Religion and the American Civil War

By Randall M. Miller; Harry S. Stout et al. | Go to book overview

5
The Coming of the Lord The Northern Protestant Clergy and the Civil War Crisis

GEORGE M. FREDRICKSON

On April 14, 1865, a large crowd of Union partisans gathered in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, to celebrate the return of the American flag to its prewar position atop the battlements of Fort Sumter. The featured speaker at this most important and richly symbolic of northern victory ceremonies was the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, pastor of the Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, New York. The choice of Beecher to be the orator of the day was a recognition of his personal services to the Union cause and those of the profession to which he belonged--the clergy of the principal northern Protestant denominations. 1

The proper role of Protestant ministers and their churches in American public life has been a contentious issue since the founding of the republic. The generally accepted principle of separation of church and state has been interpreted in one way by those who (following the secular libertarian tradition of Thomas Jefferson) have viewed religious fervor as a potential danger to freedom of thought that requires a high wall of separation to protect government from sectarian influences, and in another by those who have made a distinction between the establishment of a national church, which was admittedly unconstitutional and unAmerican, and governmental endorsement of the common beliefs and values of the major Protestant denominations. Those advocating an offical recognition of mainstream Protestantism as America's faith have generally tried to give the sanction of law and public authority to cultural practices and moral standards that were not shared by religious (or nonreligious) minorities.

During the Jacksonian period, between the 1820s and the 1840s, the high-

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