Religion and the American Civil War

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

4
Church, Honor, and Secession

BERTRAM WYATT-BROWN

Anger and frustration were the root emotions that drove southerners to secede, a visceral response to a collective sense of humiliation. Years of transatlantic criticism of slaveholding and growing northern indifference to southern interests had been a constant source of vexation. Contrary to some historical opinion, white southerners were alarmed not simply because they feared what Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans might do once in power. Parties were soon swept in and out of office, prudent men advised. Have patience; conservatism would yet return. Much more disturbing was the very election of an antislavery president. Southern politicians and editors had long threatened that such a political victory would mean national dissolution, but slave-state grievances and claims to political parity were contemptuously swept aside by northern balloting. It was bad enough to be insulted, but to have all warnings ignored was the final blow to southern pride. 1

Given the intensity of the humiliation, how can one explain why prominent churchmen of the region were so slow to join the political outcry for secession, particularly in the months leading to the election showdown? After all, the churches had been the first national institutions to split apart, setting an example for officeholders to follow some fifteen years later. 2 Moreover, nearly all recent scholars agree that religion exercised enormous power in the cultural and even the political life of the United States, in the slave states no less than in the free ones. In the South, as Sydney Ahlstrom observed, the clergy rightfully claimed to be "the official custodians of the popular conscience." 3 Richard Carwardine likewise argues that evangelical clergy and laity, North and South, placed themselves in the thick of antebellum political discourse by forming a "special-interest" bloc. That term is, however, misleading when it comes to the sectional crisis of 1860-1861. The slave-state clerical voice was ambivalent. Far from endorsing slavery's positive goodness, clerics sounded various themes on the subject. None was hostile, but few called it holy. Most

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