God's Almost Chosen Peoples (And Luke Harlow's New Chosen Job!)

Paul Harvey

We took notice of George Rable's large and massively researched book God's Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War right upon its publication, and then about a year ago Luke Harlow (far more knowledgeable on religion in the Civil War era than I am) put up an excerpt from his published review on the blog.

(And a quick update: congratulations to Luke, who will next fall be taking a new position as Professor of History at the University of Tennessee! He'll be focusing his teaching there on the Civil War/Reconstruction era. Way to go, Luke!). 

As noted in yesterday's post about Charity Carney's work (done as Rable's Ph.D. student), it's all-Civil-War-all-the-time weekend for me as I go over midterm papers and exams from the class, so I thought I would post first about Charity's new book, and then Rable's. Below is a somewhat different version of what appeared (in shorter form) in the Journal of the Civil War Era last year, giving my extended thoughts on the work. By the way, James McPherson reviewed it in the New York Review of Books, if you want to get a rather more expert opinion. I do love the quote that the author dug up with which I begin the review; that one already has become a classroom staple.

God’s Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War. By George C. Rable: Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010. Pp. 586. Cloth, $35.00.

“I think as much of religion as any man,” a Confederate soldier said while tippling some apple brandy, “but there’s such a thing as having too damn much of it” (100). Religious faith was omnipresent in the Civil War era, George Rable makes clear. At the same time, religious faith provided no solution to the dilemmas of slavery leading up to the war, and it probably lengthened and worsened the war once it came. There was, in that sense, too much of it.

Too little of it, moreover (apart from Abraham Lincoln’s theological reflections), served as something other than consoler, rationalizer, and cheerleader. “Recognizing the hand of God in human history,” Rable concludes, “fostered neither humility nor even an appreciation for the majesty of inscrutable providence” 88). The result: “Divine purpose, national deliverance, personal salvation, and even millennial hope had all become entangled in a war that had become more destructive than even sinful human beings ever could have imagined” (277). This sober message dominates most of this careful, detailed, measured work.

“Rather than the word becoming flesh,” Rable writes, “it seemed as if the flesh – of northerners and southerners, of blacks and whites – had become words, an endless stream of words” (22). Amidst this “flood” of religious rhetoric, moreover, there was a “failure of moral imagination” (22). Unlike Abraham Lincoln, who could put himself in the shoes of a slaveholder, most Americans could not morally imagine themselves in the place of another; instead, religion justified their own views and sacralized their distrusts and hatreds.

This failure extended to African American religious moral imagination as well, Rable suggests, which “developed a language of freedom yet could not point the way for the nation to escape the twin curses of slavery and caste” (22). Here, I cannot agree. African American religious language did point the way; it’s just that hardly any whites listened. And a relative paucity of attention to that part of the story limits the reach of this otherwise profound, deeply meditative work.

Rable takes an essentially Niebuhrian approach to comprehending American religion during the Civil War. The frequently millennial, apocalyptic voices of the era failed to “consider the limits of human achievements or ambition, and even the “voices of moderation were not that thoughtful, they were merely cautious” (196). Again and again through this book, people figure out how and why God was on their side. Setbacks didn’t matter in this theology, for these were “chastisements” to prepare God’s people for greater things to come. Religious conviction thereby “produced a providential narrative of the war,” and “created a fatalism grounded not in deism but in providence.” This providential God also was a personal one. He was “deeply invested in the fate of nations and individuals,” and faith in Him gave the immense tragedy of the war “some higher and presumably nobler purpose” (9). To the end of the war, and after, Americans persisted in understanding “their lives and the war itself as part of an unfolding providential story.” This helps to explain the longevity and ferocity of the conflict.

With this basic framework in mind, Rable surveys religious interpretations of the conflict from secession to the “Good Friday” of April 14, 1865. Along the way, he quotes myriad sources from all parts of society. Evangelical Protestants dominate, as might be expected, but Catholic views of the war are given extended treatment, and Jews and Mormons appear as well.

We learn, too, about religious life in the army camps; exaggerated reports of revivals did not mislead many soldiers from acknowledging that most of them were sinners rather than saints. Americans’ obsessions with what strike us as trivial pursuits of leisure – swearing, card-playing, tippling, and the like – take up many pages, since these “sins” often came to be seen as the reason God allowed for one chastisement or another of his chosen people. In the work, soldiers contemplate the meaning of death, as do the folks (usually women) back home; chaplains assume a “humble and secondary” place (110); churches back home struggle to survive; congregations in the border states engage in their own bitter civil wars; and the Reverends on both sides interpret every up and down in the conflict according to what they determined to be the will of Providence.

Rable’s deep research leads him away from very many sweeping arguments or theses; the book proceeds instead slowly, patiently accumulating stories and reflections from the actors of that period. This is not Skip Stout’s “moral history of the Civil War,” in which self-righteous rhetoric simply fueled killing. It is not the “American apocalypse” of Yankee Protestants studied by James Moorehead, and it is not a story of Americans “baptized in blood” as later Lost Cause mythology had it. 

Further, as Rable shows, Christ was in the camps, in both North and South, but He had to compete with cards, prostitutes, alcohol, and bitter skepticism and irony increasingly evidenced among many boys in blue and gray. Churchgoers at home placed great faith in the virtue of their boys as pointing to success, while those boys quickly found out that prayer and piety were connected only randomly with the outcome of any particular battle. Confederates especially felt that. In the last two years of the war, the more piety they evinced, the more battles they lost.

The weakness of this powerful work lies in fully comprehending African American religious views as fundamental to the war. My problem isn’t one of some question of affirmative action for historical voices. Until relatively late in the conflict, this was a “war between the whites,” as Frederick Douglass said. Rather, when Rable suggests that the failure of moral imagination of Civil War-era Americans included African American Christians who exalted freedom but “could not point the way for the nation to escape the twin curses of slavery and caste,” I could only think of Garrison Frazier and his black ministerial colleagues meeting with Generals Sherman and Howard in January 1865, and outlining for them the meaning of freedom and the necessity of property ownership to assist freedmen in escaping the curses of slavery and caste; or to the multitude of voices documented in works such as Leon Litwack’s Been in the Storm So Long.

Ultimately, no matter what whites early in the conflict said, this was a war about the meaning of freedom, and African Americans understood that to be a spiritual and moral as well as an economic and political question. This story, I believe, is fundamental and central to any religious history of the American Civil War. 


Edward J. Blum said…
It struck me as I read Rable and thought about Faust (and Stout) that there is a push toward a "consensus" history of the Civil War that largely minimizes African Americans in the war. If we take African American histories seriously, then death cannot be the main thrust of the war, slavery cannot be separated from the morality of war-making, and providential notions were racialized in many manners. Still lots of room in the wonderful world of Civil War studies!
Edward J. Blum said…
and congratulations to Luke! Sounds like the folks at U Tenn have once again proven themselves really wise.

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