Discerning Reader Editorial Review
Reviewed 12/30/2010 by John Bird.
Recommended. An accessible study of Christian life and ministry during and after the American Civil War.
George C. Rable reports that during the American Civil War, "Loyalty to the nation could not be separated from loyalty to God." This was the case regardless of which "nation" one identified with. Both sides believed they were doing the Lord's work. A lack of patriotism equaled a lack of faith, or even atheism. In his address to the Georgia General Assembly, Confederate preacher Benjamin Palmer said: "Our cause is preeminently the cause of God himself, and every blow struck by us in defense of his supremacy."
During church services, it was common to "confess" the sins of the nation, though these sins were mostly attributed to the other side. While the North pointed to slavery and rebellion as the cause of God's wrath, the South blamed it on the Yankees' "atheism" and oppression:
Lincoln, like the Egyptian Pharaoh, had hardened his heart against eleven states that sought to leave the house of bondage.
Preachers throughout the Union and Confederacy found no shortage of Old Testament stories to represent their plight: the Exodus, the division of the twelve tribes (used skillfully by both sides), Israel's battles with the Philistines, the Southern David fighting the Northern Goliath (less popular after Union victories), and so on.
Rable shows how religion was even used to justify slavery. In a sermon preached in Savannah, Stephen Elliott called slavery a "divinely guarded system, planted by God, protected by God, and arranged for his own wise purposes." Calls for abolition were clear displays of the godlessness of the North.
This assurance on the part of both sides that theirs was the righteous cause helped justify hatred. One Alabama preacher claimed a "deep Christian and inextinguishable hatred toward the demons of the north...it is doing God service to kill the diabolical wretches on the battlefield." Horace Bushnell, a Congregationalist Minister from Connecticut, asked a soldier whom he met on the road, "Killed anybody yet?" When the officer was not sure, Bushnell replied, "Time you had, that's what you went out for."
Though Rable records a lot of rhetoric and hypocrisy, he also gives plenty evidence of true religion, both on the battlefield and at home. There were some ministers who refused to be political and continued to preach nothing but the Gospel, while their congregations served in whatever way they could. Some, such as the Catholic Sisters of Mercy, tirelessly rendered aid and showed love to soldiers from either side. And though the war hardened some, it had a sanctifying affect on others. One soldier wrote:
There is something irresistible in the appeal which the Almighty makes, when He strikes from your side, in the twinkling of an eye, your friend and comrade.
As mentioned above, others found the war not as sanctifying. When upbraided for swearing, one Baptist minister turned captain replied: "The Lord has given me a furlough until this damn war is over."
Most, however, were never Christians to begin with. Rable reports estimates which suggest that no more than 25% of Union armies and around 1/3 of the Confederate forces were Christians. But who can number the faithful? One thing is sure: there was enough drinking, gambling, cursing, and dancing on both sides to keep the tract presses running and the missionaries praying.
Rable examines every aspect of religion during the Civil War, showing both the good and bad without apparent bias. And if his book lacks in any area, it’s not in the research; there are almost two hundred pages of bibliography and footnotes. This is a work that would be difficult to dispute, as we hear directly from those who were involved. Rable quotes letters, diaries, sermons, and speeches from soldiers, mothers, preachers, and nuns.
Whatever Rable's religious background, he shows an excellent understanding of church history, theology, and denominational distinctions. He also displays a thorough familiarity with the Bible. We can trust that he knows what he's talking about.
My difficulty with this otherwise great work is the repetition. Though there is a loose chronological progression, the writing is mostly made up of short anecdotes and quotes that, after a while, sound the same. In the first chapter we learn that both sides believed God was on their side, both saw their victories as favor and their defeats as judgment, both twisted Scripture to justify their cause, both looked for providence in every blink of a gnat. And, though illustrated in different ways each time, we hear the same themes throughout each chapter. But Rable throws in just enough new material and interesting quotes to keep us reading; in the end we're glad that we did.
God's Almost Chosen Peoples will be most enjoyable to history lovers, and is essential for those who have an interest in the American Civil War. But it will also be valuable to students of religion, as it provides an in-depth look at the state of religion during the most difficult period in American history.