Making Sense Biblically of the Civil War
George Rable is Professor Emeritus at the University of Alabama. He is the author of several highly regarded books on the American Civil War. This interview revolves around his book, God’s Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War.
This interview was conducted by David George Moore. Some of Dave’s teaching videos and interviews can be accessed at www.mooreengaging.com.
Note to the Jesus Community: During the summer of 2016, my wife and I were visiting scholars at Princeton Theological Seminary. It was my privilege then to have coffee with James McPherson, Pulitzer-prize winning historian of Battle Cry of Freedom. I shared a bit of my research with Professor McPherson and he highly recommended that I read God’s Almost Chosen Peoples. I’m glad he did. Rable’s book ought to be used in every seminary, either for American church history or hermeneutics courses!
Moore: What motivated you to undertake the herculean amount of work in writing this book?
Rable: I was deep into working on a book on the battle of Fredericksburg when Gary Gallagher and Mike Parrish asked me to contribute a volume for the Littlefield History of the Civil War Era. They suggested one topic about which I had already written a book. I quickly responded that I had written one mediocre book on that subject and did not wish to write another one. I then countered by asking if they had considered having a volume on religion. They had not but readily agreed to my proposal. I prefer writing works based on primary research rather than more synthetic works and that was part of the appeal to me—given the relative dearth of secondary works when I began the project. In hindsight, I am glad I did not realize how vast an undertaking this study would be, how long it would take to complete, or the innumerable problems of organization and analysis involved. Religion was pervasive during the era, and so the source base was virtually endless. To this day, I keep running into items that I wished I had known about when I was working on God’s Almost Chosen Peoples. But at the same time, I soon realized that the topic was so large and significant that it more than merited a substantial volume. Indeed, two earlier drafts were considerably longer than what became a rather hefty tome. And fortunately, even as I was beavering away, other historians were beginning to study various aspects of religion in the Civil War era that has in turn produced a fine body of new work.
Moore: Mark Noll likes to say that Lincoln was one of the best theologians during the Civil War because he did not presume to understand what God’s providence meant during this horrifying period of our nation’s history. Do you agree with his assessment?
Rable: Mark Noll was clearly and no doubt consciously exaggerating because Lincoln showed little interest in formal theology but his point is how Lincoln avoided the mistakes of many theologians, clergy, and ordinary believers who assumed they could readily discern God’s will. Lincoln’s spiritual humility is both striking and appealing. Then too, I think Lincoln took some delight in twitting self-righteous clergy who kept hectoring him on a variety of subjects including emancipation. His views on providence expressed most notably in his Meditation on the Divine Will and the Second Inaugural Address failed to offer clear answers that so many people craved, but that makes them more appealing to scholars (and others) than the often empty pieties of wartime civil religion. In some ways, Lincoln’s statements nicely comported with teachings of Old School Presbyterians, though he never joined a church or allied himself with any particular Christian tradition.
Moore: Early on you mention that “even by the end of the war, a providential interpretation of events with millennial overtones showed remarkable staying power.” Professor Andrew Delbanco of Columbia has said that before the Civil War Americans believed in the providence of God, but after the war they believed in luck. I asked Professor McPherson about this and he said Delbanco’s view is too sweeping. It seems you take McPherson’s side. Would you unpack why?
Rable: I find myself often in agreement with Jim McPherson! The providential interpretation of the war showed remarkable staying power in part because it was flexible and could apply to many different situations. If your side was winning victories, the Almighty was on your side. If your side was losing, you were being punished for your sins but could still hold out hope for your ultimate triumph. If you believed that the other side was godless, had not the Lord often used heathenish nations to punish the stiff-necked children of Israel? And for those Americans who admitted that the will of God was often inscrutable, the ways of providence might remain mysterious but still very real. Scholars have often exaggerated the degree of religious disillusionment brought on by the war by paying undue attention to various dissenters during the postwar era. Indeed, many of the traditional ideas about divine providence and God’s role in human history remain alive and well today, especially among the more conservative denominations. The statements by Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and Jeremiah Wright in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks surprised and shocked people who failed to realize that such beliefs (however divergent from each other and the American mainstream they might seem) had a long history including a large impact during the Civil War era.
Moore: You have some fascinating information about the life of chaplains. I’ve read another scholar who gave accounts of chaplains softening their theological convictions as a result of seeing so much carnage. For example, some chaplains struggled with telling dying non-Christian soldiers that their eternal destiny was going to be even worse. How common was it for the Civil War to change the theological convictions of chaplains?
Rable: Chaplains tended not to emphasize denominational distinctions, and though the gulf between Protestants and Catholics often remained wide, there are examples of cooperation even there. Early in the war, for example, New York Congregationalist Joseph Twichell met Father Joseph B. O’Hagan also serving in a New York regiment, and the two young chaplains not only concluded a “treaty of amity, peace, and cooperation” but soon became fast friends. Although Twichell still worried about a priest placing himself between a dying man and God, he decided that O’Hagan had reasonable views on matters of faith. For his part Twichell, sounded increasingly less dogmatic about the truths of Protestantism. One cold night shortly after the battle of Fredericksburg, they lay down to sleep putting their blankets together to stay warm. O’Hagan began laughing, confiding to Twichell how the situation thoroughly amused him, “a Jesuit priest and a New England Puritan minister–of the worst sort–spooned close together under the same blanket. I wonder what the angels think.” He quickly answered his own question, “I think they like it.” Protestant chaplains, for instance, showed some flexibility on the forms of baptism. In general, the most successful chaplains adopted a fairly ecumenical approach to the soldiers who in turn appreciated a kind word and some spiritual comfort regardless of theological or denominational ties. Certainly, there are few examples of chaplains condemning some poor dying soldier to hellfire. Although some soldiers and especially some officers dismissed chaplains as useless appendages, their diaries and letters are filled with information on chaplains and comments about how well they fulfilled their duties or failed to do so. Soldiers were a tough audience and offered many dismissive comments directed at mediocre chaplains but greatly appreciated chaplains who braved hardships, sought to help the men, and lived out their faith.
Moore: Professor Harry Stout of Yale has said that reading so many Puritan sermons for his book, The New England Soul, gave him a deeper sense of his own mortality. How did the research for this book affect your own reflections on the brevity and uncertainty of life?
Rable: Any Civil War historian with a pulse and a brain constantly runs up against reminders of mortality and the fragility of human life. “In the midst of life, we are in death,” says the Book of Common Prayer, and that certainly held true during the Civil War era more than ever. That too applies to historians studying (some would say “wallowing”) in that great conflict. There is always the danger, particularly for military historians, of treating the war as a series of strategic and tactical contests without considering the enormous costs in blood and treasure. As for reading sermons, one friend asked me how I could stand to read so many sermons. Admittedly such reading could grow tedious, but the sermons as much as any other source helped me understand how the ministers of various religious traditions shared their faith, developed a religious understanding of unfolding events, and promulgated a providential interpretation of the war.
Moore: We Americans tend to like simplistic, sound bites like the North being free of racism. How varied were the views of whites in the North when it came to humans owing other humans?
Rable: Northern views ran the gamut, and there were even a few notable clergy who adopted strongly religious defenses of slavery. Northern opinion in general evolved and became increasingly antislavery as the war dragged on—as much for pragmatic as for principled reasons. In fact, white soldiers and civilians alike could argue that slavery must ultimately perish without necessarily developing more enlightened views on race. Northern churches too—sometimes including those that had long deplored “political preaching” and avoided taking stands on public questions—grew increasingly antislavery in the wake of both the war’s heavy costs and the government’s turn toward emancipation.
Moore: What are two or three things you hope your readers gain from reading your book?
Rable: First, I would hope that readers would come to realize that understanding the Civil War requires an understanding of religion during the period, an understanding that has been largely absent from the grand narratives. This omission would have seemed quite odd if not perverse to the Civil War generation. Second, I would like to have readers acquire an appreciation for the sprawling and complex religious landscape of the era. I wrote a religious history of the Civil War, not the religious history of the Civil War. There is much room for new and quite different works on the subject, and I welcome their appearance. Third, I would hope readers would come to have empathy for how individuals and churches struggled to make sense of a horrific war that no one could have anticipated or desired.