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The Civil War as a Theological Crisis

by Mark A. Knoll

Review by Teri Hyrkas

“The Americans combine the notions of religion and liberty so intimately in their minds, that it is impossible to make them conceive of one without the other.” This famous saying of nineteenth-century French diplomat and historian, Alexis de Tocqueville, was shown to be completely and uncomfortably true in Mark Knolls’ book, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2006).

Expanded from lectures he gave at the Civil War Study Center of Penn State University in 2003, Noll puts forward a well researched and unswerving look at particularly cherished tenets of faith held by Protestants in the US and how they are related to the theological crisis that developed around the time of the Civil War. From the early days of the country, two foundational Protestant beliefs — the right of every individual Christian to interpret scripture, and the view that scripture could be understood simply and directly — were practiced among Protestant believers. These cherished principles also caused a great deal of political and religious friction between Christians prior to and during the War Between the States.

Noll points out that this struggle was not limited to disagreements about the presence of slavery or the right to secede, as one might expect. Rather, as it pertained to ministers in various Protestant denominations, “It was… a more convincing indication of a theological crisis when entirely within the North ministers battled each other on the interpretation of the Bible…. this clash pitted against each other ministers who agreed about the necessity of preserving the Union and who also agreed that the Bible represented authoritative, truth-telling revelation from God.”

The center of the controversy between Northern pastors was whether or not slavery was sanctioned by scripture. Says Noll, it was very clear to some, including the well known and respected preacher Henry Ward Beecher of Brooklyn, New York’s Plymouth Congregational Church, that the disturbing prevailing national sin of the country was slavery. Noll writes that Beecher preached on this subject on January 4, 1861[1], a national day of fasting for the healing of the country. The understanding that “slavery was the fertile cause of national sin” could be drawn from the Bible, said Beecher, if the Bible were “read without hindrance.”

Noll tells us that it was just as clear to other pastors in the North, among them the Brooklyn, New York, Presbyterian pastor, Henry Van Dyke, whose church was down the street from Beecher’s, that slavery was not a sin and was supported by the Bible. Van Dyke said that it was Abolitionism which was evil, “root and branch.” He wrote in 1861, “When the Abolitionist tells me that slaveholding is sin, in the simplicity of my faith in the Holy Scriptures, I point him to this sacred record, and tell him, in all candor, that his teaching blasphemes the name of God and His doctrine.”[2] Writes Noll: “So clear to Van Dyke were the Biblical sanctions for slavery that he could only conclude that willful abolitionists like Beecher were scoffing at the Bible’s authority.”

The dilemma is put forward by Noll in this statement: “So it went into April 1861 and well beyond. The political standoff that led to war was matched by an interpretive standoff. No common meaning could be discovered in the Bible, which almost everyone in the United States professed to honor, and which was, without a rival, the most widely read text of any kind in the whole country.”

Noll goes on in The Civil War as Theological Crisis to delineate various causes for this lack of common interpretation of the Bible about slavery, and skillfully presents the surrounding religious and social issues that influenced and perplexed the nation. Two outstanding chapters were “Opinions of Protestants Abroad” and “Catholic Viewpoints,” both of which added fresh perspectives to the conversation, and also demonstrated that there were many foreign observers, religious and political, who were interested in the American situation and commented upon it. A benefit to the observers’ perspectives was that they were able to detect disparate patterns of American thought and behavior that were difficult for Americans themselves to identify.

The Civil War as a Theological Crisis by Mark A. Noll was a timely read during this election year. Noll’s book shows that there is a lot to learn and gain from our national history about how to charitably manage religiously charged political situations. To read and consider what The Civil War as Theological Crisis has to say about failed attempts at resolving differences between differing factions may help us to move constructively toward peaceful and polite civil and religious discourse in the US.


[1] Henry Ward Beecher, “Peace be Still,” in Fast Day Sermons; or, The Pulpit on the State of the Country (New York: Rudd and Carleton, 1861), 276, 289.


[2] Henry J. Van Dyke, “The Character and Influence of Abolitionism,” in Fast Day Sermons; or, The Pulpit on the State of the Country (New York: Rudd and Carleton, 1861), 139.