Religion and the American Civil War

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

16
Religion and the American Civil War in Comparative Perspective

CHARLES REAGAN WILSON

Some three decades ago, historian David Potter wrote in article chiding historians for their failure to look at the American Civil War in comparative perspective. It was part of a broader pattern of parochialism, he observed, whereby historians in this country wrote about liberty without reference to the French Revolution and about antebellum reform without considering the ferment in Britain to end the slave trade and to aid industrial workers. Decades later, comparative history has made much progress, becoming part of a historiographical movement to look beyond American exceptionalism and place the national story in broader contexts. But comparative understanding of the war is still limited, with few sustained efforts to explore aspects of the issue; certainly no comprehensive effort has appeared. This essay makes no claim to comprehensiveness, but attempts simply to examine a few case studies and to suggest issues that are important to understanding religion's role in a comparative understanding of civil wars. 1

Potter asked the question whether the American Civil War had "historical significance for anyone except Americans." He concluded in his comparative study that the Civil War was significant in world history for two reasons: "first, it turned the tide which had been running against nationalism for forty years, or ever since Waterloo; and second, it forged a bond between nationalism and liberalism at a time when it appeared that the two might draw apart and move in opposite directions." Potter did not consider religion at all as a factor in the war, but this essay's intention is to explore religious issues in the English Civil War of the mid-seventeenth century, the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, and the American Civil War. These examples were chosen after a wide survey of

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