One hundred fifty years ago yesterday, on April 12 in 1861, Confederate artillery opened fire on Fort Sumter, a federal fort in Charleston Harbor. The American Civil War had begun.
The commemoration of this event marks the beginning of Civil War Sesquicentennial—four years of events to remember one of the most profound tragedies in the history of the American republic.
Many Christians, north and south, will participate in Sesquicentennial activities over the next several years. But as they trek across a battlefield or don their authentic military garb, they should remember that the Civil War was in many ways a battle over competing "Christian" visions of America. As Abraham Lincoln wrote in his second inaugural address, both sides "read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other." The ways in which both the Union and the Confederacy used the name of God to justify armed conflict is, for Christians, perhaps the war's greatest tragedy.
With this in mind, I plan to use my next three Confessing History columns to explore more fully the idea that both the North and the South considered their societies blessed by God and sustained by His providence. Each, in other words, claimed to be Christian nation.
Let's start with the Union.
Northern politicians and clergy often argued against Southern secession by appealing to what they considered the sacred nature of national unity. The United States was one nation, created by God, and thus indivisible. As former Massachusetts Senator Rufus Choate put it in 1858, God "wills our national life." It was the responsibility of Christian citizens to keep this "UNITED, LOVING, AND CHRISTIAN AMERICA" together.
The idea that God favored a strong national union could be found in the sermons of many Christian ministers of the day. Horace Bushnell, one of the most prominent Christian leaders of the mid-19th century, and Albert Barnes, pastor of Philadelphia's First Presbyterian Church, both argued that Christians had a responsibility to obey the national government because God had established it. "Civil government," Bushnell wrote, must be "accepted as a kind of Providential creation." Barnes added, "Government is to be regarded as of Divine appointment, and as deriving its authority from God." Bushnell, a liberal Protestant, and Barnes, an evangelical Presbyterian, would have many theological differences, but they could agree that good government was God's government.
In their arguments on behalf of Christian America, Northern clergy claimed to have the past on their side. Few appealed to history more forcefully than did John F. Bigelow, the pastor of the Baptist Church of Reesville, New York. In his sermon, "The Hand of God in American History" (1861), Bigelow wrote that "God through Christ is in all history; and He is in it working out great principles." God planted "the seeds of this great nation" in the British colonies and kept America free from the "Roman hierarchy" of its French-Canadian neighbors. The American Revolution, Bigelow argued, was part of God's plan for the "highest interest of the human race for the Ages, and: the whole Kingdom of God on earth."
If the Union was ordained by God, then Christians should submit to it. Northern clergy invoked New Testament passages to counter the beliefs of Southern secessionists. Rev. Francis Vinton began his sermon on "The Christian Idea of Government" by quoting Romans 13:1-8, where Paul urges the church in Rome to submit to the authority of the empire. If the Union was established by God, then "Disloyalty to the Constitution is, therefore, impiety toward God . . . To destroy this Union, therefore, is to commit a sin, which God will righteously punish by evils which no prescience can forsee, and no wisdom can repair." E.E. Adams, the pastor of the North Broad Street Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, reminded the South that "God never overlooks rebellion against his throne—never pardons the rebel until he repent and submit."
What can we learn from these ministerial defenses of the United States as we look back 150 years later? First, these ministers believed that they were part of a Christian nation that could be traced back to the time of the founding.
Second, they spoke and wrote with logical certainty: If the United States was a Christian nation, then secession from this political union was sinful. Which also meant, of course, that God must be on the side of the North in the Civil War.
Third, and perhaps most troubling for Christians, is the fact that many northern clergy believed secession was a sin worthy of punishment, resulting in the perception of the Union Army as a chastising agent of God commissioned to punish those who rebelled "against his throne." This fusion (or perhaps confusion) of Christianity and nationalism ultimately resulted in the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives.
This is something to remember (and lament) as we enter the Sesquicentennial of the "war between the states."