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Recent Historiography on Religion and the American Civil War

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Recent Historiography on Religion and the American Civil War

Religion and the American Civil War is a field of study which has received much attention in recent years. Previously considered a peripheral issue by most Civil War historians (erroneously so), religion reemerged as a significant interpretive element of the Civil War experience with the publication of Religion and the American Civil War (1998), a collection of essays edited by Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout and George Reagan Wilson. Well-known historians such as Eugene D. Genovese, Daniel W. Stowell, Drew Gilpin Faust, Bertram Wyatt-Brown and Samuel S. Hill contributed to the ground-breaking volume.

The 1994 religion and Civil War symposium in Louisville that led to the Religion and the American Civil War volume stands as a watershed event in terms of religion and Civil War historiography. However, a survey of Civil War historiography from the mid-1970s to the present provides the larger context in terms of recent historical attention given to religion and the Civil War. Modern historians have approached the theme of religion and the Civil War in at least seven distinct, albeit sometimes overlapping, subcategories: 1) Religion in general during the Civil War, 2) Northern religion and the Civil War, 3) Southern religion and the Civil War, 4) Religion among the soldiers, 5) Civil War chaplains, 6) African-American religion and the Civil War, 7) Women and religion during the Civil War, and 8) Religious denominations and the Civil War.

Any discussion of the American Civil War must take into account the issue of slavery, the underlying cause of the War. The sectional debates over slavery were frequently couched in religious language. Modern historians addressing the relationship of religion and the Civil War typically focus on slavery as the one defining issue of antebellum religion. As such, an important question begs our attention: should historical literature pertaining to the larger antebellum and Reconstruction eras, but not the Civil War itself, be included in a historiography of religion and the Civil War?

The editors of Religion and the American Civil War focus on the period of the late antebellum era to early Reconstruction. The same timeline will be utilized in this paper. Nonetheless, the earlier antebellum era shaped the religious beliefs which would impact the Civil War. Religion, especially of the Protestant variety, was an important factor in antebellum culture. The Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century in particular greatly impacted American society. This renewed interest in matters of faith led northerners to embrace a view of Christian perfection for individuals, a theology which in turn was applied to society in an effort to eradicate social ills. Southerners, on the other hand, reacted to the revivals by assuming a faith of personal piety which focused on a literal reading of the Bible, but expressed little concern for addressing society’s problems. Historians are increasingly identifying these differing approaches to religious faith, and the actions resulting from these views, as playing a foundational role in the Civil War. However, historians are only slowly recognizing the contributions of Catholics and minority religions in relation to the Civil War.

In analyzing the historiography of religion and the Civil War, this essay will follow the order outlined in the seven subcategories previously introduced. Accordingly, an analysis of religion in general is of first concern.

Religion in General and the Civil War

In Broken Churches, Broken Nation (1985), C. C. Goen was among the first modern historians to place primacy upon the influence of religion as a significant factor of the Civil War. Goen examines the themes of unity and separation, arguing that Presbyterian, Methodist and Baptist divisions along North and South lines in 1837, 1844 and 1845, respectively, over the issue of slavery, along with the ensuing activities of the three denominations prior to the Civil War, both signaled and sealed the inevitably of war. According to Goen, the church splits broke the bond of national unity (as expressed in Protestant hegemony), established a model for sectional independence, reinforced alienation between sections via distorted images, and progressively elevated the level of moral outrage each section felt towards the other. American churches’ overemphasis on individualism, inadequate social theory and world-rejecting ecclesiology, according to Goen, failed to provide adequate leadership on the question of slavery, thus leading the nation to turn to politics in an effort to confront the slavery issue, which in turn led to war.

Richard J. Carwardine further examines the relationship between religion and politics in Evangelicals and Politics in Antebellum America (1993). Carwardine posits that evangelical Protestants were among the principle

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