September 26, 2002
By Joseph Loconte
The Civl War series is television at its best: history-telling
that is intelligent, textured, personal, and deeply affecting. Ken
Burns rightly argues that Americans cannot understand America
without understanding this war.
Yet we can't fully comprehend the Civil War without appreciating
the religious movements and ideas that fueled it. Like most
historians, Burns all but ignores these influences.
There's no discussion of how Christian ministers and activists
helped outlaw slavery in the North, or how they led the
abolitionist cause up until the outbreak of war. We never learn
that Harriet Beecher Stowe's explosive anti-slavery novel, Uncle
Tom's Cabin, was drenched in biblical imagery-thanks to Stowe's
evangelical upbringing. We never hear about the congregations in
the North and the South that gave sanctuary to runaway slaves.
We all know that the Civil War divided families, states and
political parties. But we learn virtually nothing from Burn's film
about how it fractured churches and entire denominations. Breaking
from northern Baptists, for example, the Southern Baptist
Convention was created to defend the rights of slaveowners. For
religious believers, slavery represented a battle for the meaning
of the gospel as surely as it was a contest over the meaning of
Every Sunday, from pulpits around the country, ministers either
defended the God-given dignity of blacks or debased them as
carrying the value of a farm animal. Southern politicians called
northern clergy "meddling priests" and "the most encroaching" and
"arrogant class of men" for injecting religion into politics.
Christian abolitionists accused Southern clergy of rank hypocrisy
and abuse of the Bible. One of them, Abram Pryne, denounced a
religion "that prays-and steals negroes; that sings psalms-and
whips women." 
Only rarely have historians studied the powerful link between
the Christian revivals of the 19th century and the politics of
abolition. Wheaton College professor Mark Noll argues that the
Civil War can be seen "as the last chapter in the Christian story
of the Second Great Awakening."  It was Bible-based
opposition to slavery that drove northern evangelicals into the
arms of a political party-the Republican Party. As historian
Richard Carwardine puts it, "Republicans acquired their essential
moral engery" from conservative Protestants.
The head of their party, of course, was Abraham Lincoln, a man
whose deep sense of Providence forged his own arguments against
slavery. Yet, depite scores of Lincoln biographies, it wasn't until
the 1999 publication of Alan Guelzo's book Abraham Lincoln:
Redeemer President that Lincoln's religious reflections got serious
attention. In his Second Inaugural address, Guelzo notes, Lincoln
suggested that God "gives to both North and South this terrible
war" because of the sin of slavery. It was a masterly blend of
theology and statecraft.
The secular accounts of the Civil War need revision. In an
otherwise grim episode in American history, there's a narrative of
religious conviction and moral courage waiting to be told.
Americans of all faiths, or of no faith, would be greatly enriched
by hearing it.
Loconte is the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a
Free Society at the Heritage Foundation.
 Richard J. Cowardine, Evangelicals
and Politics in Antebellum America (Yale University Press, 1993),
 Mark Noll, A History of Christianity in
the United States and Canada (Eerdmans, 1992), p.314.
Transcript of discussion which originally aired on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered"
The Civl War series is television at its best: history-telling that is intelligent, textured, personal, and deeply affecting. Ken Burns rightly argues that Americans cannot understand America without understanding this war.
William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society
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