- Reviewed by
Although there have been several books published in the past few years on religion in the American Civil War, the field remains fertile. George C. Rable's God's Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War is the latest volume on this important topic. Meticulously researched and remarkably balanced, the book is "a broad narrative that shows how all sorts of people used faith [End Page 488] to interpret the course of the Civil War and its impact on their lives, families, churches, communities, and 'nations'" (p. 6). Rable's study includes both northern and southern perspectives as well as a cross section of denominational and theological viewpoints.
The scope of the book is impressive. Rable begins by examining the religious state of the nation on the eve of the secession crisis and concludes with Southerners' attempts to reconcile defeat and their faith. He maintains that while a majority of antebellum ministers focused on spiritual matters and evinced an aversion to secular politics, they found it increasingly difficult to avoid political disputes, particularly after April 1861. Northern observers were quick to blame southern churches for their complicity in secession, but Rable contends that the "role of religious ideas and leaders in the secession crisis had been decidedly limited; ministers and their congregations had mostly reacted to fast-moving events" (p. 49).
Once the war began, Christians, like other Americans, rushed to enlist and fight in a cause they considered just. Northerners saw themselves fighting to protect a divinely ordained Christian republic against a godless rebellion, while pious Southerners maintained that they were fighting a war of self-defense. Believing that God endorsed their cause, both Northerners and Southerners expected the Almighty to crown their efforts with success. They interpreted battlefield victories as evidence of the Lord's favor and saw defeats as God's chastisement for both personal and national sins.
According to Rable, most soldiers, with the exception of a significant "powerful minority" of pious men, exhibited little interest in spiritual matters until the fall of 1862, when revivals broke out in Confederate and Union armies (p. 9). Although he suggests that the descriptions of the services were likely exaggerated and the number of converts overstated, Rable admits that the "horrific casualties, along with a lull in campaigning, made soldiers more receptive and in some cases eager to experience and promote the work of the Holy Spirit" (p. 206). Comforted by their faith in divine providence and thoughts of a heavenly home, devout Christians enjoyed a peace of mind and their fear of death vanished, making them better soldiers. [End Page 489]
As the war dragged on, it increasingly disrupted the national spiritual life. Although northern churches fared much better, congregations in both sections struggled to continue as they had before the war. July 1863 marked a turning point in the war for Christians on both sides. Northerners saw the dual victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg as confirmation of God's support, while Southerners were left to determine the meaning of those decisive losses. Believing that God had forsaken the Confederacy, the southern people turned inward, focusing less on temporal matters than spiritual ones as "individual salvation loomed much larger and certainly more achievable than southern independence" (p. 342). Many still held out hope that God would eventually intervene and deliver the South, but most became resigned to the fact that "Providence had decreed that the Confederacy fall, the Union survive, and the slaves be free" (p. 391). Southerners accepted defeat as God's will, which, as Rable points out, "smoothed the transition to peace though it hardly soothed the pain for the more ardent Confederates" (p. 390).
God's Almost Chosen Peoples is the most comprehensive volume on religion in the Civil War to date and serves as an excellent companion to Steven Woodworth's While God Is Marching On: The Religious World of Civil War Soldiers (2001). The book will enjoy wide circulation among scholars...