hristian conviction fueled wartime ardor and bloodletting on both sides of the Civil War in the United States; so say many contemporary Civil War historians of the epic struggle that began 150 years ago this spring. As the nation turns during the next four years to reconsiderations of almost every aspect of this grim national tragedy, Americans can expect ample discussion of the ways in which religious belief undergirded the political and social perspectives of the wartime generation. Christians of the twenty-first century can learn much from the experience of believers who preached and prayed—and fought—a century and a half ago.
The first shots of the Civil War were fired by Confederate cannons at the Federal garrison of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina on April 12, 1861. Almost exactly four years later, on April 9, 1865, the last viable army of the Confederacy surrendered at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, on April 9, 1865. Between these two dates, more than 600,000 Union and Confederate soldiers lost their lives—an average of 412 combatants per day, not even counting tens of thousands of civilians.
Because religious viewpoints accelerated and amplified the economic and political causes of the conflict, this important anniversary offers Americans and citizens of other nations an opportunity to reflect on how an individual, or a large and influential movement, can go wrong with confidence.
God on Their Side
Throughout the four-year conflict, soldiers, civilians and preachers in both the North and the South confidently and fervently asserted that God was on their side.
Because religious motivations for the first White settlements in the Northern states were generally more prominent than in the South, the sectional conflict that began emerging in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century soon became invested with the language of the Bible, with references to God’s will, and with rhetoric about the “manifest destiny” of Americans. By the 1850s, opposition to Black slavery among especially Congregationalist, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist clergy in the North had become a significant cultural force, especially when preached from hundreds of pulpits Sunday by Sunday. Most of the largest American denominations split in into new Northern and Southern entities in the two decades that preceded the war’s outbreak, along with the numerous tract and missionary societies that gathered around them. During the war itself, the influence of abolitionists—those committed to the eradication of Black slavery--continued to grow in churches of the North, to the point that all the North’s Christian denominations, with the exception of Catholics and Episcopalians, ultimately took up the cause of emancipating the slaves.1
Southern politicians, supported by Southern clergy, countered with the claim that the Union had a “godless” constitution, a phrase that continues to get traction in twenty-first century America. It is true that the name of God was nowhere specifically mentioned by the framers of the Constitution of the United States in either the Constitution’s original articles or voted amendments. By contrast, the Confederate Constitution, ratified by the seceding states on March 11, 1861, proclaimed a Christian identity—“invoking the favor and guidance of Almighty God.” It was easy enough for Southern Christians to claim that industrialized Northerners had lost their faith moorings and had become materialistic secularists whose determination to see slavery come to an end was based on their own selfish economic interests. Slavery, in the belief of at least the elites in the largely agrarian South, was God-ordained. Drawing on selected passages in the writings of the apostle Paul, they contended that the institution of slavery gave Christian slave owners an opportunity to instruct slaves in the ways of salvation.
At the convenient distance of 150 years, we can now see both the strengths and the fallacies of the arguments advanced by both sides—arguments that became increasingly important as they approached the awful moment when they actually picked up guns to kill fellow citizens in the name of the cause they supported. Both sides were firmly convinced that they were right, and surrounded their cherished viewpoints with both patriotic bunting and passages of Scripture.
But, of course, they couldn’t both be right.
A President’s Humility
Abraham Lincoln’s pre-war statements on the issues of abolitionism and emancipation have been considered by even the friendliest historians to be equivocal, at best. Lincoln campaigned for both the U.S. Senate, and, ultimately, the U.S. presidency on a platform of preserving the Union—not emancipating millions of Black slaves. At the time of his election both he and his Republican Party were committed to the containment of slavery, not its eradication.
When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, he declared that he “believed [it] to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.” Eleven months later, however, Lincoln assumed a humbler attitude toward the question of slavery than did prominent clergy in either North or South. In his Gettysburg Address of November 19, 1863, there was no bravado, and no ritual invoking of God’s blessing on the Union cause. Rather, Lincoln simply paid respect to the memory of those who had lost their lives in the horrific battle.
“Now we are engaged,” Lincoln said, “in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.”
The closest the president came to announcing a moral perspective on slavery in the brief 235-word Gettysburg Address was a comment in which he expressed a national longing for freedom: “It is for us the living . . . to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”
The war raged on for another year and a half after Lincoln’s cryptic elegy at Gettysburg. Lincoln was re-elected president, and—as it turned out—scheduled to give his second inaugural address only days before the surrender by Confederate General Robert E. Lee. In view of the impending Union victory, those in attendance at Lincoln’s inauguration on the east side of the U.S. Capitol undoubtedly expected a much different speech than the one he gave.
Charity for All
The president could have exulted in the imminent triumph of the Union cause, which by this time was almost assured. He could have gloated over his nearly-defeated foes. But he did nothing of the sort. Midway through the brief address, he said of the competing sides:
“Both 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.”
Rather than claim God’s support of the Union cause, Lincoln simply stated: “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.’ 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?”
And though a rapid end to the war now seemed inevitable, Lincoln made no prediction: “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 by 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.’”
Finally, the president expressed an unexpected mercy toward the secessionist forces that had been arrayed against the Union cause. He concluded: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.”
In one of the most unusual political journeys in American presidential history, Lincoln’s development during the war toward a true anti-slavery position was also accompanied by a remarkable refusal to insist on the moral humiliation of those who had instigated the massive conflict. Lincoln’s humble demeanor and the honor he paid to political and military opponents stood in marked contrast to the arrogant attitude of many Christians on both sides of the conflict.
And at a distance of 150 years, it still speaks to us today.
Do the following ideas and attitudes—from the Civil War era—sound at all familiar? Consider these thoughts from several recent books about the war.
According to Eugene D. Genovese, Christians on both sides appealed to a “higher law” in arguing for and against slavery.2
Seventh-day Adventist historian Terrie D. Aamodt notes that the theme of cosmic struggle was adopted by both sides, each painting their cause as noble and their opponents as evil.3
Songs, poems, tracts, and sermons used apocalyptic language to describe the enemy. Mark Noll explains that Northern Christians appealed to the overall spirit of the Bible in opposing slavery, while Southern Christians appealed to literal language in specific Scripture passages to defend slavery.4
Edward R. Crowther notes that, particularly in the South, culture and religion reinforced each other.5
Christianity, as practiced in the South, embraced the routine customs of the South as almost sacred. Drew Gilpin Faust writes that Christianity was the “central foundation” of the Confederacy.6
Indeed, Harry S. Stout and Christopher Grasso go as far as to insist that the Civil War could not have happened without the Southern clergy’s endorsement.7
The intense involvement of clergy in the national debate about abolition and slave-holding came at a price, however. George M. Fredrickson notes that the influence of the Christian clergy in the North declined after the Civil War because much Christian preaching had become nearly indistinguishable from secular political thought.8
Update to the Present
Fast forward to 2011: While driving, I sometimes listen to contemporary talk radio—not because I particularly enjoy it, but because I want to know what people are listening to. On too many occasions, the rhetoric I hear coming from some Christian radio programs and spokespersons is nearly indistinguishable—both in content and in attitude—from the talk I hear on several secular political radio shows. “God is on the side of the heaviest artillery,” Napoleon Bonaparte once caustically observed, and cannonades from both conservative and liberal religious pundits in today’s culture illustrate that they may have come to believe his cynical perspective.
What should thoughtful Christians make of this? First, we must acknowledge our abiding temptation to easily conflate and confuse our perspectives on culture, society, or politics with the will of God. While there always have been moral issues of such great magnitude that Christians have been willing to lay down their lives in their defense—and the emancipation of 3 million black slaves was certainly one of those issues—we should be cautious with the habit of believing that because we own the name of Christ, we are always and inevitably “right” about the great issues of our own day.
History has not been kind to the Christians of the Civil War era, especially to those on the Confederate side who died to defend an indefensible system of unimaginable cruelty and bondage. Their certainty—even to the point of shedding their own blood and that of their enemies—in no way made their ideas sounder or more biblical.
And though it can be reasonably argued that Christians on the Union side were closer to the biblical ideal, the ferocity with which they went about promoting their beliefs in the post-war Reconstruction era effectively inoculated many Southerners against the gospel the abolitionists said they were carrying. The manner in which they acquired political and economic control in the name of their victorious ideal way eventually undermined their influence on the reunified society.
The lesson in all of this is not that Christians should avoid having strong convictions about the morally-fraught issues of our society. By temperament, training, and education, we will have opinions—and should. Early Adventism activism on the issues of slavery, lynching, and alcohol points to a godly, non-partisan engagement with the big moral questions of our culture. But we should also have the grace and humility to hear—and answer—the hard questions of those who disagree with us, and to consider the possibility that other viewpoints may, at times, have both merit and righteousness.
When a crowd of persons starts moving in the same direction, they can so easily convince each another to go too far in promoting what seems right—or, worse, to even head the wrong way in the certainty supplied by numbers.
Abraham Lincoln did not doubt the rightness of the Union cause, or of the anti-slavery position to which he eventually came. But as his Second Inaugural richly illustrates, he did not grandstand; he did not deride his political or philosophical opponents, and he at least briefly personified that rarest of qualities in American politics—humility. His example—much more than the example of many Christians of his era—is the one we should emulate in our own time.
1See Bill Knott’s article about Adventist abolitionism, “Writing Against Wrongs,” Adventist Review, February 28, 2003 /2002-1509/story1.html.
2 Eugene D. Genovese, "Religion in the Collapse of the American Union," in Religion and the American Civil War, 82–83.
3 Aamodt, Terrie D., Righteous Armies, Holy Causes: Apocalyptic Imagery and the Civil War. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2002.
4 Mark A. Noll, “The Bible and Slavery,” in Religion and the American Civil War, ed. Randall M. Miller (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 74-88
5Edward R. Crowther, Southern Evangelicals and the Coming of the Civil War (Lewiston, New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 2000).
6Drew Gilpin Faust, Creation of Confederate Nationalism: Ideology and Identity in the Civil War South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988), pp. 22, 23.
7 Harry S. Stout and Christopher Grasso, “Civil War, Religion, and Communications: The Case for Richmond,” in Religion and the American Civil War, ed. Randall M. Miller (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 318, 319.
8 George M. Frederickson, “The Coming of the Lord: The Northern Protestant Clergy and the Civil War Crisis,” in Religion and the American Civil War, ed. Randall M. Miller (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 110-130.
Bert Williams is editor for Christian Record Services, Inc. He lives in Lincoln, Nebraska. This article was published July 21, 2011.