Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

The Civil War as a Theological Crisis

Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

The Civil War as a Theological Crisis

Article excerpt

The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. By Mark A. Noll. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006, Pp. x, 199. $29.95.)

With his characteristic balance and keen perception, historian Mark Noll examines in this book how American Protestant clergy wrestled with the existence of chattel slavery and how they interpreted the Civil War as part of God's providential plan. In addition, he includes a brief, illuminating survey of how both Protestant and Roman Catholic European commentators treated these same issues. Although most Americans held similar views regarding the veracity and supreme authority of Holy Writ, this consensus did not lead to agreement regarding slavery or the larger meaning of the war. "American national culture," Noll argues, "had been built in substantial part by voluntary and democratic appropriation of Scripture. Yet. . . such an approach to the Bible . . . resulted [in] an unbridgeable chasm of opinion about what Scripture actually taught" (8). Tragically, their methodology provided no easy way to resolve their disagreements short of armed conflict.

Although some scholars have studied how select intellectuals reacted to the Civil War and were themselves changed by their wartime experience, few have analyzed religious leaders. This lacuna is curious given how profoundly religious American culture was during the midnineteenth century. Noll makes several striking comparisons with our own time to highlight the pervasive social influence of Christianity in general and of evangelical Protestantism in particular. Oddly, the horrendous experience of internecine war did not produce in this instance (as it has often done in history) innovative and profound theological reflection. In much of what follows, Noll attempts to account for why there was "so little theological profundity" (16).

By neglecting or denigrating church tradition, antebellum Americans often interpreted the Bible in a naive, literalistic way, detached from larger theological contexts. They combined this democratic biblicism with an egalitarian empiricism drawn from Enlightenment sources. Both northerners and southerners held that scripture's meaning was self-evident and that ecclesiastical traditions were either misleading or irrelevant. …

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