- Our Country: Northern Evangelicals and the Union during the Civil War Era by Grant R. Brodrecht
Alexander Stephens once wrote of Abraham Lincoln, "The Union with him, in sentiment, rose to the sublimity of a religious mysticism" (19). Grant Brodrecht's new book shows that Lincoln was not alone. For many Civil War–era Americans—especially white northern evangelicals, the focus of Brodrecht's work—deep religious convictions gave meaning to the Union and lent cosmic significance to the struggle to save it.
Brodrecht, in attempting "to give some old sources a new read" (12), has made a much-needed contribution to recent scholarly efforts to fully recover the meaning of the Union among Civil War Americans. He has successfully recovered the "evangelical unionism" so pervasive in nineteenth-century American religious and political culture. Two intertwined, familiar theological convictions were at the center of this evangelical unionism: "covenentalism" and "providentialism." Evangelicals believed both that "America existed in some sort of Old Testament–like covenantal relationship with God" (4) and that "God had been at work since the seventeenth-century colonial settlements, providentially creating and sustaining a whole, Christian American people" (7). For that very reason, white northern evangelicals believed "the Union as Christian America was a sacred trust that must be preserved" (7). Or, as social reformer Washington Gladden more aptly put it decades later, for loyal northerners the task of preserving the Union was "our religion" (14).
It is little wonder, then, that white northern evangelicals were so fervently loyal to the Union; momentous theological matters relied on the nation's survival. But Brodrecht, perhaps better than anyone else to date, has ably demonstrated that white northern evangelicals' overriding political goal in the Civil War era was to make America "a national Christian organism characterized by affective oneness" (69). Even before the war had ended—and certainly throughout Reconstruction—Brodrecht's evangelicals longed for "a gloriously restored and reconciled Union" (70), one able to fulfill the grand calling seemingly given by God to America.
The heart of Brodrecht's book explores how white northern evangelicals worked to achieve this goal in their political alliances with three presidents: Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, and Ulysses S. Grant. In doing so, Brodrecht further illuminates the political theology undergirding the evangelical vision of the Union. He also helps explain why that vision led northern evangelicals to remain such sure allies of the Republican Party. [End Page 322]
Brodrecht first shows how Lincoln—although hardly an evangelical—spoke the language of covenentalism and providentialism that suffused northern evangelicals' sense of America's identity and purpose. In that way, Lincoln won both their affection and their political loyalty, in no small part because he seemed to share the evangelicals' overriding goal: to bind up the nation's wounds, with malice toward none and charity for all. After Lincoln's assassination, evangelicals remained hopeful that Andrew Johnson would carry forward the work of sectional reconciliation. Although northern evangelicals eventually turned against Johnson—mostly because of the Tenure of Office Act controversy—Brodrecht suggests that the evangelicals, on the whole, supported Johnson longer than most factions of the Republican Party. Having soured on Johnson, northern evangelicals turned quickly to Ulysses S. Grant, believing that Grant's presidency would finally usher in an era of true "civic-religious cohesion" that would unite North and South in shared commitments fundamental to white northern middle-class culture and evangelical Christianity (142).
Brodrecht's book is a model integration of nineteenth-century American political and religious history. If nothing else, he has offered a rich and nuanced account of the Civil War–era political culture of the white northern evangelicals so essential to the Republican coalition. But, ultimately, Brodrecht's ambitions are greater than this alone. He also hopes that his story will help explain the great tragedy at the heart of the unfinished revolution of Reconstruction: why ex-slaves remained second-class citizens, denied full civil and political equality. For this, Brodrecht lays no...