The Civil War as a Theological Crisis

The Civil War as a Theological Crisis

The Civil War as a Theological Crisis

The Civil War as a Theological Crisis


Viewing the Civil War as a major turning point in American religious thought, Mark A. Noll examines writings about slavery and race from Americans both white and black, northern and southern, and includes commentary from Protestants and Catholics in Europe and Canada. Though the Christians on all sides agreed that the Bible was authoritative, their interpretations of slavery in Scripture led to a full-blown theological crisis.


In the uncertain days of late 1860 and early 1861, the pulpits of the United States were transformed into instruments of political theology. Abraham Lincoln, the president-elect, continued to insist that he would follow through on the platform of the Republican Party to prohibit forever the spread of slavery into new United States territory. On December 20, delegates to a special convention in Columbia, South Carolina, voted to secede from the Union. The other states of the Deep South seemed sure to follow, and those of the Upper South and border South likely to do so. In such dire circumstances, Americans looked to their preachers for instruction from God.

Ministers throughout the United States responded confidently. The will of God, as revealed first in the Scriptures and then through reflection on the workings of divine providence, was clear. Or at least it was clear to the ministers as individuals, many of whom were eager to raise a trumpet for the Lord. As a group, however, it was a different story, for the trumpets blown so forthrightly were producing cacophony. On no subject was the cacophony more obvious, and more painful, than on the question of the Bible and slavery. On no subject did the cacophony touch such agonizing depths as on the question of God's providential designs for the United States of America.

The Bible and Slavery

Whether the Union should be preserved was everywhere acknowledged to be the political question of the hour, but only inference or deduction could discern a message in the Bible concerning the specific fate of the United States of America. By contrast, on slavery, which everyone knew was the economic, social, and moral issue on which the political question turned, it was a dif-

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