Religion and the American Civil War

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

1
Religion and the American Civil War

PHILLIP SHAW PALUDAN

Tthis volume gathers experts on many aspects of the very large subject of religion and the American Civil War. What I will provide comes from being a generalist, and every generalist is at the mercy of specialists. Yet in our best moments, generalists and specialists both recognize that they benefit from the perspective of the other, that understanding of the past proceeds through conversation far more than through the victory of one perspective over another. To that extent we are all at each other's mercy, each dependent on the other so that the conversation can endure. I offer as my contribution to the conversation a story about what happened to Christianity, and essentially Protestant Christianity, in the Civil War era. While telling that story, I will pose some questions that I find intriguing about the era that may be worth considering both here and in the future. 1

The story of religion in the Civil War era takes place in the context of a larger story. That is the story of the transition of the United States from an agrarian society into a market-driven and more industrialized society, which linked together the lives and fortunes of strangers miles away from each other who began to experience events and trends that were increasingly beyond their control. And while many people benefited from the growth in wealth that this economic change brought, there came also in its wake protest from both North and South that the nation was losing its soul in the search for wealth. In these years, perhaps not coincidentally, membership in churches grew in America from one person in fifteen to one in seven. At a time when the median age of the population of the nation was 19.4, that is a very big number. 2

Economic change inspired religious questions because, from the beginning, Americans had defined this nation in religious terms. As early as 1630, on eve of sailing to the New World, Puritan divine John Cotton preached

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