Redefining Perceptions of Faith: Civil Religion and Biblical Exploitation in the American Civil War

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Photo from the U.S. National Archives.

The Civil War redefined perceptions of the Christian Faith in America. In simplest terms, the sectional strife presented a nearly irresistible temptation to express Christianity in terms of a particular region and its principles. The process seemed to move irresistibly. The divisions among Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists from the 1830s and 1840s meant that denominational concerns were increasingly defined in terms of North or South but not both. The intensity of antebellum political debate and then the traumas of the war itself reinforced regional expressions of the faith. At the conclusion of the war and for many decades thereafter, observers on all sides felt that they could see clearly what God had intended to teach them through victory or defeat. The push, which exerted such force because the issues reached so high, was always in the direction of identifying the interests of a particular region with the concerns of God. “Civil religion” is a term with many possible meanings, but in that era it meant mingling ultimate allegiance to the universal standards of Christianity with the particular values of a person’s nation, region, or way of life.

The course of this civil religion in the War between the States was especially evident from the way in which Scripture was handled during the conflict. The “nation’s book,” the Bible, figured large in the era’s clash of cultures. Because Scripture penetrated to such a deep level nationally, it became a major weapon for both sides in the conflict leading to open war. Many Southerners viewed the Bible as the sure foundation for their way of life. The Reverend Frederick Ross of Huntsville, Alabama, for one, insisted that Southern slavery was modeled on a biblical pattern: “every Southern planter is not more truly a slave-holder than Abraham. And the Southern master, by divine authority, may today, consider his slaves part of his social and religious family, just as Abraham did.” From the North it was a much different story, though based on the same authority. As the Presbyterian Albert Barnes from Philadelphia put it, “the principles laid down by the Saviour and his Apostles are such as are opposed to Slavery, and if carried out would secure its universal abolition.”

The sense that the Scriptures supported one side, and one side only, was manifest in the war. Early on in the conflict, for example, a Southern Presbyterian teased 2 Chronicles 6:34–35, King Solomon’s prayer for success in battle for Israel, into a biblically worded analysis of Abraham Lincoln’s role in the current crisis: “eleven tribes sought to go forth in peace from the house of political bondage, but the heart of our modern Pharaoh is hardened, that he will not let Israel go.” In the North, one of the more than four hundred sermons published after the assassination of Lincoln was an exposition of 2 Samuel 18:32, in which David learns about the treacherous slaying of his son Absalom. After an examination of the text, the minister concluded that no one “will be able to separate in thought the murder of the president from Jefferson Davis’ persistent effort to murder the Union.”

This way of using the Bible was very common. Many in the North perceived the war as a dramatic vindication of the right. The noted Congregationalist Henry Ward Beecher was asked to speak at Fort Sumter on February 14, 1865, when the Union flag was once again raised over the site where the war began. As Beecher saw it, there was no moral ambiguity whatsoever: “I charge the whole guilt of this war upon the ambitious, educated, plotting political leaders in the South.… A day will come when … these guiltiest and most remorseless traitors … shall be whirled aloft and plunged downward forever and ever in an endless retribution.”

In the South, it looked very different. Already in 1866 Jonathan Babcock was writing in the Southern Presbyterian Review about the lessons to be learned by the “just” when God chastises his “chosen people.” A few years later another Southern Presbyterian, Robert Lewis Dabney, proposed that a book be assembled for the Southern war effort on the model of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, the sixteenth-century compendium that had memorialized the deaths of England’s Protestant martyrs. It was obvious to Dabney, as well as many other Southerners, that the biblical righteousness of their cause had never been disproved, only defeated.

Effects from the civil religion of the Civil War lingered powerfully. Denominational identities among the Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians were long defined by region. The main branches of northern and southern Methodists did not reunite until 1939, and not until 1983 did Presbyterians overcome the sectional divisions from the Civil War. Among Baptists, there still has been no reunification of what was divided in 1844. These long-lasting divisions did not mean that all Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians thought that only Southerners (or Northerners) were part of God’s kingdom. It did mean, however, that the ordinary awareness of a larger “body of Christ” suffered from the divisions precipitated by the political divisions of a particular place at a particular time.

Similarly, the fact that Northerners and Southerners both exploited the Bible for the conflict did not mean that the Scriptures were wholly prostituted to regional principles, but sectarian use of Scripture was clearly more extensive than it would have been had the Bible not been put to use as a religious weapon during the war. Among Protestants, interpretations of the Bible were subjected to local and regional tests but rarely to broad examination from a range of Christians. The war had taught both sides that the Scriptures could inspire a threatened people. Unfortunately, it also removed some of the checks and balances that, in other circumstances, kept biblical interpretation responsive to a general Christian framework. America’s public culture came to pay less and less attention to the Bible in the decades after the war, and one of the major reasons was that Christians had paid it the wrong kind of attention before and during the war. An exploitation of the Bible led to the rejection of it by many in the years following.

Finally, as the conflict raged, believers in both the North and the South often made the success of their military efforts the object of their most basic religious concern. To that extent, it established a most unfavorable precedent. By making such strong commitments to the righteousness of their own side and by regarding the enemy in such deeply religious terms, believers set the stage for other consuming national interests to exert a similar shaping influence on the churches. Once again, the irony was profound. A religious people had devoted great religious energy to “saving the nation.” From the side of the North, the effort was successful. From the side of the white South, it was not. Success or failure, however, may have been less important than the nature of the effort. To reapply an old saying first used in the early history of Christianity, the believers who married the spirit of the Civil War age found themselves widowed in the age that followed.

Yet what is fascinating is that in a time when theologians and Biblical scholars on both sides tried to shove God in their hip pockets to use as a weapon against the other side, there was an unlikely voice that actually painted one of the most clear and truly biblical views of God. It is one of the great ironies of the history of Christianity in America that the most profoundly religious analysis of the nation’s deepest trauma came not from a clergyman or a theologian but from a politician who was self-taught in the ways of both God and humanity. That politician was the president Abraham Lincoln. Though we cannot say for certain the man’s ultimate views of Christianity as he kept such a mystery. And no doubt there are very questionable things that occurred in his life, one cannot doubt the profundity of Lincoln’s Biblical and theological conclusions especially later in his life and administration. Nowhere was that depth more visible than in his Second Inaugural Address of March 1865:

Both [North and South] read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses;  for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh” (Quoting Matthew 18:7), If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether” (Quoting Psalm 19:9).

Even more to the point was his reply when a minister from the North told the president he “hoped the Lord is on our side.” Lincoln responded, “I am not at all concerned about that.… But it is my constant anxiety and prayer that I and this nation should be on the Lord’s side.”

I pray that as we examine our history, especially as Christians we would beware falling into a civil religion that likens our faith to political parties and ideals. Though it is important for Christians to be involved, let us never act with the hopes that God will be on our side, but let us always act in a way where we seek with all diligence to be on His side. Let us not exploit the Scriptures in a way that they simply serve to proof text our desires,  but let our desires be fixed by a consistent God-glorifying interpretation of Scripture.

 

Bibliography

Noll, M. A. (2019). A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

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