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  • The Catholic Press, the Bible, and Protestant Responsibility for the Civil War
  • Mark A. Noll (bio)

In his April 3, 1865, diary entry, George Templeton Strong recorded the transcendent exultation he witnessed in New York City when news arrived that Richmond had fallen to Union forces. Strong, a prominent lawyer, founder of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, and a vestryman at Wall Street's Trinity Episcopal Church, immediately secured permission to ring the bells at Trinity in celebration. His diary entry, headed "Petersburg and Richmond! Gloria in Excelsis Deo," underscored the harmony of religious and civic sentiments that fueled the city's jubilation. A great crowd, he wrote, "a rude, many-voiced chorale," repeatedly sang "the last two lines" of the national anthem "with a massive roar." As religious ardor rose with patriotic zeal, the throng also joined in singing the "Doxology" ("Praise God from whom all blessings flow") and "Old Hundred" ("All people that on earth do dwell / Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice").1

Two days earlier, the New York Tablet had also offered a religiously inflected meditation on the end of the nation's bloody civil conflict. Yet, rather than synthesizing civic and Christian jubilation, this Catholic newspaper answered its own question, "Who Are the Loyal Citizens?" with an all-out attack on the nation's Protestants. After detailing errors of belief and practice in various Protestant churches, the Tablet closed with a denunciation that borrowed invective from northern political polemics: "Aggressive Protestantism is essentially rebellious, … its origin is the spirit of secession and revolt, … its history is but a chronicle of insurrection, and…, in short, sedition and mutiny are but fruits of the Lutheran leaven spreading under the specious name of Liberty and Independence into all the ramifications of political, social and domestic life."2 The difference between George Templeton Strong's celebration of northern victory and the Tablet's accusatory indictment reflects the contrarian stance that characterized the nation's Catholic press during the great fratricidal conflict. That stance, in turn, hints at the rapidly maturing presence of Catholics in American public life. For prominent voices within the growing Catholic population, the [End Page 355] war became an occasion for translating an inherited general indictment of Protestantism into a specific charge that the divisiveness of American Protestants imperiled what had now also become the Catholics' country.

The best scholarship on Roman Catholicism and the Civil War has expertly charted the main Catholic attitudes of the era. Prominent in that scholarship has been an awareness that even as Catholics divided in their political allegiance—strongly unionist versus anti-Republican unionist versus anguished neutrality versus strongly Confederate—they remained united as a church and united as well in underlying moral convictions, especially in condemning abolitionism of whatever form. In 1945, a pioneering book by the Rev. Benjamin Blied canvassed the era's Catholic press, in which he found a general Catholic disposition in favor of states' rights, along with corresponding opposition to northern abolitionism and Protestant political preaching.3 A more comprehensive dissertation by Judith Conrad Wimmer from 1980 demonstrated that Catholics remained strongly patriotic, though with conflicting sectional loyalties, even as they regularly appealed for peace and unity against all forms of social fragmentation.4 Michael Hochgeschwender's magisterial 2006 Wahrheit, Einheit, Ordnung (Truth, Unity, Order), documented in exquisite detail the factors that sustained a strong stance against abolition before and during the war: "Catholicity, conservativism, thinking fixated on order and unity, anti-British and anti-Protestant stereotypes reinforced each other and built the intellectual context for a fundamentally anti-abolitionist imagination."5 At about the same time, a book and an essay by John McGreevy explained with unprecedented depth why a European context was necessary for understanding American developments. In his account, European conflict between liberal political reformers and a Vatican determined to uphold both its moral traditions and its territorial prerogatives explains why the Civil War spurred American Catholics "to take the offensive and … expose to the public the erroneous doctrines of Protestantism and impiety."6 Then in 2010 appeared George Rable's comprehensive study, God's Almost Chosen People, which for the first time fully incorporated Catholics into a general account of...


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