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God's Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era) Hardcover – November 29, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Apart from Charles Regan Wilson's classic Baptized in the Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865–1920, Civil War historians have often neglected the story of religion in their chronicles of America's sectarian conflict. In this brilliant and groundbreaking book, University of Alabama historian Rable draws upon newspapers, sermons, diaries, letters, and journals to show that many people on both sides of the conflict turned to faith to help explain the war's causes, course, and consequences. Rable demonstrates that both Northerners and Southerners tried to make sense of the brutal war by thumbing through their Bibles, listening to their preachers, and interpreting battles as a fulfillment of a divine plan. Thus, Stephen Alexander Hodgman, a Northerner who had lived in the South for 32 years before the war, declared that God had not just sealed the doom of slavery, but that the war had helped prepare the way for the reign of Christ. Because of its thorough research and its chronicle of the lives of ordinary people, Rable's engrossing study of the role of religion in the Civil War will stand as the definitive religious history of America's most divisive conflict. (Nov.)
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A groundbreaking account. . . . Examining a wide range of published and unpublished documents . . . Rable illuminates the broad role of religion during the Civil War. . . . The only comprehensive religious history of the war. . . . Will make an important addition to your Civil War library. . . . Excellent.--Lone Star Book Review
Rable's sweeping synthesis invites reflection on the growing body of work on religion in the Civil War and on the meaning of 'a religious history' of the war.--Arkansas Historical Quarterly
Rable taps into the extensive scholarly literature on Civil War chaplains." --The North Carolina Historical Review
Religion in the Civil War has been an understudied subject, but Rable's thorough study goes a long way toward rectifying the neglect. . . . A heroic feat of research.--James M. McPherson, New York Review of Books
Brilliant and groundbreaking. . . . Rable's engrossing study of the role of religion in the Civil War will stand as the definitive religious history of America's most divisive conflict.--Publishers Weekly, starred review
The reader of this book is left with many insights, many things to reconsider through the lens of religion.--Georgia Historical Quarterly
Deeply researched and written with subtlety and skill. . . . Rable's book will become a classic." --Christian Century
I lamented the end of this book. Rable's recounting was so gripping and moving that one simply wanted more. Rable is a historian's historian, one who has sifted an enormous mound of evidence, dealt fairly with it, made good sense of it, and spun a captivating tale.--Mid-America Journal of Theology
Rable's work attests that historians cannot understand the Civil War without including the role of religion and that those who ignore it misapprehend how those who lived during the war saw the conflict.--Utah Historical Quarterly
Impressively researched and well written, this book will appeal especially to specialists in the areas of the nineteenth-century United States, American church history, and the Civil War. . . . Scholars for many years to come will turn to Rable for a definitive synthesis of a subject too long neglected.--Indiana Magazine of History
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George C. Rable's God's Almost Chosen Peoples (2010) "is not a thesis-driven work," but rather gives a breathtakingly comprehensive account of both mainstream and divergent religious views during the conflict. The book is not centrally focused upon civil religion or theology, but about "how all sorts of people used faith to interpret the course of the Civil War and its impact on their lives, families, churches, communities, and `nations'" (p. 6). According to Rable, the Civil War is unparalleled for the numbers of laypeople and clergy on both sides openly looking to their Bibles and faith to explain everything from individual deaths to the fate of the war itself. Traditional narratives of the Civil War such as those by James Ford Rhodes, Bruce Catton, and Shelby Foote scarcely mentioned religion, and Rable's book aims to correct the omission.
The book is ambitious in scale and a seminal contribution to studies on both the Civil War and American religion. While Rable modestly claims it to be "merely one" of "many different religious histories of the Civil War" that could be written, it seems unlikely that a comparable volume will arrive on the academic scene anytime soon (p. 5). Thirteen years in the making, the book weighs in at almost six hundred pages, nearly a third of them in "Notes" and "Index." Rable mines thousands of primary sources including tracts, sermons, church minutes, newspapers, periodicals, and myriad manuscripts in scores of public and private collections from Vermont to Texas, as well as hundreds of secondary sources including a dozen dissertations. The scope of religion covered is vast indeed, encompassing religious groups such as Jews, Catholics, Quakers, Unitarians, Episcopalians and more than a few of the impious as well as the usual suspects: Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians. The types of viewpoints covered range from Southern belles to soldiers of every rank, from the devout to the unrepentant, from slaveholding politicians to African American clergy. The result is impressive in scope, to say the least.
--**CHAPTER BY CHAPTER SURVEY**--
The prologue charts a course for the book as covering religious (and non-religious) views during the war, particularly noting that people on both sides widely interpreted the war through the lens of providence. "Crises of Faith" sets the national religious scene leading up to the war, particularly how events from the Compromise of 1850 to the Kansas-Nebraska Act to John Brown's raid in 1859 led to increasingly volatile religious rhetoric and unveiled "new fissures along sectional, party, racial, and theological lines" (p. 32). Focusing on the year immediately before the Civil War, "Reaping the Whirlwind" shows how churches North and Sound largely proved impotent in directing or halting the growing sectional tensions and mostly reacted to rapidly developing events, while some clergy fanned the flames of sectional conflict. Once begun, the conflict soon turned into a "Holy War" as formerly peace-and-union clergy supported their respective side in the conflict as the upholder of Christian civilization against either heathen abolitionists in the North or lawless secessionists in the South, all the while repeatedly and hypocritically condemning those on the other side for preaching politics.
"Fighting for God and Country" covers churches in both North and South initially blessing soldiers going off to war, uncritically supporting their respective governments, and interpreting early battles through the lens of the Bible and divine providence. Defeats resulted in days of fasting and jeremiads calling for repentance, victories produced days of thanksgiving to God, and the lengthening war evoked millennial purposes for a war soon to unleash terrible slaughter.
"Temptations of the Camp" reveals the general impiety reported among soldiers on both sides manifested in declining Sabbath observance, profane language, alcoholism, gambling, and sexual immorality. "The Shepherds and Their Sheep" shows that despite the role of religion in intensifying and justifying the war, military chaplains had a hard time compelling regular religion among most soldiers, who were ill-disciplined young men separated from home and its norms for the first time. Citizens of North and South believed "Christian Soldiers" would lead them to victory, but that chapter recounts that the devout (and some impious) soldiers on both sides enjoyed martial-sounding and generally evangelical hymns; plenty of Bibles (in the North, not the South) and other printed materials; a hope in heaven as home; and overall interdenominational unity (despite some lingering competition). The chapter also observes that the brutality of war had hardened many hearts against religion and most soldiers were probably not devout Christians, contrary to contemporary and many later perceptions.
"The God of Battles" follows reactions to the war's progress in 1862, when losses and costly gains on both sides prompted claims that God's higher purpose allowed some chastisement of the chosen yet wayward people, while the Union forces shared the sense of national punishment but with more focus on slavery. The horrors of the battlefield prompted soldiers to search for spiritual comfort that was more mysteriously providential and more martial, hardening their hearts against the enemy. "Carnage" covers the struggle of many with death and anxiety or hope about the life they believed followed. Chaplains by deathbeds sought to comfort and save souls and later bury the bodies; dying soldiers alternately pleaded for Jesus to save them or railed against heaven; and those at home clung to the hope of heaven to see loved ones again. Many wondered what the "War's Purpose" was and, despite the dominance of civil religion and its mix of jeremiads and millennial hopes, some, including Lincoln, questioned whose side God was on and wondered what national sin could account for a divine judgment so terrible. Lincoln's provisional Emancipation Proclamation heartened some Abolitionists, but met resistance from religious conservatives even as many in the North felt the sin of slavery had something to do with the war.
"The Lord's Work" covers attempts at converting soldiers in revivals, which found greatest success in appealing to emotions such as the desire for home, yet overall involvement in religious services and conversions as a proportion of the army were low. Meanwhile, religious benevolence societies arose on both sides, including the Sanitary and Christian commissions, while many women served as nurses. "Testing Faith" covers home front from Christmas 1862 to mid-1863, a time producing limited rejoicing but no moral transformation in the North from Lincoln's final Emancipation Proclamation, more jeremiads against selfish materialism in the North, and overconfidence in the resurgent South. Ironically, the rise in religion supporting the state during the war coincided with a "Declension" in church attendance and overt piety during the war, and especially in the border states the clergy ironically complained that people were too preoccupied with the war. Women took new roles in family devotions and charity as men were off waging war, scapegoats and refugees fed local tensions, and the religious fabric of society began to tear, especially in the South. "Wrath" covers a familiar cycle on both sides of naively interpreting victories as God's favor and losses as God's punishment for sin in summer of 1863 as Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg marked the turning point of the war. "Jubilo" describes Southern white churches clinging to the peculiar institution as a moral good and fearing slave insurrections, while black churches generally identified slavery as the national sin provoking God's wrath in war and saw emancipation as a millennial hope for collective and personal salvation. Among Northern whites, even abolitionists were tainted by racism and unprepared to welcome black brothers as spiritual or social equals.
"Armies of the Lord" shows a general shift in emphasis inward by the end of 1863 toward personal salvation as revivals in war camps once again arose on both sides (especially among Confederates), though the respective home fronts were less welcome to evangelical revival. Still, faith in national and personal salvation remained intertwined for many and providential interpretations of the war still dominated. "War Comes to the Churches" describes how occupying powers on both sides persecuted "disloyal" churches and ministers, turned churches into hospitals, coerced pastors not to undermine their cause in sermons or prayers, and sometimes destroyed church buildings, while overconfident Northern missionaries brought a combination of Union loyalty and Gospel conviction to unreceptive Southern congregations.
"Citizens, Saints, and Soldiers" tells of reactions to Union advances in 1864 in both North and South, which sometimes sounded skeptical about a providence that could permit the cruelties of the war yet more often reaffirmed a (frequently bewildered) faith that God guided the course of the war. Both sides again sought spiritual renewal on the field and at home, yet such efforts met with limited success, and each side continued to demonize the other and the war grew ever more brutal. "Thanksgiving and Desperation" recounts Northerners' hubris in the face of victory and Southerners' soul-searching at the apparent loss of divine favor late in the war, as well as widespread religion among prisoners that predictably favored their respective cause. "The Final Decrees of Providence" relates the North's gloating victors' theology at war's end, though Lincoln's assassination prompted some soul-searching that generally pointed to the mysterious will of God. The "Epilogue" restates the main themes of the book, arguing that with all its religious rhetoric, the Civil War "the `holiest' war in American history" (p. 397).
It is difficult to find much to criticize about this book that is not inherent in a work of its scope. The book's scope aims to be comprehensive, and the wide inclusion of sources is overwhelmingly. While the author seeks "to include a cross section of denominational and theological perspectives (including the nonreligious), ... this [is] not possible on every issue" because publishing and readability limitations require him to trim down the text "from two earlier and considerably longer drafts" and to discard "five or six" citations "for each citation in the notes" (p. 6). Given that the author still gave ample voice to skeptics, Jews, women, African-Americans, and people of every social class from almost every significant English-speaking denomination, it is hard to suggest the author should include more perspectives. However, recent German Lutheran, Scandinavian, and Dutch Reformed immigrants could have received more attention, the difficulty of going through such sources (many of whom may not be in English) notwithstanding. Despite the vast array of perspectives presented, the author critically yet constructively presents each, evincing both sympathy and skepticism with a healthy dose of scholarly restraint. The author also unfailingly uses a compelling writing style and intriguing vignettes to draw the reader into the text - a pleasant surprise from such a sizable tome.
The author confesses in the prologue that the text is not "a straightforward story, and the narrative [had] to zigzag and even backtrack to do justice to the struggles of the Civil War generation" (p. 7). The book takes a generally chronological approach with some topical chapters, which gives a general sense of progress through the war that feels easy to follow even as the text occasionally jumps around between the months and years. The text could have been more tightly organized topically, but it probably would have lost much in its readability and overall flow. Invariably narrative introductions to each chapter read easily, but each of the chapters are so full of variegated ideas that none has a unifying argument and only a few more topical ones could stand on their own. Certain religious claims out of the mouth of primary sources, such as demonizing the enemy and claiming God is on one's side, repeat so often that it grew a bit tiresome by the end. Still, the book's overwhelming display of relevant data seems justified given historians' traditional neglect of religion's role in the conflict.
Several main themes about religious faith weave in and out throughout the book, tightly binding the whole work together. As the war broke out, faith tended at first to rally around the state and escalate the war, but also offered solace though faith in a providence that gave the sacrifices of the war a higher purpose. The faith of most trembled in the face of brutal slaughter and hardening hearts brought by war, but the faith of many endured by trusting in a chastising providence, however conceived. Despite demonstrating that most of the soldiers were not devout Christians, the author showed how many and perhaps most Americans at the time held to the idea of divine providence as guiding human events great and small. A shored believed in God's providence was as practically Rable's implicit thesis, but it would have been more helpful if Rable made the thesis explicit. While Rable rightly told many little stories of Civil War, historians do reader a great service when they give particular focus to a single larger story (i.e., a thesis).
Having finished this book, it is hard to disagree with its closing remark that many Americans who lived through the war, whatever their side, race, or religious background, might well have said about the war, "I've always thought God had something to do with it" (p. 397).
During church services, it was common to "confess" the sins of the nation, though these sins were mostly attributed to the other side. While the North pointed to slavery and rebellion as the cause of God's wrath, the South blamed it on the Yankee's "atheism" and oppression:
"Lincoln, like the Egyptian Pharaoh, had hardened his heart against eleven states that sought to leave the house of bondage."
Preachers throughout the Union and Confederacy found no shortage of Old Testament stories to represent their plight: the Exodus, the division of the twelve tribes (used skillfully by both sides), Israel's battles with the Philistines, the Southern David fighting the Northern Goliath (less popular after Union victories), and so on.
Rable shows how religion was even used to justify slavery. In a sermon preached in Savannah, Stephen Elliott called slavery a "divinely guarded system, planted by God, protected by God, and arranged for his own wise purposes." Calls for abolition were clear displays of the godlessness of the North.
This assurance on the part of both sides that theirs was the righteous cause helped justify hatred. One Alabama preacher claimed a "deep Christian and inextinguishable hatred toward the demons of the north....it is doing God service to kill the diabolical wretches on the battlefield." Horace Bushnell, a Congregationalist Minister from Connecticut, asked a soldier whom he met on the road, "Killed anybody yet?" When the officer was not sure, Bushnell replied, "Time you had, that's what you went out for."
Though Rable records a lot of rhetoric and hypocrisy, he also gives plenty evidence of true religion, both on the battlefield and at home. There were some ministers who refused to be political and continued to preach nothing but the Gospel, while their congregations served in whatever way they could. Some, such as the Catholic Sisters of Mercy, tirelessly rendered aid and showed love to soldiers from either side. And though the war hardened some, it had a sanctifying affect on others. One soldier wrote:
"There is something irresistible in the appeal which the Almighty makes, when He strikes from your side, in the twinkling of an eye, your friend and comrade."
As mentioned above, others found the war not so sanctifying. When upbraided for swearing, one Baptist minister turned captain replied: "The Lord has given me a furlough until this damn war is over."
Most, however, were never Christians to begin with. Rable says estimates suggest that no more than 25% of Union armies and around 1/3 of the Confederate forces were Christians. But who can number the faithful? One thing is sure: there was enough drinking, gambling, cursing, and dancing on both sides to keep the tract presses running and the missionaries praying.
Rable examines every aspect of religion during the Civil War, showing both the good and bad without apparent bias. And if his book lacks in any area, it's not in the research; there are almost two hundred pages of bibliography and footnotes. This is a work that would be difficult to dispute, as we hear directly from those who were involved. Rable quotes letters, diaries, sermons, and speeches from soldiers, mothers, preachers, and nuns.
Whatever Rable's religious background, he shows an excellent understanding of church history, theology, and denominational distinctions. He also displays a thorough familiarity with the Bible. We can trust that he knows what he's talking about.
My difficulty with this otherwise great work is the repetition. Though there is a loose chronological progression, the writing is mostly made up of short anecdotes and quotes that, after a while, sound the same. In the first chapter we learn that both sides believed God was on their side, both saw their victories as favor and their defeats as judgment, both twisted Scripture to justify their cause, both looked for providence in every blink of a gnat. And, though illustrated in different ways each time, we hear the same themes throughout each chapter. But Rable throws in enough new material and interesting quotes to keep us reading; in the end we're glad that we did.
God's Almost Chosen Peoples will be most enjoyable to history lovers, and is essential for those who have an interest in the American Civil War. But it will also be valuable to students of religion, as it provides an in-depth look at the state of religion during the most difficult period in American history.
I received a complimentary review copy of this book from The University of North Carolina Press.