- God's Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War
This splendidly researched, clearly organized, and persuasively argued study of religion and the American Civil War sets a lofty new standard for a topic that, after long neglect, is now receiving its due. George Rable has undertaken the thorough research in archives, contemporary published writings, and prolific Civil War scholarship required for mastering a large and complex subject. The great success of God's Almost Chosen People, however, is not just its breadth of research; it is even more the empathetic treatment of a subject that for many participants was always critical in the outworking of the conflict. When Rable began his research on this book in the late 1990s, the historians who had gone before with serious work included Lewis Vander Velde, James Silver, James Moorhead, Gardiner Shattuck Jr., and very few others. In the last several years this incongruous situation has changed rapidly, with solid books directly on religion in the war from (among others) David Chesebrough, Kent Dollar, James Lehman and Steven Nolt, Randall Miller, Robert Miller, David Rolfs, Sean Scott, Harry Stout, Charles Reagan Wilson, and Steven Woodworth, along with a wealth of other volumes on religious contributions to debates over slavery, the effects of emancipation on African-American churches, religious factors in Reconstruction and southern "redemption," and many other related subjects. Yet even as Rable has taken advantage of this new wave of scholarship, his own effort has exceeded all previous efforts in both research depth and interpretive power.
My one very minor criticism of the book, however, concerns a fine secondary [End Page 268] work that Rable overlooks. Missing from his exhaustive bibliography is Michael Hochgeschwender's Wahrheit, Einheit, Ordnung: Die Sklavenfrage und der amerikanische Katholizismus, 1835-1870 (2006), a book that would have helped explain Catholic attitudes toward slavery through attention to Catholics' strategic alliance with the Democratic Party and their antagonism to the Yankee Protestants who championed both abolitionism and anti-Catholic nativism.
Rable's exposition is broadly chronological, beginning in the late 1850s with attitudes in the churches and by self-conscious believers toward the looming sectional crisis, moving through constant efforts to interpret wartime developments with religious categories, and ending in 1865 with strikingly divergent explanations for the providential meaning of the war. In addition, Rable often pauses for short thematic treatments of discrete topics. Thus, he shows that Mormons regarded the war as just retribution for a nation that had squandered its chance to follow the prophet Joseph Smith. He notes that traditional antagonism between Catholics and Protestants occasionally surfaced among the troops and more often in commentary from the religious press. But his full account of hospital care also reveals that the sacrificial service of many nuns measurably softened hereditary anti-Catholic sentiments. Likewise, the faithful work of Catholic chaplains gained the admiration of some Protestants even as it brought sacraments to the hundreds of thousands of Catholics under arms (mostly in Union armies).
The difficult task of chaplains is a prominent subtheme. The North provided earlier and more support for the chaplaincy, but in both armies chaplains could easily lose the respect of troops by avoiding combat, acting hypocritically, or preaching long sermons. Conversely, chaplains who shared the hard lot of troops, who stayed at their posts through thick and thin, and who communicated a simple Christian message of purposeful hope sometimes became greatly esteemed.
Rable offers similar insight for a long list of other subjects: how God appeared in the Confederate Constitution and how the National Reform Association (founded in 1864) sought to amend the federal Constitution to the same end; why Sabbath observance (and non-observance) factored into military considerations; and the degree to which religion shaped the hagiography for Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, and (after his assassination) Abraham Lincoln. Still there is more: hymn singing among the troops, philanthropy from the U.S. Christian Commission, destruction of southern...