Secession and Civil War The End of Moderation
AS THE STORM tides of civil war began to stir during the 1850s, the Reformed clergy in the low country called for reason and moderation in the hope that they would stem the tide and preserve the Union. But when they saw Abraham Lincoln elected and the war break over Fort Sumter, they abandoned moderation and took their stand with Southern extremists whom they had long opposed. This chapter explores first the clergy's struggle to follow their middle way up until 1861 and, second, their attempt to envision the new Confederacy as a Holy Commonwealth, preserver of the sacred traditions of the American republic, with a social order marked by "regulated liberty."
The Unionist spirit continued to dominate the political and social perspectives of low country Presbyterian and Congregational leaders during the decade leading to the Civil War, even as the low country itself became a hotbed for secession. The reunion in 1852 of those who had been separated by the 1839 division of the old Charleston Union Presbytery strengthened this Unionist spirit and brought a new social solidarity to the low country Reformed community under the banner of Old School Presbyterianism.1 Seeking to walk an increasingly narrow middle way, Old School Presbyterians across the nation-- unlike the Methodists and Baptists who divided along North-South lines in 1844/45--remained united until after the shots were fired on Fort Sumter and great battles were being fought between Northern and Southern armies.
Throughout the 1950s an ardent love for the Union and its Constitution was expressed by Presbyterian and Congregational church leaders in the low country. In January 1851, shortly before he began his pastorate at Glebe Street in Charleston, Thornwell wrote on the sacred character of the Union. "The finger of God," he said, could be traced "in every stage of its history. We have looked upon it as destined to be a blessing to mankind." The geography of the United States--between Europe and Asia, "in the very center of the earth"-- and its history seemed to Thornwell "to be commissioned from the skies as the