportunity to underscore the authority of the Church.  Catholic theologians pointed out that because of the religious individualism that played such an instrumental role in the creation of the United States and its national culture, there was no overarching religious authority to offer a definitive statement on the issue of slavery.  Thus, America's religious individualism and liberal tradition contributed to a deadlock over slavery.

In a brief final chapter, Noll sums up the impact of the theological crisis on postwar America.  Although vast numbers of American Christians in the postwar period continued to look to religion to meet their private needs, religion's public failure to offer a definitive solution to the slavery question “rendered itself ineffective for shaping broad policy in the public arena” (161). 

The Civil War as a Theological Crisis is an excellent book and should enjoy wide circulation among Civil War scholars as well as American theologians.  Noll's research and conclusions are sound and consistent with other works that address this subject, such as Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese's and The Mind of the Master Class:  History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders' Worldview (2005).  Scholars interested in the ongoing debate over slavery in the years leading up to the Civil War and the impact of the war on American religious thought will find this volume immensely enlightening.

Kent T. Dollar, Tennessee Technological University


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