Monday, August 17, 2015

Book Review: Mark A. Noll on the Theological Crisis of the American Civil War

Author of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, in this book Mark A. Noll explores the Christian response to the crisis of not just the War Between the States but of Southern chattel slavery in the nineteenth century. He examines the divided and confused response of American Evangelical Christians and also describes Protestant and Catholic responses in Europe. This book is part of my follow-up after reading This Republic of Suffering and viewing Death and the Civil War.

The Civil War as a Theological Crisis is "a revision and expansion of [his] Steven and Jane Brose Lectures, which were given at the George and Anne Richards Civil War Study Center of Penn State University on April 10-12, 2003". In the second chapter Noll outlines the six things "Evangelical Protestants of British background in the USA agreed upon (one of them is not that it is wrong to own a person):

1) The Bible, not tradition or any other clerical elite, was "the basic religious authority";
2) "They were skeptical about received religious authority";
3) They knew they needed God's grace;
4) They were disciplined and disciplined others;
5) "They regarded Roman Catholicism not as an alternative Christian religion but as the world's most perverse threat to genuine faith. To most American Protestants, Catholicism seemed as alien to treasured political values as it was antithetical to true Christianity.";
6) "They were culturally adaptive." Except for the "ultimate realities of the gospel", they could change with the times.

Because of 1) and 2) and 6), they could not be unified in their reading of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament in which slavery was allowed but regulated, to determine that owning human beings as slaves was wrong. Since Jesus did not say "Christians can never own slaves" evangelicals in America could not unite in saying that slavery was wrong. They were more united on condemning abuse and neglect of slaves, but failed to lead the country on this moral issue--now that's a scandal! As this review summed it up:

Noll situates the theological crisis brought on by the war in the context of popular "habits of mind" that had flourished in the United States since the early years of the republic. Marrying Christian faith with republican political ideals and Enlightenment epistemology, American Protestants were typically suspicious of religious authority and skeptical of intellectual √©lites, and they thought of the Bible as a "plain book" readily comprehensible to "anyone who simply opened the cover and read." Many viewed God's ongoing work in the affairs of men as just as easily apprehended; rare was the Christian leader who shared Lincoln's humbling insight that "the Almighty has his own purposes." Instead, as the war approached, "confidence in the human ability to fathom God's providential actions rose to new heights." Although the integration of "biblical faith and Enlightenment certainty" gave antebellum American Christianity much of its popular appeal and expansive vitality, Noll argues that the combination left evangelicals ill equipped to resolve the sectional crisis—or even to think very deeply about its implications. Indeed, one of the distinctive traits of the American Civil War, Noll contends, is the almost utter lack of "theological profundity" that it evoked among the Christians torn apart by it.

Of the two major questions that he highlights, Noll devotes considerably more attention to the controversial relationship between the Bible and slavery. Proslavery southerners read the Bible literally and found no explicit indictment of the institution. Significantly, when antislavery northerners read the Bible literally they frequently reached the same conclusion, a realization that drove a tiny minority to repudiate biblical authority entirely, while prompting a far larger group down the slippery slope of appeals to the general "spirit" of Scripture, which their common sense (as opposed to careful exegesis) convinced them was incompatible with human bondage. The latter often invoked "self-evident truths" that were central to national ideology, but "the stronger their arguments based on general humanitarian principles became, the weaker the Bible looked in any traditional sense." Small wonder that so many proslavery Christians came to equate the antislavery crusade with an assault on orthodoxy. 

The lecture/chapter introducing Continental and American Catholic theologians commenting on slavery in America introduces some difficulties too. Catholics were in no position (see 5) above) to influence American culture, but they still had a problem when they did side with the American Evangelical Abolitionists, because that group was also very much in favor of the Italian antipapal forces working to take away the temporal kingdom of Pope Pius IX: "For American Catholics to show loyalty to the pope in his contemporary political turmoil was to invite the suspicion of those Americans who were most vocal in supporting the pope's opponents." When Catholics spoke against slavery, their arguments were rejected because the abolitionists believe that Catholics themselves were slaves, "abject slaves to their priests, bishops, and popes" and could not experience political liberty! Noll comments that the "Know-Nothings of the American Party were extreme, but they nonetheless represented a great swath of American opinion in their views . . ."

But on the Continent, Noll finds a "richer commentary", from what he terms "liberal" and "conservative" Catholics, both of whom argued that only the Catholic method of scriptural interpretation could guide Christians when facing new moral issues. Noll offers several examples from two major Catholic periodicals, the "Historical and Political Newspaper for Catholic Germany" and La Civilta cattolica (the Italian Jesuits' "Catholic Civilization") of their critiques of both the industrial North and the slave-holding South. These journals stated the opposite of what the abolitionists believed: only with Catholicism can one truly be free!

Since this book is based on lectures it does not explore each of the topics and themes Noll introduces comprehensively, but it does provide a good overview of the theological issues of the Civil War and in the words of this reviewer, "should provide the stimulus for further studies of theology and the Civil War".


  1. Thank you for bringing this book to my attention. I went to Amazon and there are several favorable reviews there. One is very negative. What would be your response to the negative one?

    1. Wow! That reviewer has such a different view of the history of the Civil War that of course he could not accept Noll's account of theology. If the South did not secede to protect its "peculiar institution, why did it establish a new constitution specifically for that purpose? Alexander H. Stephenson, the Confederate States of America proclaimed: "Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

    2. Source:
      This reviewer is in denial. You'll also note his comments on all the heretical Christians including "paipists", by which I presume he/she means papists. If I am to be insulted, at least spell the insult correctly!