The Evangelical Origins of the American Civil War

David Goldfield

Our nation’s commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War presents an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of that war and what we can learn from its awful carnage. Most historians today would agree that slavery caused the Civil War. No slavery, no war. That interpretation is not wrong, but it is incomplete.

Slavery existed in America for two hundred and fifty years prior to the Civil War. The intriguing question is why suddenly, in 1861, the nation broke apart because of it. Although slavery had been a contentious issue from the framing of the Constitution forward, politicians were always able to hammer out a compromise in the name of preserving the Union. In 1861, they could not. Why not?

I argue in my book America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation (Bloomsbury, 2011) that the political system disintegrated because of the infusion of evangelical Christianity into the political process. Religion eroded the center of American politics and pushed our leaders to the extremes; for how do you compromise with sin? Our political system depends upon compromise and moderation. Elevating political issues into moral causes, however, renders compromise and moderation much more difficult.

It is good, of course, to be righteous against slavery. I am not asserting that the death and destruction of the Civil War outweighed the good of abolition but rather that there may have been other means to achieve that noble end. In fact, the United States was the only country that required a civil war in order to abolish slavery. The elevation of political issues into moral causes poisoned the democratic process. Just as evangelicals did not distinguish between the Catholic Church and Catholic immigrants, so they did not separate the sin of slavery from the slaveholder. In a crusade, the enemy is the infidel; eventually, both sides viewed one another as apostates to God and the Constitution.

The political system could not contain the passions stoked by the infusion of evangelical Christianity into the political process. Westward expansion, sectarian conflict, and above all slavery assumed moral dimensions that confounded political solutions. Violence became an acceptable alternative to dealing with moral threats because it worked. It put the Catholics in their proper place. It worked against the Native Americans and against the Mexicans. And it worked against the slaveholders. Antebellum America was a turbulent place—in cities, on the frontier, and at the ballot box. The violence took its toll. Gradually, the bonds of Union fell away: the national church polities, the national political parties, and the moderate politicians disappeared.

Evangelicals never composed a majority of the population, but their organization, wealth, use of technology and the media, and access to politicians—especially in the Republican Party, founded in the mid-1850s—enabled them to infiltrate and influence the political process. What was troubling about this religious immersion was the blindness of its self-righteousness, its certitude, and its lack of humility to understand that those who disagree are not mortal sinners and those who subscribe to your views are not saints.

 

The two greatest crusades of mid-nineteenth-century evangelicals were against Catholics and slaveholders. Most Americans viewed our system of government as a fragile experiment. No other nation in the world was governed by the consent of the governed. The failure of the revolutions of 1848 in Europe only raised Americans’ vigilance against threats to the democratic process. The advance of the Roman Catholic Church in the form of more than a million Irish Catholic immigrants menaced both individual liberty and the republican experiment, evangelicals believed. Slaveholders, as despotic as the Roman hierarchy, threatened to pollute the golden West with their black bondsmen and obstruct the national government with their selfish priorities. Alien cultures and nations intruded on the edges of settlement—Native Americans and Mexicans foremost—thwarting national destiny. These were the fears of white Protestant Americans, especially in the North.

America Aflame opens with the destruction of the Ursuline convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts, by a Protestant mob in August 1834. The episode exposed the deep and growing resentment against the Catholic Church and its adherents, particularly among Protestant workingmen. It also highlighted the tolerance for violence as a tactic to intimidate or eliminate groups or institutions perceived as threatening to prevailing religious and political ideals. The passions that fueled the convent fire would nearly immolate the nation in a ruinous civil war.

The anti-Catholic and antislavery movements shared some of the same personnel, rhetoric, and tactics. Lyman Beecher, a New England evangelical minister, moved his family to Cincinnati to save the West from the Catholic Church. His daughters Harriet and Catharine and his son Henry Ward would become prominent in the antislavery movement. Aided by technological innovations in printing, both anti-Catholic and antislavery advocates saturated the country with their literature. They employed similar apocalyptic rhetoric to energize faithful followers to action against both of these threats to the nation and God.

Both the anti-Catholic and antislavery movements flourished during a national religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening. This Awakening saved souls and spawned numerous reform movements but also indulged in bigotry and self-righteousness. In the North, it veered toward a general reform of society as a prelude for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Evangelical Protestantism in the South was more concerned with individual conversion, and its adherents looked with alarm on the mixture of religion and politics brewing toxic potions in the North. Nor did Southerners join with Northern evangelicals in the excoriation of their Catholic and immigrant populations.

For all of its concern about reforming society, the Northern version of evangelical Christianity only rarely promoted the notion of racial equality. The expansion of white male suffrage occurred alongside the spread of evangelical Protestantism. At the same time, restrictions against free blacks in the North increased. A few states banned free blacks from entering altogether. That white and black liberty moved in opposite directions seemed to affirm the belief of white Southerners that the existence of slavery for blacks guaranteed freedom for whites.

The energy unleashed by the Second Great Awakening affected America’s westward movement, which began in earnest after 1840. The West encapsulated antebellum Americans’ hopes and anxieties. It held a special place in American culture as a region of renewal. It was our geographic version of religious rebirth. The West was the place Americans could start over and the nation could fulfill its destiny as a democratic, Protestant beacon to inspire other peoples and nations. By conquering a continent with their people and ideals, Americans would conquer the world. John L. O’Sullivan, a Harvard-educated journalist, gave a name to this vision: “manifest destiny.”

Fulfilling that destiny meant removing (or eliminating) those who stood in the way. The Mexican War was not a religious war; it was a conflict over territory. Even so, the Catholicism of the Mexicans was not a minor detail. Nor was the evangelical conviction that the conflict was justified as part of God’s plan. The Plains Indian Wars, which began in 1854 and would flare sporadically over the next two decades, were not a religious controversy either. They, too, were a territorial conflict, but Americans also justified them in religious terms by denigrating the pagan “savages” who were poor stewards of God’s creation and stoo
d in the way of America’s divine mission.

Religious fervor entered political campaigns with unprecedented vigor beginning with the 1844 presidential race. From then on, political parties paraded their religious bona fides and attacked opponents as infidels. The campaigns themselves came to resemble religious revivals as much as political exercises. Religion was not only an issue itself; it permeated other issues of the day, especially slavery.

Given the importance of both evangelical religion and the West during the 1840s, the exclusion of slaveholders from that promised land—first broached by David Wilmot, a Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania, in 1846—was guaranteed to raise howls in the South. The issue of slavery had already unraveled the evangelical family by sundering the Methodists and Baptists along sectional lines. Now the disintegration of the nation no longer seemed far-fetched.

Although the Compromise of 1850, which resulted in the admission of California as a free state and the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Law, postponed a national reckoning over slavery, the rhetoric of some of the debaters assumed an ominous messianic tone. Defending his opposition to the fugitive slave provision of the compromise, Senator William H. Seward of New York declared, “There is a higher law than the Constitution.” In a nation of laws, when political leaders advocate working outside those boundaries—especially when invoking the deity as an authority—only trouble can follow. Abraham Lincoln urged, “Let every American, every lover of liberty . . . swear by the blood of the Revolution never to violate in the least particular the laws of the country, and never to tolerate their violation by others. . . . Reverence for the laws [should be] the political religion of the nation.” He said that in 1838.

Political parties disintegrated in the 1850s and new organizations formed, including an anti-Catholic party, the Know Nothings, and a sectional antislavery party, the Republicans. By 1856, these two parties and the evangelical causes they espoused merged. The Democrats, the remaining national party, became increasingly dysfunctional in its Northern and Southern wings. The political center eroded, and the extremists on both sides captured the debate.

Reality fled. Northerners perceived Slave Power conspiracies infesting every issue, where none in fact existed. Southerners perceived Northerners as intent on subjugating them while simultaneously instigating a race war, though few in the North had any such designs. A religious revival among middle-class urban men during a serious economic downturn over the winter of 1857–1858 only added a sense of foreboding that something cataclysmic was afoot.

The religious absolutism of both sides prepared them to settle the conflict violently. When war finally came in April 1861, Northern and Southern evangelicals rejoiced. In the North, war had become a magic elixir to speed America’s millennial march, no longer the destroyer of lives or the waster of lands. New England theologian Orestes Brownson likened the war to a “thunderstorm that purifies the moral and political atmosphere.”

Like their Northern counterparts, Southerners reveled in the prospect of war. “Thank God the war is open,” a grateful South Carolina Governor Francis Pickens declared. The war promised a spiritual rebirth. Virginia governor Henry A. Wise exulted, “I rejoice in this war. . . . It is a war of purification. You want war, fire, blood to purify you; and the Lord of Hosts has demanded that you should walk through fire and blood.”

Americans were children of the Second Great Awakening. They had grown up believing in an omnipresent God who touched their lives and guided their country’s destiny. He would take sides in the coming battle. In protecting their Revolutionary ideals, Northerners would preserve God’s plan to extend democracy and Christianity across an unbroken continent and around the world. Southerners welcomed a war to create a nation more perfect in its fealty to God than the one they left.

The war was a religious conflict for many evangelicals, a contest to save both souls and nations. A Louisiana woman wrote to her bishop, “We are fighting the Battle of the Cross against the Modern Barbarians who would rob a Christian people of Country, Liberty, and life.” Northern evangelicals believed that Southerners, like the Indians and Mexicans, wallowed in a “heathenish condition.” One minister rejoiced, “What a wide field will soon be opened for Christian labor.”

Harriet Beecher Stowe believed she was witnessing the unfolding of the Book of Revelation. The Civil War was a millennial war, she and many fellow evangelicals believed, “the last struggle for liberty” that would precede the coming of the Lord. “God’s just wrath shall be wreaked on a giant wrong.” Her brother, Henry Ward Beecher, related the familiar story of Exodus to his congregation: how Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt to the Red Sea, and how the sea parted and allowed the Chosen People to escape while burying their pursuers. “And now our turn has come,” he exclaimed. “Right before us lies the Red Sea of War.” And God was ready; foretelling Julia Ward Howe’s famous lines, “that awful wine-press of the Wrath of Almighty God” would come down from the heavens and bury the South.

 

The war buried 620,000 men. Millions more mourned the loss of husbands, fathers, and sons. And many of the men who survived came home maimed in mind and body. The war transformed these men and their families. Although periodic religious revivals visited both camps, especially the Confederates during the last year of the war, the messianic tenor of correspondence from both sides subsided. The randomness of death regardless of piety and the general horror of the war transformed the soldiers’ faith. They still believed, of course, but often without the certitude and self-righteousness that marked evangelical Christian perceptions on the eve of the war. The advancing perception was that, rather than the personal, interventionist God of evangelical Christianity, the war confirmed a Supreme Being who was more detached and more inscrutable. Soldiers maintained their personal piety as they grew increasingly skeptical of God’s role in the war.

By the time of Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural in March 1865, the result of the war was not in doubt. His brief inaugural speech was a remarkable effort, a combination sermon and introspective rumination, not the triumphal declaration the assembled expected. The president talked about the limits of man, the inscrutability of God, and the nature of forgiveness—views that challenged prevailing evangelical Protestant beliefs. The speech was a clarion call notifying the faithful that the war had thrashed the infallibility of evangelical Protestantism, its belief that mankind could perfect itself, its confidence in the approaching millennium, and its hubristic affirmation that it was possible to know God and his intentions. If any specific event of the war buried the Second Great Awakening, it was Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address.

Evangelical Christianity did not disappear after the war. Rather, it was increasingly secular, a function of the prevailing postwar culture rather than the other way around. Dwight L. Moody packed his revivals with the simple message of eternal salvation and banned politics from his pulpit. He offered little in the way of theological exegesis. Most of his “sermons” took the form of secular stories sprinkled with treacly aphorisms much more than biblical texts. As the Wild West and minstrel shows made caricatures of Indians and blacks, Moody succeeded in making religion a spectacle. Many of his middle- and upper-class congregants came to see a show and to be part of an event. It was comfort religion, part of the culture of affluence and prosperity, a turn taken to its ultimate by Russell Conwell, whose sermon “Acres of Diamonds” unabashedly preached the gospel of money. The sermon stayed in print for over a century. When evangelicals ventured to influence public policy, such as their periodic attempts to impose a Christian amendment on the Constitution or to legislate against Catholic influence in the public schools, their efforts fell flat. Their great crusade became alcohol. Personal behavior rather than national sin became their focus.

Evangelical Protestantism became culture-bound in the South as well, though in a quite different form. “Redemption” retained its born-again connotation, but in the South after the Civil War, it was indelibly connected to the restoration of white supremacy. Religion became a prop of the Lost Cause for whites. For blacks, evangelical Christianity became their community. The focus was less on the hereafter than on the here and now.

The second generation of Americans had succeeded in eliminating or neutralizing the threats the nation confronted beginning in the 1830s—Catholics, slaveholders, Mexicans, and Native Americans. Republicans still worried about the Catholics, but they would not think of burning convents to get their points across. They resurrected the slaveholder every four years as a reminder of the treason, though he was more a mascot than an imminent threat. And they tacked on a crusade against alcohol, as it reinforced their anti-immigrant base and added a nice alliterative quality to their campaigns against “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.” African Americans and Native Americans were in their science-ordained places. The nation was now secure and indivisible.

The “new birth of freedom” Lincoln promised as the reward for so much sacrifice proved elusive. The carnage did not translate into a universal application of the Declaration of Independence. The fates of the Indians, the African Americans, and the Chinese during and after the Reconstruction era testified to that serious shortcoming. Yet the folly of the second generation in exposing the great experiment of self-government to a bloody civil war had the redeeming feature of preserving the founding ideals for another day. Gradually, the excluded gender, races, and religions would find inclusion, even if incompletely.

I believe that the political system established by the Founders would have been resilient and resourceful enough to accommodate our great diversity sooner without the tragedy of a civil war and the religious zeal that fueled it. Of course, that is impossible to know. We do know that the transformative nature of the Civil War did not include liberty, equality, and justice for all. Lincoln’s vision would wait at least a century, and it is still a work in progress.

David Goldfield

David Goldfield is Robert Lee Bailey Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, and the author, most recently, of America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation (Bloomsbury Press, 2011).


Our nation’s commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War presents an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of that war and what we can learn from its awful carnage. Most historians today would agree that slavery caused the Civil War. No slavery, no war. That interpretation is not wrong, but it is incomplete. …

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