The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (The Steven and Janice Brose Lectures in the Civil War Era)
Mark A. Noll
The University of North Carolina Press, 2006
216 pp., $35.95
Robert Tracy McKenzie
"Both Read the Same Bible"
Only in the last ten to fifteen years has the serious study of the Civil War's religious dimension become commonplace. Thanks to scholars such as Mitchell Snay, Steven Woodworth, James McPherson, Richard Carwardine, Eugene Genovese, and Harry Stout, we now know much more than ever before concerning the role of religious bodies and religious beliefs in the unfolding of the sectional crisis.
On the crest of this historiographical wave comes The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, the latest work from the nation's premier historian of Christian thought. In the opening pages, Mark Noll explains that his goal is not primarily to shed light on the causes or course of the war but rather "to show how and why the cultural conflict that led to such a crisis for the nation also constituted a crisis for theology." That crisis centered on two questions: what the Bible had to say about slavery, and what the conflict seemed to suggest about God's providential design for the country. Although "both read the same Bible," as Lincoln famously observed in his second inaugural, Protestants North and South discovered that "the Bible they had relied on for building up America's republican civilization was not nearly … as inherently unifying for an overwhelmingly Christian people as they once had thought." In the end it was the force of arms, not the Word of God, that would resolve the sectional dispute.
Noll situates the theological crisis brought on by the war in the context of popular "habits of mind" that had flourished in the United States since the early years of the republic. Marrying Christian faith with republican political ideals and Enlightenment epistemology, American Protestants were typically suspicious of religious authority and skeptical of intellectual élites, and they thought of the Bible as a "plain book" readily comprehensible to "anyone who simply opened the cover and read." Many viewed God's ongoing work in the affairs of men as just as easily apprehended; ...