The Way of Improvement Leads Home correspondent Christopher Graham offers some notes on this star-studded panel on religion and the Civil War. –JF
The turnout for the Religion and the American Civil War: History and Historiography panel exceeded the organizers’ expectations. So many showed up that we all migrated to a larger room, and participants still overflowed into the hallway, where additional chairs were set up. Mark Noll presided and Allen Guelzo, Harry Stout, George Rable, James McPherson, and Laura Maffly-Kipp spoke. The title of the panel suggested a broad reconsideration of the historiography of religion and the Civil War but the individual papers did not amount to as much.
Stout discussed how his interpretation of Lincoln’s relationship to God has changed since the publication of his On the Altar of the Nation. Guelzo explored the historiographical view of Lincoln’s religiosity and concluded that because of scant and contradictory evidence, Lincoln disappoints all doctrinaires. McPherson spoke on evangelical efforts to sponsor freedmen’s schools, and Maffly-Kipp considered religion’s place in the African American interpretation of the Civil War as a battle in a longer warfare waged by slavers on the enslaved. In short, the combat over bodies also was a combat over souls.
George Rable recognized the considerable wave of scholarship on religion in the war that has been produced in the last ten to fifteen years, and sketched out seven topic areas that require further examination. They go something like this:
1. The relationship between the Bible and the American Civil War. Politicians, editors, preachers, and soldiers all utilized scriptures as a justification for war and a comfort for its victims. He said that if there is an American Jesus, there just might be a Civil War Jesus, and suggested that such a title would sell.
2. The role of military chaplains is unexplored, from the problem of their recruitment, to their performance, to the often-fraught relationships between chaplains and soldiers. He suggests that there are loads of unexplored sources on this.
3. Some attention has been given to wartime revivals, but more needs to be done. Further study might reveal conflicting religious views between officers and men, or soldiers and civilians. To that end, Rable called for more research on how the war changed attitudes toward piety, including communion, baptism, and the idea of blood sacrifice and atonement of sin.
4. How did civil religion change? How did days of prayer and thanksgiving and attitudes toward them change?
5. In a catchall on “society and war,” Rable asked how the war touched domestic religious ideals, what activities the religious undertook, how the print culture changed, or rises or declines in church membership. He even suggested there might be value in doing good old-fashioned denominational histories, which produced some bemused groans from the audience.
6. He called for an examination of the international aspects of religion during the war.
7. Finally, he wants further work on the relationship between religion and larger social issues during the war. He admits that this work is already underway, but the more the merrier.
The discussion produced a few interesting nuggets. For instance, the panel generally agreed that millennial thinking largely did not appear in the rhetoric of religious people during the war. Stout thought it was because to have a millennial construction, a rhetorical anti-Christ is necessary, and the war was simply seen as a Protestant-on-Protestant fracas. Guelzo suggested that participants simply could not articulate a good expression of millennial thinking and when they tried, the results were often muddy.
Guelzo contended that the Civil War ate away at religious people’s confidence in revelation. After watching carnage, many people found it impossible to believe again in Godly order. Even folks who did not witness carnage, like Charles Hoge and Charles Finney, felt the same way. Rable disagreed and suggested that the war did not cause a shattering of belief but instead drove people further toward a reliance on God’s promises.
Finally, one questioner asked how religion figured into the memory of war. Inexplicably, no one in the room mentioned Ed Blum’s Reforging the White Republic. Myself included.