<NOTE: This review is in three parts: First, a "Quick Overview" (for those with little time), then a long "Chapter-by-Chapter Survey," and last an "In-Depth Analysis" of the text.>
George C. Rable's God's Almost Chosen Peoples (2010) "is not a thesis-driven work," but rather gives a breathtakingly comprehensive account of both mainstream and divergent religious views during the conflict. The book is not centrally focused upon civil religion or theology, but about "how all sorts of people used faith to interpret the course of the Civil War and its impact on their lives, families, churches, communities, and `nations'" (p. 6). According to Rable, the Civil War is unparalleled for the numbers of laypeople and clergy on both sides openly looking to their Bibles and faith to explain everything from individual deaths to the fate of the war itself. Traditional narratives of the Civil War such as those by James Ford Rhodes, Bruce Catton, and Shelby Foote scarcely mentioned religion, and Rable's book aims to correct the omission.
The book is ambitious in scale and a seminal contribution to studies on both the Civil War and American religion. While Rable modestly claims it to be "merely one" of "many different religious histories of the Civil War" that could be written, it seems unlikely that a comparable volume will arrive on the academic scene anytime soon (p. 5). Thirteen years in the making, the book weighs in at almost six hundred pages, nearly a third of them in "Notes" and "Index." Rable mines thousands of primary sources including tracts, sermons, church minutes, newspapers, periodicals, and myriad manuscripts in scores of public and private collections from Vermont to Texas, as well as hundreds of secondary sources including a dozen dissertations. The scope of religion covered is vast indeed, encompassing religious groups such as Jews, Catholics, Quakers, Unitarians, Episcopalians and more than a few of the impious as well as the usual suspects: Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians. The types of viewpoints covered range from Southern belles to soldiers of every rank, from the devout to the unrepentant, from slaveholding politicians to African American clergy. The result is impressive in scope, to say the least.
--**CHAPTER BY CHAPTER SURVEY**--
The prologue charts a course for the book as covering religious (and non-religious) views during the war, particularly noting that people on both sides widely interpreted the war through the lens of providence. "Crises of Faith" sets the national religious scene leading up to the war, particularly how events from the Compromise of 1850 to the Kansas-Nebraska Act to John Brown's raid in 1859 led to increasingly volatile religious rhetoric and unveiled "new fissures along sectional, party, racial, and theological lines" (p. 32). Focusing on the year immediately before the Civil War, "Reaping the Whirlwind" shows how churches North and Sound largely proved impotent in directing or halting the growing sectional tensions and mostly reacted to rapidly developing events, while some clergy fanned the flames of sectional conflict. Once begun, the conflict soon turned into a "Holy War" as formerly peace-and-union clergy supported their respective side in the conflict as the upholder of Christian civilization against either heathen abolitionists in the North or lawless secessionists in the South, all the while repeatedly and hypocritically condemning those on the other side for preaching politics.
"Fighting for God and Country" covers churches in both North and South initially blessing soldiers going off to war, uncritically supporting their respective governments, and interpreting early battles through the lens of the Bible and divine providence. Defeats resulted in days of fasting and jeremiads calling for repentance, victories produced days of thanksgiving to God, and the lengthening war evoked millennial purposes for a war soon to unleash terrible slaughter.
"Temptations of the Camp" reveals the general impiety reported among soldiers on both sides manifested in declining Sabbath observance, profane language, alcoholism, gambling, and sexual immorality. "The Shepherds and Their Sheep" shows that despite the role of religion in intensifying and justifying the war, military chaplains had a hard time compelling regular religion among most soldiers, who were ill-disciplined young men separated from home and its norms for the first time. Citizens of North and South believed "Christian Soldiers" would lead them to victory, but that chapter recounts that the devout (and some impious) soldiers on both sides enjoyed martial-sounding and generally evangelical hymns; plenty of Bibles (in the North, not the South) and other printed materials; a hope in heaven as home; and overall interdenominational unity (despite some lingering competition). The chapter also observes that the brutality of war had hardened many hearts against religion and most soldiers were probably not devout Christians, contrary to contemporary and many later perceptions.
"The God of Battles" follows reactions to the war's progress in 1862, when losses and costly gains on both sides prompted claims that God's higher purpose allowed some chastisement of the chosen yet wayward people, while the Union forces shared the sense of national punishment but with more focus on slavery. The horrors of the battlefield prompted soldiers to search for spiritual comfort that was more mysteriously providential and more martial, hardening their hearts against the enemy. "Carnage" covers the struggle of many with death and anxiety or hope about the life they believed followed. Chaplains by deathbeds sought to comfort and save souls and later bury the bodies; dying soldiers alternately pleaded for Jesus to save them or railed against heaven; and those at home clung to the hope of heaven to see loved ones again. Many wondered what the "War's Purpose" was and, despite the dominance of civil religion and its mix of jeremiads and millennial hopes, some, including Lincoln, questioned whose side God was on and wondered what national sin could account for a divine judgment so terrible. Lincoln's provisional Emancipation Proclamation heartened some Abolitionists, but met resistance from religious conservatives even as many in the North felt the sin of slavery had something to do with the war.
"The Lord's Work" covers attempts at converting soldiers in revivals, which found greatest success in appealing to emotions such as the desire for home, yet overall involvement in religious services and conversions as a proportion of the army were low. Meanwhile, religious benevolence societies arose on both sides, including the Sanitary and Christian commissions, while many women served as nurses. "Testing Faith" covers home front from Christmas 1862 to mid-1863, a time producing limited rejoicing but no moral transformation in the North from Lincoln's final Emancipation Proclamation, more jeremiads against selfish materialism in the North, and overconfidence in the resurgent South. Ironically, the rise in religion supporting the state during the war coincided with a "Declension" in church attendance and overt piety during the war, and especially in the border states the clergy ironically complained that people were too preoccupied with the war. Women took new roles in family devotions and charity as men were off waging war, scapegoats and refugees fed local tensions, and the religious fabric of society began to tear, especially in the South. "Wrath" covers a familiar cycle on both sides of naively interpreting victories as God's favor and losses as God's punishment for sin in summer of 1863 as Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg marked the turning point of the war. "Jubilo" describes Southern white churches clinging to the peculiar institution as a moral good and fearing slave insurrections, while black churches generally identified slavery as the national sin provoking God's wrath in war and saw emancipation as a millennial hope for collective and personal salvation. Among Northern whites, even abolitionists were tainted by racism and unprepared to welcome black brothers as spiritual or social equals.
"Armies of the Lord" shows a general shift in emphasis inward by the end of 1863 toward personal salvation as revivals in war camps once again arose on both sides (especially among Confederates), though the respective home fronts were less welcome to evangelical revival. Still, faith in national and personal salvation remained intertwined for many and providential interpretations of the war still dominated. "War Comes to the Churches" describes how occupying powers on both sides persecuted "disloyal" churches and ministers, turned churches into hospitals, coerced pastors not to undermine their cause in sermons or prayers, and sometimes destroyed church buildings, while overconfident Northern missionaries brought a combination of Union loyalty and Gospel conviction to unreceptive Southern congregations.
"Citizens, Saints, and Soldiers" tells of reactions to Union advances in 1864 in both North and South, which sometimes sounded skeptical about a providence that could permit the cruelties of the war yet more often reaffirmed a (frequently bewildered) faith that God guided the course of the war. Both sides again sought spiritual renewal on the field and at home, yet such efforts met with limited success, and each side continued to demonize the other and the war grew ever more brutal. "Thanksgiving and Desperation" recounts Northerners' hubris in the face of victory and Southerners' soul-searching at the apparent loss of divine favor late in the war, as well as widespread religion among prisoners that predictably favored their respective cause. "The Final Decrees of Providence" relates the North's gloating victors' theology at war's end, though Lincoln's assassination prompted some soul-searching that generally pointed to the mysterious will of God. The "Epilogue" restates the main themes of the book, arguing that with all its religious rhetoric, the Civil War "the `holiest' war in American history" (p. 397).
It is difficult to find much to criticize about this book that is not inherent in a work of its scope. The book's scope aims to be comprehensive, and the wide inclusion of sources is overwhelmingly. While the author seeks "to include a cross section of denominational and theological perspectives (including the nonreligious), ... this [is] not possible on every issue" because publishing and readability limitations require him to trim down the text "from two earlier and considerably longer drafts" and to discard "five or six" citations "for each citation in the notes" (p. 6). Given that the author still gave ample voice to skeptics, Jews, women, African-Americans, and people of every social class from almost every significant English-speaking denomination, it is hard to suggest the author should include more perspectives. However, recent German Lutheran, Scandinavian, and Dutch Reformed immigrants could have received more attention, the difficulty of going through such sources (many of whom may not be in English) notwithstanding. Despite the vast array of perspectives presented, the author critically yet constructively presents each, evincing both sympathy and skepticism with a healthy dose of scholarly restraint. The author also unfailingly uses a compelling writing style and intriguing vignettes to draw the reader into the text - a pleasant surprise from such a sizable tome.
The author confesses in the prologue that the text is not "a straightforward story, and the narrative [had] to zigzag and even backtrack to do justice to the struggles of the Civil War generation" (p. 7). The book takes a generally chronological approach with some topical chapters, which gives a general sense of progress through the war that feels easy to follow even as the text occasionally jumps around between the months and years. The text could have been more tightly organized topically, but it probably would have lost much in its readability and overall flow. Invariably narrative introductions to each chapter read easily, but each of the chapters are so full of variegated ideas that none has a unifying argument and only a few more topical ones could stand on their own. Certain religious claims out of the mouth of primary sources, such as demonizing the enemy and claiming God is on one's side, repeat so often that it grew a bit tiresome by the end. Still, the book's overwhelming display of relevant data seems justified given historians' traditional neglect of religion's role in the conflict.
Several main themes about religious faith weave in and out throughout the book, tightly binding the whole work together. As the war broke out, faith tended at first to rally around the state and escalate the war, but also offered solace though faith in a providence that gave the sacrifices of the war a higher purpose. The faith of most trembled in the face of brutal slaughter and hardening hearts brought by war, but the faith of many endured by trusting in a chastising providence, however conceived. Despite demonstrating that most of the soldiers were not devout Christians, the author showed how many and perhaps most Americans at the time held to the idea of divine providence as guiding human events great and small. A shored believed in God's providence was as practically Rable's implicit thesis, but it would have been more helpful if Rable made the thesis explicit. While Rable rightly told many little stories of Civil War, historians do reader a great service when they give particular focus to a single larger story (i.e., a thesis).
Having finished this book, it is hard to disagree with its closing remark that many Americans who lived through the war, whatever their side, race, or religious background, might well have said about the war, "I've always thought God had something to do with it" (p. 397).