By George Rable
“Both [sides] read the same Bible and pray to the same God,” said Abraham Lincoln in his second inaugural address. But scholars and teachers have more often quoted Lincoln’s words than attempted to incorporate this insight into their writing and teaching. What would be gained by adding religious themes and ideas into a Civil War course? At the most basic level, this would tell a story much more recognizable to the Civil War generation. If we want our students to understand how Americans in the middle of the nineteenth century experienced this greatest of national traumas, religion has to be part of the narrative.
In studying the soldiers and civilians, the politicians and reformers, and the free and the enslaved, attention to religious faith and practice (or lack thereof) opens up new windows on this most written about period of American history:
- Ideas about providence, sin, and judgment (to name a few) informed how many Americans interpreted the causes, course, and consequences of the war.
- The very pervasiveness of religious language in everything from official documents to secular newspapers to family records demands reflection.
- For teachers seeking new kinds of primary sources for classroom use, sermons, tracts, religious periodicals, and church records all offer exciting possibilities.
- The growing secondary literature on religion during the Civil War era gives teachers a chance to deal with historiographical issues in a developing field of study.
- Religion itself is important to many students, so here is an opportunity to reach them where they live, and perhaps even spark the interest of those who have proven to be more reticent on other subjects.
Where in the syllabus could material on religion be added? Professors could integrate discussions of Civil War religion in many places, regardless of whether the course is organized chronologically or topically:
Political discourse: In considering disunion, students might explore the role that ministers and churches played in the secession crisis. During the conflict itself, both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis proclaimed days of fasting, humiliation, and prayer and days of thanksgiving. In such observances, to what extent did the Civil War become a “holy war?”
Soldier studies: Both soldiers and civilians worried about the “temptations” of camp life. Examining vices such as swearing, drinking, gambling, and sexual offenses offers a way for the professor and students to connect battlefield and home front. The complex and often ambivalent relationships between chaplains and the soldiers revealed a great deal about lived religious experience in the armies [the new exhibit of chaplain-soldier dialogues at Pamplin Historical Park in Virginia could be worth seeing]. Religious revivals in the Union and Confederate armies can be studied as part of the war’s chronological narrative or in connection with antebellum evangelicalism. Evolving ideas about Christian soldiers and their character, including how religion helped both soldiers and civilians cope with disease, wounds, and death again illuminates connections between camp and home front.
Religion, race, and slavery: Students could explore the relationship between religion and slavery during the war including the theological significance of emancipation. What was relationship between the churches and the freedpeople? African American religion during the Civil War has certainly been understudied, but students could do research in the Christian Recorder, an important African American religious periodical.
Religious interpretations of the Civil War’s course and meaning: Many Americans interpreted the outcome of individual battles [Bull Run as a case study, e. g., reading Horace Bushnell’s sermon Reverses Needed!] in theological terms. This held true for the entire war, and the end of the conflict itself led to a great deal of commentary on the war’s religious significance. Students could read sermons on Lincoln’s assassination.
Other topics for lectures, readings, or research projects. One could compare the war’s impact on northern and southern churches and in turn examine the connection between religious and political reconstruction. A discussion of the different and at times competing work of the Christian Commission and Sanitary Commission would be revealing about the relationship between religion and wartime benevolence. Abraham Lincoln’s religious views [with the Second Inaugural as a prime example] would be a great way to introduce students to a fascinating historiographical question. As a digital history project, students could study how religious topics were handled in the secular press.
Robert Mathiesen, ed., Religion and the American Civil: A History in Documents. New York: Routledge, 2015.
Mark A. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.
George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.
Sean A. Scott, A Visitation of God: Northern Civilians Interpret the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Harry S. Stout, Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War. New York: Viking, 2006.
George C. Rable is the Charles Summersell Chair in Southern History at the University of Alabama. His most recent book is Damn Yankees! Demonization and Defiance in the Confederate South