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Faith & Values

The Battle of Gettysburg occurred 150 years ago this month, July 1-3, 1863. It marked the turning point of the Civil War. Until recently, scholars have given surprisingly little attention to religious beliefs, prayers and the role of institutional religion leading up to and through the Civil War.

In recent years, however, several scholars have delved into the impact that the war and religion had on each other. Three samples will need to suffice.

Drew Faust, the president of Harvard University, in her prizewinning “This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War” (Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), looks at the impact of the Civil War’s enormous death toll on the lives of 19th-century Americans. She examines how the survivors struggled to reconcile the unprecedented carnage with their belief in a benevolent God.

The prolific scholar of religion Mark Noll in “The Civil War as Theological Crisis” (University of North Carolina Press, 2006) highlights how the Protestant insistence that there is no authority above the Bible complicated any application of the ancient Scriptures to contemporary circumstances. Noll pinpoints the dilemma: “How can you argue against slavery when both the Old Testament and New Testament condone it?”

George Rable in “God’s Almost Chosen Peoples” (University of North Carolina Press, 2010) aptly sums up the wavering by preachers and the faithful before the Civil War: The “pious were part of the problem,” he says, “perpetuating either a dangerous fatalism or an irresponsible righteousness.” Some abnegated personal responsibility and placed everything in the hands of a providential God. Others, including abolitionists in the North and apologists for slavery in the South, were far too often convinced that God was surely “on their side.”

Rable gives multiple examples of how most clergy reflected the region from which they came.

Prominent Presbyterian Benjamin Palmer of New Orleans delivered a powerful sermon in 1860, which reverberated throughout the South. Palmer defended slavery as a “biblically sanctioned, economically vital and socially necessary institution.” Palmer warned against the “degradation” of submitting to the election of a black Republican, namely Lincoln.

As the Southern states began to secede, a Cincinnati minister cited rebels from the bible — Absalom, Jeroboam and Judas, along with lesser examples — and argued that the “Cause of the United States” and the “Cause of Jehovah” were identical.

Catholic Bishop Augustin Verot of Florida gave a conventional pro-slavery discourse that tediously reviewed biblical texts and blasted the abolitionists as infidels.

While Rable does an admirable job of including black institutional churches, he incorporates little from slaves or their “invisible institution.” Many slaves, we know, held clandestine services in the woods. Slave religion — with its intimacy with God and its rejection of Calvinist assumptions that providence was predetermined — was creative and transformative in ways that differed from the providential worldview that most whites held. If the parable of America as the New Israel was to have any credence for slaves, it could only be possible when America ceased to be Egypt, the biblical enslaver.

It would take 100 years (Aug. 28, 1963) before an eloquent Baptist preacher would interpret the Bible into a profound critique on racism in America. Martin Luther King Jr. would echo God’s words to the Egyptian pharaoh, “Let my people go.” King grasped the core of the Bible — that it’s all about spiritual freedom, responsible freedom, freedom to embrace all peoples as brothers and sisters of the one God. “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

An afterword: I have my own ironic claim on God’s providence related to the Civil War. My great-grandfather Mate Freeman was a cannoneer in the Union Army of the Potomac. Just before the Battle of Antietam (1862), the bloodiest one day of the whole war, he came down with dysentery. He later wrote, “I sat out the battle on the back of a caisson going first one way and then the other.” Without his timely malady, I most likely would not have been here today to write this column.

Fr. Patrick Howell SJ is the rector (religious superior) of the Jesuit Community at Seattle University and professor of pastoral theology. Readers may send feedback to