restricted access The Politics of Faith during the Civil War by Timothy L. Wesley (review)
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
The Politics of Faith during the Civil War. By Timothy L. Wesley. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2013. 288 pp. $45.00.

inline graphicTimothy Wesley cites in his introduction the historian Mitchell Snay's contention that religion is a neglected topic in Civil War studies. Much has changed in the decade since Snay penned his argument, but Wesley has nonetheless made an original contribution to our understanding of the war years through his study of ministers on all sides of the conflict.

Wesley surveys many branches of American Christianity. He does an admirable job, in a relatively succinct study, drawing examples from a range of Protestant denominations. He effectively weaves Catholicism into his narrative (although almost exclusively with regards to the North), explaining how Catholic leaders' reactions to the war both echoed and deviated from those of their Protestant counterparts. He also notes how Catholic leaders disagreed with each other. Throughout his work, Wesley refutes monolithic views of what denominations and other bodies thought and how they acted.

Wesley is strongest in chapter four, where he discusses how northern society regulated ministers' behavior. Historians have thoroughly documented the abridgement of civil liberties in the Union, but readers will still be surprised by Wesley's examples of ministers run out of their churches or even imprisoned, and of church property confiscated by military authorities. These punitive actions punished not only the rare minister who denounced the war, but also those who failed to speak vocally in favor of the Union effort, and even those merely suspected of harboring reservations. The federal government policed and punished ministers, but so too did denominational bodies, other ministers, congregations, and communities.

The other major strength of Wesley's work is its contribution to our understanding of the importance of ministers in nineteenth century America. Everyone from the President to the ploughman cared what ministers said and did. Wesley argues that ministers' authority and [End Page 77] influence greatly increased in the era just before the war began and continued to rise over the course of the conflict.

Despite Wesley's fluency with a range of sources, he is at times prone to broad statements for which he offers little evidence, for example his claim that "most" northerners understood the Mexican-American War to be primarily about slavery (11), or that northern ministers "routinely" cited scriptural passages condemning slavery (17). Another shortcoming is his use of the term "political." His theme is the "politics of faith," yet he does not fully define the term. This is largely because it was so inconsistently used at the time. People condemned ministers as "political" when they disagreed with them. If they agreed, the minister was simply preaching the Gospel truth.

Given that "political" meant essentially whatever the user wanted it to mean, it is unclear why Wesley repeatedly excoriates southern ministers for hypocrisy because they professed to be apolitical yet defended slavery from the pulpit. This inconsistency when dealing with southern versus northern clergy confuses Wesley's argument, particularly because it is coupled with often-polemical language when he discusses the South. Towards the end of his work, he exults that "Thankfully, in the end the North won" (157), and he characterizes the worldview of the pro-Confederate southern ministers as "deluded" and "cant" (166). This tendentious tone hinders the reader seeking to understand the Confederate clergy as they understood themselves.

These shortcomings notwithstanding, Wesley's work is well-written and clearly organized. It will be useful to those who wish to understand better the effects of the Civil War, to those interested in the role of the clergy in American history, and perhaps even to those considering the vexing question of the churches' proper role in American public life. [End Page 78]

Andrew Stern
North Carolina Wesleyan College