“That This Mighty Scourge of War
May Speedily Pass Away”
A review of
God’s Almost Chosen Peoples:
A Religious History of the American Civil War.
By George Rable.
Review by Timothy Morriss.
Modern claims by religious leaders to understand particular events, normally natural disasters, as acts of God’s judgment, are widely attacked and dismissed in our modern culture. Believers today are encouraged to see providence in their daily lives, but not necessarily in the larger movements of history. The historical profession is not interested in tracing the ways of God amid the courses of history. Maybe that lack of interest has partially blinded the profession to providential understanding of history that dominated earlier generations. Today we, probably wrongly in the aftermath of world events, feel so much more in control of history and of our fate. But previous generations, unable to create meaning with the iPad, looked to the workings of providence. This was especially true for the Civil War.
Of making books on the American Civil War there is no end. Interest in this conflict, which broods over American history, has created a vast marketplace for books, but only a small fraction of the total books published have touched on the religious dimensions of the war. These books have focused on denominational history, have reviewed apocalypticism, have investigated the role of chaplains and revivals, and, in one of the most recent and best, Harry Stout’s Upon the Altar of God, examined the war according to traditional just war theory. But, until George Rable’s work, no one has attempted a religious history of the entire Civil War.
Rable rightly approaches such a task with humility. His work is a religious history, not the religious history. As he says, there is “plenty of room left over for other religious histories of the conflict.” His research will be an excellent guide for future historians. The book’s general narrative describes how the faithful acted during, and spoke about, the course of the war. Religion (and he explores Catholic, Jewish, and Mormon responses, while focusing mainly on majority Protestants) offered consolation, but also meaning and morale. Its divisions fanned the flames of sectional rivalry before the war and the moral certainty religion provided kept the conflict going.
Rable denies a particular thesis guides his work, but central to his narrative, and to both the North and the South’s understanding of the war, was the assumption of God’s providential workings in everyday life and in the life of the nation. Such confidence in a beneficial providence allowed political leaders and clergy from the Union and the Confederacy to form a civil religion that vindicated their cause. American civil religion has taken different forms, but here it linked God and nation around assumptions of “national virtue, national purpose, and national destiny.” These assumptions, rooted in a faith in providence, led to the conclusion that “Americans were a people chosen by God to carry out his mission in the world.” Many Americans had believed this about their nation, but now both North and South considered themselves the new Israel. Northern ministers preached the necessity of Union to further American understandings of democracy and freedom while southern ministers preached the virtue of the new southern nation and the errors of northern infidelity.
So while Rable claims his book has no thesis, its weight (and it is a substantial book) is in the overwhelming belief from each side that they wanted to be God’s chosen people, that they were sure they were God’s chosen people, and yet how they imagined they continually fell short of being God’s chosen people. Each side’s religious leaders claimed God would act to vindicate their cause, but each side, leaders and common people alike, were left to discern God’s ways amid the course of a truly horrific war. When the fortunes of war turned against them, each side sought repentance and reaffirmed their reliance on God’s aid to prosecute the war anew. Repentance was necessary for the individual sins of citizens: lack of faithfulness in prayer and Sabbath observance, the vices of drunkenness and gambling common to soldiers, and sometimes included war profiteering and “extortion.” Repentance rarely touched national sins, except for pride. The Confederacy, buoyed by early military successes, so the providential understanding went, grew proud in its own power and especially in the skills of its military leaders. The death of General Stonewall Jackson and defeats at Vicksburg and Gettysburg were understood as God’s actions to chasten the new nation’s pride. Such an understanding never doubted the South’s chosen status, instead offering the Lord’s chastening as proof of that chosenness. Such an understanding would be the South’s consolation in defeat and the origins of its postwar civil religion, the Lost Cause.
Providence recurs throughout the text, but the book also includes extensive detail of religious life in the military and on the homefront. The soldiers and those at home each wanted to know that the other was being faithful. The common soldier, overwhelmed by tedium and disease in the camps, and horrific battlefield conditions, succumbed to vice and revival at various times. Chaplains and the Christian and Sanitary Commissions, sought to bring faith to the camps, with varying degrees of success. Always eager to report conversions, even their most optimistic numbers made the faithful a minority. Revivals did occur and they were most widespread in the Confederate armies, especially during 1863-64. When military defeats left Confederate national purposes in doubt, individual conversions became a secondary purpose for the war. At home, religious life continued, though often interrupted by absent ministers and members. In the early days of the war, border states like Kentucky and Missouri saw churches divided politically and militarily and, as the war progressed, northern strategies of total war bore heavily on churches in occupied southern territory. Southerners in Georgia and South Carolina considered themselves Israel oppressed, but black slaves knew themselves to be the true Israel, led out of bondage into freedom by their new Moses, Abraham Lincoln.
If few Northerners claimed abolition as a motivation at the war’s start, President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation made the end of slavery another righteous reason for the North’s war. Black freedom was grasped firmly, at least rhetorically, by evangelical denominations, and incorporated into the North’s civil religion. It was trumpeted at the war’s conclusion as a source of the nation’s righteous victory. For their own part, blacks often embraced their new freedom first in their religion, leaving white-controlled churches to form their own congregations.
From the war’s beginning to its end patriotism and faith were intertwined. Listen to one prayer from before the fighting began, “We ask Thee to bring these men [the rebels] to destruction, and wipe them from the face of the country.” Rable notes, “The crosscurrents of civil religion pulled Americans toward repentance and arrogance at the same time, and the line between righteousness and self-righteousness nearly vanished.” He also makes that point that religious belief, linked to nationalism in the certainty of being God’s chosen people, prolonged the war.
Lincoln’s thought moved in different directions from the certainty of religious leaders. He never claimed to be operating according to providence, but only to be searching for the will of God. His Second Inaugural Address, given just over a month before Lee’s surrender, did not gloat in victory, but instead reminded listeners of shared religious experience and shared guilt that offered a chastened understanding of the war’s meaning. “Both sides read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other…. The prayers of both could not be answered – that of neither has been answered fully…. Fondly do we hope – fervently do we pray – that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God will 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.’” Rable’s book, not always easy to read because it is heavier in detail than argument, should encourage a Lincoln-like humility in claiming to understand God’s hand in history and his purposes for the nations.