For more than a century, scholars and others have scrutinized the U.S. Civil War, exploring the people and the forces that shaped this defining national conflict and its aftermath. But until recently, little attention has been paid to the role of religion. As one modern historian put it, religion in the Civil War “has not been so much debated among historians as it has been ignored.”
According to a new and growing body of scholarship, religion, for both good and ill, was at the very heart of the Civil War experience.
To Grant Wacker, professor of church history at Duke Divinity School, religion clearly played a key role in the war.
“Religion didn’t cause the war, but it aggravated and accelerated the causes,” said Wacker, who taught “For God and Region: Religion and the Civil War,” for the divinity school’s lay academy of religion last fall.
Most historians today, Wacker said, describe the country prior to the war as two fundamentally different societies, an agrarian South and an industrialized North, divided at their core by the issue of slavery and set on a collision course like two great trains.
Religion, Wacker said, made the trains go faster.
Religion shaped the responses of many Americans to both slavery and the war. Individuals as disparate as John Brown, the abolitionist hanged for his attack on Harper’s Ferry, Va.; John Wilkes Booth, the man who assassinated President Lincoln; and Nat Turner, the slave who led a slave rebellion in southern Virginia in 1832, each believed he had been called by God to take the actions for which he is now known.
Prominent church leaders, including Leonidas Polk, the Episcopal Bishop of Louisiana and a slaveholder, fought in the war. Known as “the Battling Bishop,” Polk was commissioned a brigadier general in the Confederate Army and died in the Battle of Atlanta in 1864.
Early in the 19th century, against a backdrop of church-led efforts to eradicate dueling, curb alcohol abuse, improve prisons and encourage literacy, religious leaders argued against slaveholding, particularly by Christians.
Even in the South, the subject of slavery was open to debate. The Methodists’ Book of Discipline forbade clergy from owning slaves. In 1818, the Presbyterian General Assembly adopted a resolution that owning slaves was abhorrent to the law of God. But over the next two decades, with the rise of the abolition movement, Southern support for slavery stiffened and became entrenched.
If God’s grace is available to all, and all are qualified to receive it, Northern ministers asked, how could human bondage be justified? America was God’s chosen nation, a New Israel in which there was no room for slavery. Common sense realism, a philosophy imported from Scotland, argued for the essential cognitive equality of all human minds, wherever they might be.
Jarring as it may be to modern sensibilities, Southern churches also cited religious arguments in defense of slavery. The Old Testament was filled with examples of human slavery, and nowhere was it condemned in the New Testament, Southerners argued. Indeed, the Apostle Paul seemed to condone slavery, urging slaves to obey their masters. Without slavery, Southern preachers contended, “heathen” souls would have been lost to a literal hell in which most 19th century Americans deeply believed.
In response, Frederick Douglass issued a stinging critique of American Christianity in an appendix to his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, published in 1845:
A critical development prior to the war was the breakup of American denominations. Beginning with the Presbyterians in 1837 (who split for theological and, later, regional reasons), followed by the Methodists in 1843 and the Baptists in 1845, the nation’s major denominations divided over slavery, North and South.
“Once the churches broke, it seemed inevitable that the nation would split,” said Wacker.
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