The outstanding Civil War Book Review, which has been a bellwether of scholarship on the topic for more than a decade, just posted their new issue for Winter 2011. Readers of this blog will be especially interested to read (or listen to) an interview conducted by editor Nathan Buman with George Rable about his new book, God's Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War.
Following Paul and Ed, who have already given the book some attention here on the blog—and in good RiAH self-promotional style—I'll also draw reader's attention to my own review of Rable's book, just published in Civil War Book Review.
Here is an excerpt:
One of Rable’s major themes concerns the overwhelming significance of civil-religious providential understandings of the course of conflict. For his subjects the hand God was seemingly everywhere, guiding and shaping events in accordance with his will. All too frequently, that providential outlook was conflated—in ways consistent with patterns throughout American religious history to that time—with southern and northern nationalist aspirations. Perhaps this idea was stated most clearly in language approved by one northern Methodist conference in 1862: “Patriotism is a Christian virtue” (153).
Because of deep commitments to providentialism in the Civil War era, “religious faith could be both wind and weathervane,” where success or failure in battles showed adherents the ways in which they had met or fallen short of divine expectations, thus incurring God’s favor or wrath (7). Throughout the war, Union and Confederate officials, as well as local leaders and ministers, called routinely for days of fasting and thanksgiving in an attempt to make sure the public properly aligned itself with God’s will. Furthermore, despite innumerable difficulties, Rable contends that belief in providence maintained a remarkable resiliency. Not only did the religious “line between ‘loyalty’ and ‘disloyalty’” grow “ever-sharper” as the war dragged on, but after Appomattox, believers in the Union continued to understand their cause sanctioned by God (354). In the same way, defeated Confederates did not give up the belief in the righteousness of the cause lost.
Given the impressive amount of research displayed, the single most curious thing about God’s Almost Chosen Peoples is its self-professed lack of an overarching argument—in Rable’s words, it “is not a thesis-driven work” (6). Instead, he opts for a “broad narrative” that shows the centrality of religious belief for nineteenth-century Americans who needed to make sense out of the warring world they found themselves in (6). Rable’s choice will no doubt leave some readers grasping to impose coherence on an unwieldy and intimidating subject. However, because religious values were by no means uniform or monolithic in the Civil War era, and because Rable intends to cover the sweep of religious engagement with the myriad dilemmas that the sectional conflict raised, his broad narrative approach leads to a remarkable inclusivity with regard to topics and subjects.