Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Faith and Fighting: On Religion and the Civil War

Part of Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, delivered in March 1865, reads:

Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.

It is both significant and interesting that Lincoln narrated a vexing moment in American history with religious rhetoric. Historian Ronald C. White, who calls Lincoln the "eloquent President," notes in a recent interview that Lincoln's religious rhetoric flushed as the Civil War wore on. Here's White:

Another continuing surprise was the remarkable development in his religious thought and sensibilities in the Civil War which come to fruition in the Second Inaugural. But there are evidences of this development in other speeches. I decided to include in the book the one speech that he never gave, which was his own private meditation, which he never thought anyone would ever see. It was found after his death. I thought this was a clue, not only to the way he wrote speeches, he wrote a lot of these little notes to himself, but also to his developing religious consciousness. I think his religious faith has sometimes been discounted or set aside with the assumption that he was saying these things for public consumption. His theological thinking revealed in the Meditation on the Divine Will was never meant to be seen by anyone.

While a post on religion and the Civil War could go on and on--material on this subject abounds on the Internet--one of the better blogs on Civil War topics, Civil War Memory, offers a helpful resource page, and the National Humanities Center provides perspectives on the South and the North during the conflict. Duke Divinity Bulletin has a brief but informative article on the topic as well. For wider context and classroom resources, some may want to refer to the recent volume America on the World Stage: A Global Approach to U.S. History (eds. Gary W. Reichard and Ted Dickson). Mark Noll has a chapter titled "Nineteenth-Century Religion in World Context," and J.D. Bowers offers a companion teaching chapter titled "Teaching Nineteenth-Century American Religion in a Global Context."

These of course are all good places to start, but on Thursday evening you will hear from historian Luke Harlow. Luke is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Rice here in Houston where he studies 19th century American religion--has a wealth of knowledge about religion and the Civil War. Luke is a fellow co-contributing editor with me over at the Religion in American History blog, and recently published a book on religion and American politics, co-edited with his Wheaton college history professor Mark Noll (now of Notre Dame).

And to stay focused on the theme of popular, or lived religion, we'll watch a brief clip from the movie Glory (1989). In it members of the 54th Massachusetts hold a prayer meeting the night before battle.
There's much to discuss here, but I'll leave you with this quote from Private Jupiter Sharts (played by Jihmi Kennedy): "Tomorrow, we go into battle. So Lordy, let me fight with the rifle in one hand and Good Book in the other. That if I should die at the muzzle of the rifle, die on water or on land, I may know that You, Blessed Jesus Almighty, are with me. And I have no fear. Amen."
And a question for scholars and/or other Civil War experts: to what extent does religion play a part in today's Civil War reenactments? In addition to battles and the like, are mock prayer services, mock revivals, or even Mass, held? Who reenacts the role of chaplains? Any Internet resources you might direct us to? Thanks in advance.

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