God's Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War

God's Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War

God's Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War

God's Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War

Synopsis

Throughout the Civil War, soldiers and civilians on both sides of the conflict saw the hand of God in the terrible events of the day, but the standard narratives of the period pay scant attention to religion. Now, in God's Almost Chosen Peoples, Lincoln Prize-winning historian George C. Rable offers a groundbreaking account of how Americans of all political and religious persuasions used faith to interpret the course of the war. Examining a wide range of published and unpublished documents--including sermons, official statements from various churches, denominational papers and periodicals, and letters, diaries, and newspaper articles--Rable illuminates the broad role of religion during the Civil War, giving attention to often-neglected groups such as Mormons, Catholics, blacks, and people from the Trans-Mississippi region. The book underscores religion's presence in the everyday lives of Americans north and south struggling to understand the meaning of the conflict, from the tragedy of individual death to victory and defeat in battle and even the ultimate outcome of the war. Rable shows that themes of providence, sin, and judgment pervaded both public and private writings about the conflict. Perhaps most important, this volume--the only comprehensive religious history of the war--highlights the resilience of religious faith in the face of political and military storms the likes of which Americans had never before endured.

Excerpt

In August 1864, Presbyterian editor Amasa Converse concluded that the past three years of war had clearly demonstrated the power of prayer. The first great Confederate victory at Manassas in July 1861 had followed an official day of prayer. But then a period of spiritual indifference during the fall and winter had preceded disastrous losses in Tennessee. The southern people again fell to their knees during the spring of 1862, and Richmond had been delivered from General George B. McClellan’s mighty hosts. Other victories had followed, but too much faith had been placed in generals and armies, and so once again God’s favor had temporarily departed, and General Robert E. Lee had retreated from the bloody Antietam battlefield. March 27, 1863, had been another day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer, and a little over a month later came the dramatic triumph at Chancellorsville. Yet, once more, people had relied on human strength, neglected prayer, and received their just punishment at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. But after a fast day in August 1863, southern arms enjoyed a glorious victory at Chickamauga, thus sparking a season of intense revivalism in the Confederate armies. And following a fast day on April 8, 1864, southern armies had enjoyed a nearly “unbroken” string of successes that had stymied both Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman.

One could easily object to Converse’s chronology and theology, but his long editorial exemplified a pervasive, providential interpretation of the Civil War. Men, women, and children, free and slave, Protestants, a growing number of Catholics, Mormons, and even the small number of Jews formed a complex cultural mosaic, but one that nevertheless shared a providential outlook on life. Historians have yet to write a religious history of the Civil War, but many Americans living during the era saw God’s hand in the war’s origins, course, and outcome. Prominent Methodist divine Daniel S. Doggett recognized how reluctant historians might be to acknowledge the Almighty’s role in human history. “It has become customary for history to ignore God,” he lamented in an 1862 Thanksgiving sermon. “The pride of the human heart is intolerant of God, and historians are too obsequious to its dictates. They collect and arrange their materials; they philosophize upon them. But their philosophy knows not God.” Ministers often excoriated both individuals and nations for a variety of sins, but Doggett feared that historians failed to recognize, much less understand, how the war marked the unfolding of divine purpose. “Those who undertake the task of committing to posterity the record of our times . . .

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