Review – The Civil War as a Theological Crisis by Mark Noll

The Civil War as a Theological Crisis by Mark Noll is a foray into the theological origins, content, and consequences of the Civil War. Noll argues that the relationship of theology to the Civil War and its attendant issues has been underdeveloped. Historians have concentrated on the secularizing consequences of the Civil War, but ignore the vast majority of Americans whose faith increased or remained unchanged. Civil War America was intensely religious, and understanding their religious commitments is essential to grasping the era. Noll’s work demonstrates how the Civil War was a crisis for Americans, not only as citizens or republicans, but as Christians.

The theological crisis was self-made. Protestant Christianity in America had flourished since the founding of the United States. It had done so by allying itself with the dominant intellectual trends, the spirit of the age: republicanism, populism, common sense rationalism. The Christians of the antebellum period revered the Bible. It was the most widely and frequently read book in the nation. They supposed it to be a plain book containing all the laws for Christian living. Any literate person could read it and live out its message. The Christians believed strongly in providence, God’s guiding hand superintending history. Providence for them was not theoretical or abstract. America was God’s special nation, in covenant with him. Moreover, people supposed they could interpret providence straightforwardly. In short, interpreting both the Bible and providence required only faith and some common sense.

Interpreting both proved harder than suspected. As the issue of slavery became more prominent, biblical interpreters reached ever widening conclusions, all from the plain reading of Scripture and common sense. Radical abolitionists advanced the spirit of the New Testament against slavery, sometimes at the expense of the letter. Hardline pro-slavery advocates pointed to the biblical record of slavery to prove that God allowed and even approved the practice. The Southern Presbyterian Thornwell took the the cultural backwardness of negro nations as providential confirmation that the negroes were not capable of governing themselves. Several northern voices read the same providential history and gleaned the lesson that wherever the gospel went, it overthrew tyranny and brought civil liberty.

Nuanced positions existed, but were embraced by few. Some abolitionists, including several black authors, bypassed the question of slavery in general. They attacked slavery as it actually existed in the Southern states, devoid of the restrictions found in biblical Israel. A few noted that slavery in Israel was not hereditary, since the slave families were incorporated into the covenant people. Few Americans distinguished between biblical slavery and American slavery, which was racially biased. Defenders of slavery rarely noticed that many of the slaves in the New Testament were white, and that their arguments could theoretically support white slavery as well. Many Americans believed in the natural inferiority of the negroes; some found support in the Genesis curse of Canaan, Ham’s son. Because the race issue was never resolved theologically, racism persisted in the South after abolition.

The nuanced positions failed precisely because they were nuanced. Republican and populist Christians were not used to theological arguments that required abstracting concepts from passages and connecting those concepts logically. They expected to see the positions arise from plain statements of chapter and verse. Americans who viewed their national covenant as analogous to Israel’s tended to import Old Testament laws wholesale. The impiety of some radical abolitionists poisoned abolitionism among the more orthodox.

The original contribution of Noll’s work is the examination of foreign commentary. Protestants outside the United States were almost entirely against slavery. Because slavery was not an issue for them, they perfunctorily dismissed the Southern exegetes. However, they were not all favorable toward the North. Some found the North’s politics hypocritical, decrying slavery but greedily consuming Southern cotton. Many found the North’s posture overly aggressive. Some used the War as an opportunity to criticize republican government and American individualism.

The Catholic reflections on the Civil War were perhaps the most profound. Catholics were a cultural minority in the States and produced few original ideas. In Europe, however, Catholic intellectuals wrote piercing analyses. Progressive Catholics were strongly pro-abolitionist and cheered the march of republican ideals. More quickly than their Protestant counterparts, the conservative Catholics perceived that the war was a result of interpretive gridlock. Their answer was simple: the Catholic magisterium. Conservative Catholics took the opportunity to catalog the evils of modern liberalism and Protestant schism. America became an object lesson on the disadvantages of rejecting proper civil and church authority. (On the Western frontier, Mormons were blaming America’s woes on their rejection of the prophet Joseph Smith.)

The religious consequence of the Civil War was secularization. Since the theologians could not come to agreement, the generals had to decide the proper interpretation. Ulysses Grant proved the more successful expositor. Since then, Americans have been reticent to base public policy on interpretations of Scripture. Also, the theological battles between Protestants sidelined the longstanding anti-Catholic animus. Not only Catholics, but also cults and non-Christian religions flourished after the war. The tension between the desire for a Christian nation and the tradition of individualist interpretation of Scripture was resolved by eliminating specifically Christian ideas from the public sphere.

The Civil War as a Theological Crisis is an original and illuminating work. Noll is a superb writer, and the material is engaging. The 200 pages pass swiftly. The book may not be necessary for some readers, though. Many of its themes have already been treated in Noll’s more comprehensive America’s God. The original portions deal with the perspectives of foreign and minority groups. So, if those details interest you, by all means grab this book. If not, the treatment in America’s God is probably sufficient.

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Published in: on December 29, 2010 at 10:44 am  Leave a Comment  
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