The role of religion in the Civil War: “It was absolutely pervasive”

The role of religion in the Civil War: “It was absolutely pervasive” December 10, 2011

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, and at least one historian has taken the time to look at religion’s role in the war:

“One of the things that surprised me was that there were certain dominant ideas, regardless of particular religious affiliation. Ideas about providence, ideas about sin, ideas about judgment. Those were common themes that crossed religious traditions,” George C. Rable, a history professor at the University of Alabama, told CNA on Dec. 7.

“Religion was absolutely pervasive when Americans tried to explain the causes, and the course, and the consequences of the Civil War.”

The year 2011 marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, which lasted from 1861 to 1865.

The conflict remains a central event in American history. It preserved the union of the states and emancipated the slaves, both actions which Christians saw at the time as providential.

Differences about slavery and whether it was a divinely inspired institution helped divide the Protestant churches before and during the war. Some contemporary Catholic observers saw these divisions as a religious fault.

Prof. Rable, author of the 2010 book “God’s Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War” (Univ. of North Carolina Press, $35), read many northern Catholic newspapers from the period for his research.

“One argument that they make is that essentially Protestantism caused the war. You might say that that is a peculiar idea, but their point was that Protestants are inherently divisive and schismatic. Had the nation been entirely Catholic, they said, the nation would never have divided.”

Catholics were a relatively small minority and tended to side with the people in their own section.

Contemporary Catholics, especially in the North, were “especially fascinating” to Rable because they did not speak in one voice and became increasingly divided as the war went on.

“Some remained very conservative, almost Copperhead in orientation, while somebody like Orestes Brownson came out against slavery early in the war and became a strong supporter of the Lincoln administration,” he said.

The anti-Catholicism of the 1850s accompanied the rise of the nativist Know Nothing Party, which contributed to Catholic fears.

“One of the things more conservative Catholics say during the war is, ‘you can’t trust the Republicans, because after they are through with the Confederates they’ll turn on the Catholics,’” Rable explained.

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2 responses to “The role of religion in the Civil War: “It was absolutely pervasive””

  1. ““One of the things more conservative Catholics say during the war is, ‘you can’t trust the Republicans, because after they are through with the Confederates they’ll turn on the Catholics,’”

    That proved to be prophetically true from about just right after the Civil War (1865) until the mid-late 1970’s/early 1980’s. All you have to do is to go to any museum/archival library which specializes in newspapers of that era and take a good look at their editorial cartoons. Not only were the Republicans of that Post-Civil War era virulently anti-Catholic; they were also equally virulently anti-immigration and thus when the floodgate through Ellis Island opened up in the late 1890’s, the Republicans were no where to be seen. The traditionally Irish-Catholic Democrats — barely one generation out of being immigrants themselves — welcomed those Catholic and Byzantine and Orthodox (and even Jewish) folks. They helped them get settled, helped them find jobs and homes, helped them organize the “Polish Clubs,” “Czech Clubs,” “Hungarian Clubs” all over the inner cities of the East Coast.

    The blog-commenter “hms” is trying to gather information and research as to why and when the focus of the political parties changed — thus driving a lot of devout Catholics away from the Democratic Party — and into the hands of the Republican Party which had historically detested them. The immediate — but far too simple and naive — answer is “Roe-versus-Wade.” We’ll have to see what “hms” finds in the various records and archives.

  2. For a class I taught on the Catholic Church in the U.S. I collected around 40 anti-Catholic cartoons from 19th and 20th century newspapers and magazines. (Some of the cartoons, showing lusty priests and papal political intrigue, would make Bill Donahue go apoplectic.)

    One famous cartoon by Thomas Nast titled “The American River Ganges,”(1871) portrays Catholic bishops as crocodiles waiting to attack American school children. Nast considered it a threat to American values that many bishops in the northeast wanted to have Catholic schools for Catholic children. However, perhapsNast is more famous for his depiction of Santa Claus as the bearded, plump (aka overweight) man that we know today.

    Nast was opposed to slavery, segregation and the Ku Klux Klan but just as vociferously, he hated the Catholic Church and Irish immigrants, whom he often portrayed as violent drunks. (Calm down, Donahue!)

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