Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Short Review: The Civil War as as Theological Crisis

The Civil War as a Theological Crisis
Mark A. Noll
Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press
ISBN: 0-8078-3012-7

The first impression I had of this book was its cover-- at once a compelling image and a perplexing image. The inside back cover identifies it as the Lutheran church on Main Street, Sharpsburg, Maryland. The date is September 1862. On September 17, 1862 the Battle of Antietam was fought there on a single day with 45,000 Confederate troops of the Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee and 87,000 Federal soldiers of the Army of the Potomac commanded by George McClellan. When the day was over, there were nearly 23,000 casualties split nearly evenly between North and South -- the bloodiest single day in the history of American wars. This may have been a "draw" in military terms, but Lee and his army were permitted to retreat unchallenged back across the Potomac River. Many historians believe the war could have ended right there had McClellan pressed his advantage and forced the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia.

But I digress...

My first thought when I saw the cover with its mirrored image of the church was Lincoln's speech on accepting the nomination for US Senator from Illinois in 1858:
"...A house divided against itself cannot stand." I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved -- I do not expect the house to fall -- but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery, will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new -- North as well as South..."
A second impression was that of two churches having a stare-down. Which side is going to blink?

After reading Noll's book, I lean toward the second interpretation of the book cover symbolism.

I really can't remember spending so much time staring at a book cover and thinking about what it all meant. Noll, knowingly or unknowingly, has the reader engaged before the first page is even read.

Following a short historical overview, Noll presents a series of three chapters outlining what he feels are the theological crises that were spawned by the Civil War.

The first (Chapter 3) is the crisis over the Bible -- one which affected North and South alike. How does one interpret the Bible? Using prooftexts to support slavery is easy; using Scripture to demonstrate that slavery is wrong requires bringing in different passages to demonstrate that not only is slavery against the will of God, but that even it it were the will of God, the way it was practiced in the South was wrong. For Israelite slaves, there was no permanent servitude. For non-Israelite slaves, if they were injured by their masters, then they were to be set free. The way Scripture was used was inconsistent. And some, notably many Northern abolitionists, found the Bible inconvenient and chose to ignore it or to go with "the spirit". Either way this was a blow to orthodoxy, and the sad thing was that it was unecessary. Compelling answers could be found if the need to maintain consistency with the culture weren't as major a force as it was.

A second issue seems to indict the North in greater ways than the South. Chapter 4 "The Negro Question", deals with the humanity of Africans. If one considers the Africans to be the decendants of Ham, and thus under God's curse, then the answer is clear that there is no need to even ask the question. But if one believes that all people of all races are equally made in the image of God, then one is required to treat all races with the same dignity. Why does this indict the North? Because the abolitionists were more than willing to condemn the South for its institution of slavery, but less than willing to treat free Negroes as equals. Horace Greeley had no Blacks on the payroll of his abolitionist newspaper The New York Tribune. The North also needed to acknowledge that their desire for trade with the South placed them as willing partners in the Southern economy.

Noll ends this chapter with a summary of the crises involving the Bible and slavery:
  • a failure to examine biblically the Sourthern charge that individualistic consumer capitalism was an ethically dangerous economic system;
  • a blow to Christian orthodoxy caused by the abolitionist flight to the "spirit" of Scripture;
  • An inability to act on biblical teaching about the full humanity of all people, regardless of race; and
  • a confusion about principles of interpretation between what was in the Bible and what was in the common sense of the culture.
A third area Noll explores is in Chapter 5 "The Crisis Over Providence". To summarize this succinctly (and perhaps incompletely) each side claimed Divine Providence was ordering events.

As a Christian, I have no doubt that this was true, though not necessarily on the way the North and the South believed, or even as I may believe today.

A powerful statement was committed to paper by Abraham Lincoln following many defeats. This was not intended for public consumption and was entitled "Meditation on the Divine Will":
The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God's purpose is something different from the purpose of either party--and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect his purpose. I am almost ready to say this is probably true--that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere quiet power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.
Lincoln wrote this following a second humilating defeat at Bull Run and as the Army of the Potomac was positioning itself near Sharpsburg Maryland. Lincoln was waiting for a victory that would provide political cover when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The battle of Antietam gave him that, but just barely.

It seems that theology was pressed into service to buttress regional arguments, and that neither side properly interpreted what was available in Scripture. The failure of theologians to present a compelling case against slavery was a major one. The Northern abolitionist approach of giving up on exegesis and going with the "spirit" coupled with the Southern selectivity of which biblical passages they used to support slavery created an environment that has hampered biblical interpretation to this day.

But perhaps the most devastating effect of these theological crises was that it took a bloody civil war to allow this country to move forward. In Mark Noll's words:
' was left to those consummate theologians, the Reverend Doctors Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, to decide what in fact the Bible actually meant."
I think we'd all rather the moral stance of our country be defined through reasoned debate, rather than at gunpoint.


Russell Smith said...

A fine post -- I'm putting the book on my must read list (just recently finished Doctorow's novel The March about Shermans march to the sea).
The quote from Lincoln is worth the price of the book!


Quotidian Grace said...

My husband, the Civil War buff, will be interested in reading your review of this book. It sounds really interesting. Thanks for bringing it our attention!

Backwoods Presbyterian said...

I'll have to pick that book up in the morning. Mark Noll is an excellent read.

Denis Hancock said...

Russell -- Another book I have read in the past couple weeks is Upon the Altar of the Nation by Harry Stout. His book is more of history of events coupled with specific discussions of the moral implications and how they affected warfare. The Civil War was anything BUT civil.

Stout was not too complimentary of Sherman's march to the sea (nor was he complimentary of the way the war was conducted on either side).

BTW -- both Noll and Stout used the Lincoln quote. It was found by John Hays, his personal secretary, after his assassination. Hays gave it the title. I did a Google search on the first few words and found this article called God Willing which gives more information as to the background of the quote.

Denis Hancock said...

Hi QG -- Not everyone finds this as fascinating as your husband and I do, and I hope I get to meet both of you when I'm down there for Thanksgiving.

Noll is pretty academic in his writing style, which means it's not a "page turner", but there is a lot to be gleaned from this book.

Michael W. Kruse said...

I have read about half way through and I find it fascinating. One thing that has struck me is the eerie parallels between this and the present division in the wider church over the place of women in the church. I look forward to reading more.

BTW, my 2great-grandfather was William Cotton Holmes. He was the company clerk for Company the 2nd Infantry, Washington, DC. He was one of the soldiers under Porter's command who was not placed into action allowing Lee to escape. We have his diary from that year and a short time after the battle he has entries everyday for about a week noting he was summoned to the Porter's court martial proceedings. I have yet to really pursue this at the archives but I suspect as the clerk of his company he may have been giving testimony about who knew what when. Just a bit a trivia that makes the story of Antietam a little more personal.

Denis Hancock said...

Backwoods Presbyterian -- I don't think you'll regret it. It is actually a pretty short book, but there is more meat in there than in other, longer books I have read.

Denis Hancock said...

Mike -- It sounds like you have a fascinating family story to tell. I looked at the Wikipedia entry on Porter and it seems as if he was pretty much a scapegoat, and that seems to be the opinion of other Civil War authors. I seriously wonder if McClellan's heart was in winning the war. His party affiliation and personal actions lead one to suspect that. And with his Presidential campaign of 1864, it seems to remove all doubt.

Oh well, the series of replacements did not do much better. Meade also allowed Lee to retreat fairly unmolested following Gettysburg.

Grant and Sherman were who it took to get the job done, but as Harry Stout in Upon the Altar of the Nation pointed out, the old West Point Code went out in favor of "military necessity", and it set a terrible precedent.

Did you notice Noll's last point at the end of Chapter 4 regarding "confusion about principles of interpretation between what was in the Bible and what was in the common sense of the culture"?

It's still happening....

Quotidian Grace said...

We look forward to it! We're out of town Thursday but return Friday about noon and will be in town the rest of that weekend.