- The Civil War as a Theological Crisis
Mark Noll's engaging study of Civil War theological perspectives, an expansion of his Brose Lectures at the Richards Center, Penn State University, explicates much in a small compass. His chief purpose is to explain why that national crisis also constituted a crisis for theology. In developing his case, Noll examines the collision among biblical expositors over the sanction for slavery, a conflict that not only set North against South but also prompted divisions within the free states. He offers a bleak account of how (white) religious commentators addressed the issue of race "with commonsense solutions derived neither from the Bible nor from the historical storehouse of Christian moral reflection" (52). And he explores how religious teachers, drawing on both scripture and Enlightenment thought, confidently explained God's intervention in the world's affairs, yet in ways that led the wartime Union and Confederacy into incompatible understandings of the workings of providence.
What for Noll constituted the theological crisis was in part the sheer cacophony of religious voices that—on these issues of the Bible, enslavement, and God's intervention—divided and deadlocked the American people "beyond hope of resolution" (8). The democratic peculiarities and voluntarism of American religious life meant that on divisive questions society lacked a theological authority higher than the individual reader of scripture. And, in cases of special contention, the strident voices evinced an assurance, even fervor, that contributed to a second feature of the crisis: the shallowness of theological thought. Noll notes, indeed laments, the general lack of profundity in theological investigation: he finds it a telling indictment of the era's professional theologians that, for example, one has to turn to lay sources—Abraham Lincoln's private memorandum on the divine will and his second inaugural [End Page 413] address—for some of the deepest thinking about the role of providence. Where were the era's John Calvin, Karl Barth, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer to enrich American Civil War theology in ways that paralleled the conflicts of the Reformation and the twentieth century? Moreover, theological reflection lacked range as well as penetration. Where, beyond a marginal minority, were the white expositors of scriptures with the wisdom to address race and slavery as separate questions, and to put biblical teaching about a common humanity before the unscriptural claims of a racist "common sense"? Where was the broad theological critique of the competitive individualism that drove the nation's economy? (James Henley Thornwell and other Southern defenders of slavery were not slow to attack Northern greed, but their scarcely disinterested criticism could be dismissed as just that.)
Noll's analysis builds on elements of his magisterial America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (2002), and there is much that is new here. The book's particular force derives from its broad perspective. Ranging beyond the familiar and powerful figures of indigenous white Protestantism, he addresses the sidelined: the counter-cultural Christian commentaries of Daniel Coker, Daniel Ruggles, and other African American authors, as well as native (and mostly conservative) Catholic writers. More pathbreaking still is his delving into foreign critiques: the largely liberal, antislavery, but not necessarily pro-Union commentaries of Canadian and European Protestants and a few progressive Catholics; and, through key essays in the Historisch-politische Blätter für das katholische Deutschland, and La Civiltà cattolica, the voices of conservative German and Italian Catholics who deemed slavery biblical, but were more exercised by the Americans' jettisoning of old-world paternalism, economic corporatism, fellowship, and a stabilizing doctrinal orthodoxy in favor of democracy, religious pluralism, and individual self-determination. From this unhealthy new matrix sprang doctrinal confusion. Noll does not ally himself philosophically with these conservatives, but he is impressed by the "troubling issue" they raise: namely, how to resolve the deadlock when there is no recognized "interpretive authority"? The Civil War "effectively handed the business of the theologians over to the generals to decide." Since then there has been "an implicit national agreement not to base public...