5 Civil War Lessons for the Church

When it comes to commemorations, there’s something about round numbers that appeal to people. A couple’s 20th anniversary is more celebrated than their 19th. John Calvin’s 500th birthday in 2009 felt more significant than his 501st the next year. We continue to witness this phenomenon with the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. A recent study revealed that events in Virginia related to the 150-year anniversary have generated more than $290 million in revenue. PBS is re-releasing Ken Burns’s classic Civil War documentary in “ultra high definition,” though one wonders if some images are best left in low definition. PBS will air the updated version of Burns’s series beginning tonight and running through September 11.

As a Civil War historian, I am thrilled for any opportunity for people to learn more about this tragic chapter in American history. Over the last few years much has been written about the lessons today’s society could glean from the war. But the church could also benefit from some reflection on this tumultuous period.

Here are five lessons the church can learn from the Civil War.

1. Promote the sanctity of human life.

The Civil War was by far the deadliest war in American history. (World War II resulted in less than two-thirds the number of casualties.) This isn’t to say it was unjust. It was the war to end slavery, after all, even if everyone didn’t grasp this at first. Nevertheless, it may not have needed to evolve into a war that would end in more than 620,000 deaths. As Yale historian Harry Stout explains in Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War, it changed “from a limited war for the ‘Union’ to a moral crusade for ‘freedom’ and abolition.”

America’s clergy led this crusade. As the conflict dragged on, slavery rightly became the central issue, and ministers North and South declared God to be on their respective sides. The war, then, turned into a cosmic battle between good and evil. Imbued with such significance, it isn’t surprising both sides were willing to win at any cost. Stout is fair to question whether America’s churches took the sanctity of human life seriously enough.

In addition to stirring the embers of a conflict that resulted in staggering casualties, many pastors exhibited disregard for the sanctity of life through their promotion of slavery and white supremacy. It continues to appall that any sincere Christian aware of the realities of American slavery—beatings, rapes, separation of families, deprivation of basic liberties—could defend the institution with a clear conscience. While it’s true some of slavery’s defenders were unaware of its full scope, these ministers were still quick to support—both during and after the war—the suppression of African Americans’ basic civil liberties. (And this group included more Northern pastors than most think.)

2. Be cautious about engaging in political preaching.

The primary way ministers stoked the war’s fires was through political preaching. In February 1862 Boston’s Saturday Evening Gazette reflected on the alarming trend of declining numbers in the region’s church attendance:

The clergy of New England have been offering “strange fire before the Lord,” and the inevitable retribution has followed. And this “strange fire” is the vulgar fire of secular politics—the fire of worldly passions—which wastes and consumes the heart on which it feeds. . . . Politics are usurping the place of religion, to a deplorable extent, in the pulpits of New England.

Such political harangues weren’t isolated to Northern pulpits, as many Southern ministers regularly used their sermons to champion the Confederate cause. Political preaching often achieved its objective in convincing parishioners God was on the side—and only the side—of the North or the South as it fought for righteousness.

3. Don’t take religious liberty for granted.

Not all American clergy turned their pulpits into political stages, however. Especially in the border states—slave states that never seceded from the Union—many pastors attempted to remain neutral, focusing instead on preaching the gospel of grace to sinners. While nearly all preachers believed God rules over all of creation, they held to a concept of the spirituality of the church that argued God’s kingdom is not of this world, so they refused to engage in political preaching. (This observation shouldn’t be taken to imply the church bears no responsibility to faithfully exercise its moral prophetic voice to society.)

In Missouri, which was under martial law for much of the war, ministers faced widespread accusations of disloyalty since they refused to deliver political sermons or swear loyalty oaths to the Union (which required clergy to pledge to defend the Union cause by any means necessary). Such pastors were often charged with disloyalty and convicted by military officials without a trial. More than 100 ministers in Missouri alone faced arrest, fines, removal from their pulpits, and banishment from the state. While it’s easy for us to assume such religious liberty violations are impossible in modern America, it’s important to remember that mid-19th century American culture esteemed its churches and ministers far more than today.

4. Careless appeals to Scripture in cultural/political wars erode trust in the Bible.

As Lincoln observed in his second inaugural address, both sides “read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes his aid against the other.” The vast majority of ministers claimed biblical sanction for their respective sides. As Mark Noll and other historians have rightly noted, the effects of this often careless appeal to Scripture in promoting political objectives marked a gradual erosion—both in the church and in the culture—of Scripture’s perceived veracity and reliability. Civil War historian Allen Guelzo has recently explained:

From the Civil War onward, American Protestantism would be locked deeper and deeper into a state of cultural imprisonment, and in many cases, retreating to a world of private experience in which Christianity remained of little more significance to public life than stamp-collecting or bridge parties.

In their attempt to influence the most important crisis in American history, America’s clergy unwittingly undermined the future moral and cultural relevance of the church. We would be wise to employ greater caution when using Scripture in our current culture wars.

5. Inserting God into the Constitution does not make a nation “Christian.”

The Constitution of the Confederate States of America closely mimicked the Constitution of the United States of America—except on one important point. The Confederate Constitution included the phrase “invoking the favor and guidance of Almighty God.” This addition served two purposes. First, it clarified that the new Confederate nation would be explicitly Christian. Second, it suggested the Constitution of the United States erred in refusing to acknowledge God. Some Northerners were convinced that the war was God’s judgment on the country for failing to acknowledge him in its founding document. They even petitioned, unsuccessfully, for an amendment to insert God into the constitution.

It’s clear in hindsight that including “God” in a founding document does not make a nation Christian, or vice versa. Certainly most American Christians today wouldn’t want the kind of “Christian nation” that existed in the Confederacy, which was founded on a social and economic system that subjugated an entire group of people based on the color of their skin.

Cause Worth Dying For

The kind of “Christian nation” our churches should desire is one filled with Christians—that is, a nation whose residents recognize their guilty state before a perfectly righteous God, repent of their sins, turn in faith to Christ, grow spiritually through the Holy Spirit, and feed weekly on the means of grace in a local church.

That is a cause worth dying for.