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The Civil War: Missing in Action

Joseph Loconte

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The series "The Civil War" by Ken Burns omits the religious influences and movements that shaped the Civil War thus limiting our understanding of the war.

The Civl War series is television at its best: history-telling that is intelligent, textured, personal, and deeply affecting. Ken Burns rightly argues that Americans cannot understand America without understanding this war.

Yet we can't fully comprehend the Civil War without appreciating the religious movements and ideas that fueled it. Like most historians, Burns all but ignores these influences.

There's no discussion of how Christian ministers and activists helped outlaw slavery in the North, or how they led the abolitionist cause up until the outbreak of war. We never learn that Harriet Beecher Stowe's explosive anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, was drenched in biblical imagery--thanks to Stowe's evangelical upbringing. We never hear about the congregations in the North and the South that gave sanctuary to runaway slaves.

We all know that the Civil War divided families, states and political parties. But we learn virtually nothing from Burn's film about how it fractured churches and entire denominations. Breaking from northern Baptists, for example, the Southern Baptist Convention was created to defend the rights of slaveowners. For religious believers, slavery represented a battle for the meaning of the gospel as surely as it was a contest over the meaning of America.

Every Sunday, from pulpits around the country, ministers either defended the God-given dignity of blacks or debased them as carrying the value of a farm animal. Southern politicians called northern clergy "meddling priests" and "the most encroaching" and "arrogant class of men" for injecting religion into politics. Christian abolitionists accused Southern clergy of rank hypocrisy and abuse of the Bible. One of them, Abram Pryne, denounced a religion "that prays--and steals negroes; that sings psalms--and whips women."

Only rarely have historians studied the powerful link between the Christian revivals of the 19th century and the politics of abolition. Wheaton College professor Mark Noll argues that the Civil War can be seen "as the last chapter in the Christian story of the Second Great Awakening." It was Bible-based opposition to slavery that drove northern evangelicals into the arms of a political party--the Republican Party. As historian Richard Carwardine puts it, "Republicans acquired their essential moral energy" from conservative Protestants.

The head of their party, of course, was Abraham Lincoln, a man whose deep sense of Providence forged his own arguments against slavery. Yet, depite scores of Lincoln biographies, it wasn't until the 1999 publication of Alan Guelzo's book Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President that Lincoln's religious reflections got serious attention. In his Second Inaugural address, Guelzo notes, Lincoln suggested that God "gives to both North and South this terrible war" because of the sin of slavery. It was a masterly blend of theology and statecraft.

The secular accounts of the Civil War need revision. In an otherwise grim episode in American history, there's a narrative of religious conviction and moral courage waiting to be told. Americans of all faiths, or of no faith, would be greatly enriched by hearing it.


[1] Richard J. Cowardine, Evangelicals and Politics in Antebellum America (Yale University Press, 1993), p.291.

[2] Mark Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (Eerdmans, 1992), p.314.

Joseph Loconte is the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at the Heritage Foundation.

This article was published on the Heritage Foundation website. Reprinted with permission.

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