The Civil War as a Theological Crisis

I recently finished Mark Noll’s historical study, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (a full review of the book can be found here). I don’t have any special interest in the Civil War – I am more interested in the “theological crisis” side of things. The crisis Noll explores is summarized like this:

American national culture had been built in substantial part by voluntary and democratic appropriation of Scripture. Yet if by following such an approach to the Bible there resulted an unbridgeable chasm of opinion about what Scripture actually taught [regarding slavery, God’s providential action], there were no resources within democratic or voluntary procedures to resolve the public division of opinion that was created by voluntary and democratic interpretation of the Bible. The Book that made the nation was destroying the nation; the nation that had taken to the Book was rescued not by the Book but by the force of arms.

Later in the book Noll offers the memorable line: “The supreme crisis over the Bible was that there existed no apparent biblical resolution to the crisis. As I have written elsewhere, it was left to those consummate theologians, the Reverend Doctors Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, to decide what in fact the Bible actually meant.” I suppose I was hoping the book would help me understand how and why public theological reflection takes the shape it does in America. It is a sobering book, one that should make anyone who wants to think through contemporary public issue “X” theologically and biblically, extremely uncomfortable. Noll is primarily descriptive, and readers need to draw some of their own conclusions concerning what this might mean for contemporary theological reflection. I very much recommend the book if you ever find yourself thinking/saying “the Bible says … .” Some quotes that stuck out:

Re: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the forms of public discourse:

The significance of Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin for the biblical debate over slavery lay in the novel’s emotive power. More effectively than debaters like Jonathan Blanchard or Francis Wayland, Stowe exemplified-rather than just announced-the persuasive force of what she regarded as the Bible’s overarching general message. The fact that a novelist brought off this task more effectively than the exegetes did not stop abolitionist scholars and preachers from continuing the battle in their chosen media.

Re: nuance in interpretation and debate:

On the other front, nuanced biblical attacks on American slavery faced rough going precisely because they were nuanced. This position could not simply be read out of any one biblical text; it could not be lifted directly from the page. Rather, it needed patient reflection on the entirety of the Scriptures; it required expert knowledge of the historical circumstances of ancient Near Eastern and Roman slave systems as well as of the actually existing conditions in the slave states; and it demanded that sophisticated interpretative practice replace a commonsensically literal approach to the sacred text. In short, this was an argument of elites requiring that the populace defer to its intellectual betters. As such, it contradicted democratic and republican intellectual instincts. In the culture of the United States, as that culture had been constructed by three generations of evangelical Bible believers, the nuanced biblical argument was doomed.

On the fact that the issue of race was largely absent from the public debate in the US (even among abolitionists) – excepting African American writers (who were ignored), and some foreign observers:

In order for American Bible believers as a whole to have acted on distinctions between slavery as such and slavery as practiced in the United States, or between colorblind biblical slavery and black-only American slavery, a revolution in the nation’s racial attitudes would have been necessary, and that revolution would have demanded a greater alteration in accepted convictions than the American War of independence itself. Even the Civil War that preserved the Union, that broadened out to the Emancipation Proclamation, and that led to the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments did not persuade most Caucasian Americans that African Americans were on their level of humanity. To have carried the country in 186o, the argument that a racially discriminatory slavery was a different thing from slavery per se would have required the kind of commitment to racial antiprejudice that the nation only accepted, after immense struggle, late in the twentieth century – if in fact it has accepted it even now

From Noll’s conclusion:

The issue for American history was that only two courses of action seemed open when confronting such a deadlock. The first was the course taken in the Civil War, which effectively handed the business of the theologians over to the generals to decide by ordeal what the Bible meant. As things worked out, military coercion determined that, at least for the purposes of American public policy, the Bible did not support slavery. The second course, though never self-consciously adopted by all Americans in all circumstances, has been followed since the Civil War. That course is an implicit national agreement not to base public policy of any consequence on interpretations of Scripture.


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