Mark A. Noll
Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press
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.
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:
'...it 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.