The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, and a “Holy War”

Civil War

In the United States disputes over slavery brought Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists to schism by 1845, and encouraged the fratricidal Civil War that finally resolved that crisis. One of the chief ironies of the conflict over slavery was the confrontation of Americaʼs largest Protestant denominations with the hitherto unthinkable idea that the Bible could be divided against itself. But divided it had been by intractable theological, political, and economic forces. Never again would the Bible completely recover its traditional authority in American culture.

Stephen A. Marini, “Slavery and the Bible,” The Oxford Guide to Ideas & Issues of the Bible, ed. by Bruce Metzger and Michael D. Coogan (Oxford University Press, 2001)


Mark A. Noll in The Civil War as a Theological Crisis points out that a belief in divine providence and adherence to Scripture provided purpose and stability in the lives of antebellum Americans. But, religious leaders in the years leading up to the Civil War were unable to provide a definitive answer on the most difficult question of the period: Does the Bible condemn or condone slavery? Americans were also at odds over the workings of a providential God as both Northerners and Southerners tried to understand the meaning of the war and Godʼs role in it. Relying primarily on the writings of nineteenth-century theologians and other religious thinkers, Noll concludes that the clashes over these two issues revealed a theological crisis and resulted in a major turning point in American religious thought.

Noll contends that a

“fundamental disagreement existed over what the Bible had to say about slavery at the very moment when disputes over slavery were creating the most serious crisis in the nationʼs history.”

Indeed, Southerners argued that Scripture sanctioned slavery, while those opposed to the peculiar institution insisted that it did not. Noll points out that the supporters of slavery rested on a literal interpretation of the Bible, while abolitionists maintained that slavery violated the spirit of the Bible. Opponents of slavery furthermore contended that Scripture condemned slavery as it existed in America, for the system was riddled with abuses. While Southern ministers admitted the system required reform, but not abolition. Thus, the nationʼs most trusted religious authority, says Noll, was “sounding an uncertain note” on this critical issue.

In addition to the slavery question, Noll argues that Americans were also at odds over the workings of a providential God. Before the war, American theologians demonstrated confidence in their ability to fathom the meaning behind worldly events. During the war, both sides claimed that God supported their cause; however, the ways of God had become uncertain. God appeared at times to be “acting so strikingly at odds with himself,” especially when it came to battlefield defeats, and for Southerners in particular, the ultimate defeat of the Confederacy. This sense of “providential mystery” carried over into the postwar years as many abandoned the idea that God controlled worldly events. Noll devotes only one chapter to this important topic and leaves the reader wanting to know more.

In order to provide a broader framework, Noll also includes foreign theological commentary, both Protestant and Catholic, on the issue of slavery and the Bible. Although Noll admits that his work here is preliminary, his use of these often overlooked sources makes these two chapters the most intriguing of the book. In short, European and Canadian Protestants as well as Europeʼs liberal Roman Catholics evinced their intense opposition to slavery. Indeed, they were more opposed to slavery than they were in favor of the North. The second strand of foreign commentary came from conservative European Catholics, who did not categorically condemn slavery, but did criticize the institution as it existed America. But, conservative criticism went much further as Catholics took advantage of the opportunity to underscore the authority of the Church. Catholic theologians pointed out that because of the religious individualism that played such an instrumental role in the creation of the United States and its national culture, there was no overarching religious authority to offer a definitive statement on the issue of slavery. Thus, Americaʼs religious individualism and liberal tradition contributed to a deadlock over slavery.

Reviewed by Kent T. Dollar for The Journal of Southern Religion


Jefferson Davis & the Southʼs View of Slavery as Established & Sanctioned by God

Jefferson Davis, the leader of the South during the American Civil War, boasted, “It [slavery] was established by decree of Almighty God…it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation…it has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts…Let the gentleman go to Revelation to learn the decree of God—let him go to the Bible…I said that slavery was sanctioned in the Bible, authorized, regulated, and recognized from Genesis to Revelation…Slavery existed then in the earliest ages, and among the chosen people of God; and in Revelation we are told that it shall exist till the end of time shall come [Rev. 6:15; 13:16; 19:18]. You find it in the Old and New Testaments—in the prophecies, psalms, and the epistles of Paul; you find it recognized, sanctioned everywhere.”
- Dunbar Rowland, Jefferson Davis, Vol. 1

Davisʼs defenses of slavery are legion, as in his speech to Congress in 1848, “If slavery be a sin, it is not yours. It does not rest on your action for its origin, on your consent for its existence. It is a common law right to property in the service of man; its origin was Divine decree.” After 1856, Davis reiterated in most of his public speeches that he was “tired” of apologies for “our institution.” “African slavery, as it exists in the United States, is a moral, a social, and a political blessing.”
- William E. Dodd, Jefferson Davis

After being elected President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis said, “My own convictions as to negro slavery are strong. It has its evils and abuses…We recognize the negro as God and Godʼs Book and Godʼs Laws, in nature, tell us to recognize him—our inferior, fitted expressly for servitude…You cannot transform the negro into anything one-tenth as useful or as good as what slavery enables them to be.”
- Kenneth C. Davis, Donʼt Know Much About the Civil War: Everything You Need to Know About Americaʼs Greatest Conflict But Never Learned]

The Bible is a book in comparison with which all others in my eyes are of minor importance; and which in all my perplexities and distresses has never failed to give me light and strength.
- Robert E. Lee, Leader of the Confederate Army of the South

When the Confederate states drew up their constitution, they added something that the colonial founders had voted to leave out, namely, an invocation of the Deity. The Southʼs proud new constitution began: “We, the people…invoking the favor and guidance of Almighty God…”
- E.T.B. [See, Charles Robert Lee, Jr., The Confederate Constitutions]

Southern clergymen and politicians argued that the South was more “Christian” than the North, it was the “Redeemer Nation.”
- Charles Wilson, Baptized in Blood, 1980

With secession and the outbreak of the Civil War, Southern clergymen boldly proclaimed that the Confederacy had replaced the United States as Godʼs chosen nation.
- Mitchell Snay, Gospel of Disunion: Religion and Separatism in the Antebellum South]

Our [Christian] denominations [in the South] are few, harmonious, pretty much united among themselves [especially on the issue of slavery—E.T.B.], and pursue their avocations in humble peace…Few of the remarkable ‘isms’ of the present day have taken root among us. We have been so irreverent as to laugh at Mormonism and Millerism, which have created such [religious] commotions farther North; and modern prophets have no honor in our country. Shakers, Dunkers, Socialists, and the like, keep themselves afar off. You may attribute this to our domestic Slavery if you choose [the slaves being taught what to believe only by members of the ‘few, harmonious’ Southern churches—E.T.B.]. I believe you would do so justly. There is no material here [in the South] for such characters [from the North] to operate upon…A people [like we Southerners] whose men are proverbially brave, intellectual and hospitable, and whose women are unaffectedly chaste, devoted to domestic life, and happy in it, can neither be degraded nor demoralized, whatever their institutions may be. My decided opinion is, that our system of Slavery contributes largely to the development and culture of these high and noble qualities.
- James Henry Hammond, South Carolinian politician, cited by Drew Gilpin Faust, ed., The Ideology of Slavery: Proslavery Thought in the Antebellum South, 1830-1860 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981), Chapter IV, “James Henry Hammond: Letter to an English Abolitionist,” pp.180, 181, 183, 184]


A Slaveʼs View of Slavery in the South

We have men sold to build churches, women sold to support the gospel, and babes sold to purchase Bibles for the poor heathen, all for the glory of God and the good of souls. The slave auctioneerʼs bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master. Revivals of religion and revivals of the slave trade go hand in hand.

Were I to be again reduced to the chains of slavery, next to the enslavement, I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me. For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others.

It was my unhappy lot to belong to a religious slaveholder. He always managed to have one or more of his slaves to whip every Monday morning.

In August, 1832, my master attended a Methodist camp-meeting and there experienced religion. He prayed morning, noon, and night. He very soon distinguished himself among his brethren, and was made a class leader and exhorter.

I have seen him tie up a lame young woman, and whip her with a heavy cowskin whip upon her naked shoulders, causing the warm red blood to drip; and, in justification of the bloody deed, he would quote the passage of Scripture, “He who knoweth the masterʼs will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes.” (Luke 12:47)

I prayed for freedom twenty years, but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.

Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave


Frederick Douglass Was Not The Only Witness to Testify That Christians Were the Cruelest Slaveholders

Henry Bibb…lists six “professors of religion” who sold him to other “professors of religion.” (One of Bibbʼs owners was a deacon in the Baptist church, who employed whips, chains, stocks, and thumbscrews to “discipline” his slaves.) Harriet Jacobs, in her narrative, informs us that her tormenting owner was the worse for being converted. Mrs. Joseph Smith, testifying before the American Freedmenʼs Inquiry Commission in 1863 tells why Christian slaveholders were the worst owners: “Well, it is something like this—the Christians will oppress you more.”

Donald B. Gibson, “Faith, Doubt and Apostasy,” Frederick Douglass: New Literary and Historical Essays, ed. Eric J. Sundquist Gibson


Letter Written by a Slave To A Minster Who Had Preached At That Slaveʼs Plantation

I want you to tell me the reason you always preach to the white folks and keep your back to us. If God sent you to preach to sinners did He direct you to keep your face to the white folks constantly? Or is it because they give you money? If this is the cause we are the very persons who labor for this money but it is handed to you by our masters. Did God tell you to make your meeting houses just large enough to hold the white folks and let the Black people stand in the sun and rain as the brooks in the field? We are charged with inattention. It is impossible for us to pay good attention with this chance. In fact, some of us scarcely think we are preached to at all. Money appears to be the object. We are carried to market and sold to the highest bidder never once inquiring whether sold to a heathen or Christian. If the question was put, “Did you sell to a Christian?” what would be the answer, “I canʼt tell what he was, he gave me my price, thatʼs all I was interested in?” Is that the way to heaven? If it is, there will be a good many who go there. If not, their chance of getting there will be bad for there can be many witnesses against them.

Blacks in Bondage: Letters of American Slaves, ed., Robert S. Starobin


It is not uncharacteristic in the study of race relations that the catechisms, as instruments of control, revealed more about the thinking of the slaveholding society and its clerical leaders than they did about the slaves.
- Forrest G. Wood, The Arrogance of Faith: Christianity and Race in America from the Colonial Era to the Twentieth

Woodʼs book explodes the myth that most slaves became Christians: figures were closer to 10%, roughly the same percentage of the free population that attended church regularly. Another false legend exposed here is that northern churches aided and encouraged efforts to free the slaves: many abolitionists broke away from the mainstream churches because they would not provide assistance to escaped slaves. Northern churches considered slavery a political issue rather than a moral one so as not to offend their southern affiliates. “Spiritual” music was anything but: Allowed to sing only religious music, slaves often composed songs that were outwardly biblical, but that were actually coded messages for the underground railroad. Subjugation of all “inferior” races was an integral part of Manifest Destiny. The author contends that since the few freethinkers were not organized, they had no say in the slavery issue. His research is incomplete: Thomas Paine almost single-handedly abolished slavery in Pennsylvania, the first state where it was outlawed, in 1780. In fact, when did the other northern churches abolish slavery? You wonʼt find that answer in this book. Most of the material deals with slavery in the United States during the antebellum period, which is probably the authorʼs special field of study. He spends only a few pages on the genocide of the Native Americans, and almost totally ignores slavery in the Spanish settlements.
- John Rush (Austin, Texas) reviewer of Woodʼs book at amazon.com


African slaves were allowed to organize churches as a surrogate for earthly freedom. White churches were organized in order to make certain that the rights of property [including the masterʼs right to own his slave] were respected and that the numerous religious taboos in the New and Old Testaments would be enforced, if necessary, by civil law.

Gore Vidal, “(The Great Unmentionable) Monotheism and its Discontents,” essay


Before the South seceded politically from the North, she seceded religiously. The three largest Christian denominations in the South, the Methodists, Baptists and Presbyterians, seceded from their northern brethren to form separate “Southern” denominations, each founded on the Biblical right (of laymen and ministers) to own slaves.

E.T.B.


The Old School (Presbyterian) General Assembly report of 1845 concluded that slavery was based on “some of the plainest declarations of the Word of God.” Those who took this position were conservative evangelicals. Among their number were the best conservative theologians and exegetes of their day, including, Robert Dabney, James Thornwell and the great Charles Hodge of Princeton—fathers of twentieth century evangelicalism and of the modern expression of the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy. No one can really appreciate how certain these evangelicals were that the Bible endorsed slavery, or of the vehemence of their argumentation unless something from their writings is read.

Kevin Giles, “The Biblical Argument for Slavery,” The Evangelical Quarterly, Vol. 66, No. 1, 1994


The Clergy Played A Pivotal Role in Promoting Secession

Southern clergymen spoke openly and enthusiastically on behalf of disunion…Denominational groups across the South officially endorsed secession and conferred blessings on the new Southern nation. Influential denominational papers from the Mississippi Baptist to the Southern Episcopalian, the Southern Presbyterian and the South Western Baptist, agreed that secession “must be effected at any cost, regardless of consequences,” and “secession was the only consistent position that Southern freemen or Christians could occupy.” (One amusing anecdote tells how a prominent member of a Southern Presbyterian church told his pastor that he would quit the church if the pastor did not pray for the Union. Unmoved by this threat, the pastor replied that “our church does not believe in praying for the dead!”)

Meanwhile, Northern clergymen blamed their Southern counterparts for “inflaming passions,” “adding a feeling of religious fanaticism” to the secessionist controversy, and also blamed them for being “the strongest obstacle in the way of preserving the Union.” In this way, the Northern clergy contributed to the belief in an irrepressible conflict, and aroused the same kind of political passions they were condemning in their Southern brethren.

One Southern sermon that had “a powerful influence in converting Southern sentiments to secession,” and which was republished in several Southern newspapers and distributed in tens of thousands of individual copies, was Reverend Benjamin B. Palmerʼs sermon, “Slavery a Divine Trust: Duty of the South to Preserve and Perpetuate It,” delivered soon after Lincolnʼs election in 1860. According to Palmer that election had brought “one issue before us” which had created a crisis that called forth the guidance of the clergy. That issue was “slavery.” Palmer insisted that “the South defended the cause of all religion and truth…We defend the cause of God and religion,” while abolitionism was “undeniably atheistic.” Palmer was incensed at the platform of Lincolnʼs political party that promised to constrain the practice of slavery within certain geographical limits instead of allowing it to expand into Americaʼs Western territories. Therefore, the South had to secede in order to protect its providential trust of slavery.

When Union armies reached Reverend Palmerʼs home state, a Union general placed a price on his head, because as some said, the Reverend had done more than “any other non-combatant in the South to promote rebellion.” Thomas R. R. Cobb, an official of the Confederate government, summed up religionʼs contribution to the fervor and ferment of those times with these words, “This revolution (the secessionist cause) has been accomplished mainly by the Churches.”

Mitchell Snay, Gospel of Disunion (See also Edward R. Crowtherʼs Southern Evangelists and the Coming of the Civil War)


The Southern Presbyterian Church resolved in 1864 (while the Civil War was still being fought): “We hesitate not to affirm that it is the peculiar mission of the Southern Church to conserve the institution of slavery, and to make it a blessing both to master and slave.” The Church also insisted that it was “unscriptural and fanatical” and “one of the most pernicious heresies of modern times” to accept the dogma that slavery was inherently sinful. At least one slave responded to such theological resolutions with one of his own: “If slavery ainʼt a sin, then nothing is.”

E.T.B.


To judge by the hundreds of sermons and specially composed church prayers that have survived on both sides, ministers were among the most fanatical of the combatants from beginning to end. The churches played a major role in dividing the nation, and it may be that the splits in the churches made a final split in the nation possible. In the North, such a charge was often willingly accepted. Granville Moddy, a Northern Methodist, boasted in 1861, “We are charged with having brought about the present contest. I believe it is true we did bring it about, and I glory in it, for it is a wreath of glory round our brow.” Southern clergymen did not make the same boast but of all the various elements in the South they did the most to make a secessionist state of mind possible. Southern clergymen were particularly responsible for prolonging the increasingly futile struggle. Both sides claimed vast numbers of “conversions” among their troops and a tremendous increase in churchgoing and “prayerfulness” as a result of the fighting.
- Paul Johnson, A History of the American People

Other “results of the fighting” that clergymen were not nearly as boastful about included tremendous outbreaks of syphilis and gonorrhea among both northern and southern troops who took time out from their fighting and prayers to visit women who attended to the troopsʼ less than holy concerns.
- E.T.B.


The Crusades aside, Civil War armies were perhaps the most religious in history. Troops who were not especially religious prior to the war often found comfort in religion when faced with the horrific reality of combat. Those who had held strong religious beliefs before they went into battle usually found their faith strengthened. One southerner reflected that “we are feeble instruments in the hands of the Supreme Power,” while his northern counterpart believed that he was “under the same protecting aegis of the Almighty here as elsewhere…It matters not, then,” he concluded, “where I may be the God of nature extends his protecting wing over me.”

Religion, specifically the Protestant religion, went to the very heart of the American experience in the nineteenth century. Both northerners and southerners were used to expressing themselves via religious metaphors and Scriptural allusions. Once war broke out, both sides saw themselves as Christian armies, and the war itself served to reinforce this.

The Confederate soldier, in particular, was encouraged to equate the cause of the Confederacy with the cause of Christ, by the efforts of religious journals such as The Army and Navy Messenger and The Soldierʼs Friend, many of which began publication after 1863. The Messenger advised southern troops as late as 1864 that the Confederacy was “fighting not only for our country but our God. This identity inspires our hope and establishes our confidence. It has become for us a holy war, and each fearful and bloody battle an act of awful and solemn worship.” In the same year, The Soldierʼs Paper reminded its readership, “The blood of martyrs was the seed of the Church, the blood of our heroes is the seed of liberty.” According to the Mississippi Messenger, the Civil War was no more nor less than “…the ordering of Godʼs Providence, which forbids the permanent union of heterogeneous nations.” The southern soldier responded to such arguments, and took them to heart. Even after the fall of Atlanta, an artillery lieutenant from Alabama could not “believe that our Father in Heaven intends that we shall be subjugated by such a race of people as the Yankees.”

Northern soldiers too, were encouraged to find Scriptural justification for the Union cause, particularly over the matter of slavery. After Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, Julia Ward Howe composed the words to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which was set to the tune of “John Brownʼs Body.” Union troops needed little encouragement to sing “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” nor to reassure themselves that as Christ “died to make men holy, let us die to make men free / While God is marching on.”

Susan-Mary Grant, “For God and Country: Why Men Joined Up For the US Civil War,” History Today, Vol. 50, No. 7, July 2000, p.24-25


Hundreds of thousands of soldiers died in the Civil War, more than the combined number of all the American soldiers who died in every other war from the Revolutionary War through two World Wars, right up to the Gulf War against Iraq. (Admittedly, diarrhea killed more Civil War soldiers than were killed in battle. But then, influenza killed more World War I soldiers than were killed in battle.) Neither is there any doubt among historians that religion played a more pervasive and intimate role in heightening disagreements and animosities during the Civil War than in those others.

E.T.B.


The Civil War as a Religious War:
It can be argued that the Civil War was as much theological as it was political. The split between northern and southern churches may have precipitated political secession—once religious leaders stopped trying to work together, political leaders didnʼt bother. Ministers signed up for war in larger numbers, especially in the South. All the officers in one Texas regiment were, apparently, Methodist preachers. Religious propaganda drove war fever and inspired confidence in ultimate victory.

Ham and the Christian Defense of Slavery:
The primary focus of those using Christianity to defend slavery and segregation was the story of Noah, specifically the part where his son Ham is cursed to serve his brothers. This story long functioned as a model for Christians to insist that God meant Africans to be marked as the servants of others because they are descended from Ham. Secondary was the story of the Tower of Babel as a model for Godʼs desire to separate people generally rather than have them united in common cause and purpose.

Slavery, Christian Honor, and Social Order:
The concepts of honor and social order have been integral to Southern Christianity and Southern defenses of slavery. Honor meant protecting oneʼs personal image. It didnʼt matter, for example, if one was honest or dishonest, but it did matter that no one said you were dishonest. Black Africans, as descendants of Ham, were seen as lacking honor and therefore deserving of slavery. Maintaining social order meant preserving traditional structures of authority: men over women, whites over blacks.

Southern Christianity and Liberty:
Southern slave owners had little interest in general liberty or maintaining a democratic republic. Their ideals were founded upon patriarchy, timocracy, and authoritarianism — not liberty, democracy, or other values people tend to take for granted today. In effect, Christianity constituted an important basis for anti-democratic movements in the South designed to deny liberty to large numbers of people, primarily (though not solely) slaves.

Christianity as a Source of Weakness in the South:
Early on, Christianity was a powerful force for inspiration and national cohesion in the Confederacy. Over time, however, the quick and expected victory failed to materialize. This was a problem for both sides, but the North had a stronger nationalistic sense of self which helped see them through; the South lacked this and thus the failures on the battlefield translated into religious despair. This, in turn, sapped the Southʼs morale and prevented them from persevering.

Religious Reconstruction after the Civil War:
Southerners decided that they lost because they were impure of heart rather than because slavery was an unmitigated evil — to admit that they lost because they had been wrong all along would have bee too large a blow to their sense of self and their self-identification as Southerners. They had to have been right; therefore, their loss must be attributed to other reasons. Many argued that God was chastising them in order to prepare them for some higher and more glorious purpose in the future.

Statesʼ Rights, Guilt, and Manufactured Victory:
Southern secession was based upon a defense of slavery as a religious necessity and as a basic way of life. Guilt over slavery always lurked in the background, though, and losing the war made it even more difficult to face. Instead of facing it, however, Southerners claimed that they only fought for statesʼ rights and personal honor, both of which “survived.” This allowed Southern Christians to claim victory without having to deal with the moral implications of going to war over slavery.

White Supremacy and Christian Supremacy:
For Southerners, maintaining separate churches was necessary to hold on to who they really were. Churches were a primary vehicle for transmitting cultural as well as religious identity. Through the churches Southerners transmitted to their children ideals about slavery, the inequality of the races, the righteousness of secession, the evil and tainted gospel preached by Northerners, and so forth. Except for the overt racism and defense of slavery, the situation today remains strikingly similar.

Christianity and the Civil Rights Movement:
Although the South lost the Civil War, White Supremacy remained an important component of Christian teaching for the next century. White Christian churches taught that slavery was a just institution, as were Jim Crow laws and segregation; that white Christianity remained the last, best hope for western civilization; and that white Christians had a mandate to exercise dominion over the world — and especially the darker races who were little more than children.

Southern Christianity and Christian Nationalism in Modern America:
There has been discussion of the “southernization of American society,” an argument that many basic premises and principles from Southern culture have become integrated into the rest of American culture. Included with this are appeals to racism and ethnic demagoguery, militaristic patriotism, and extreme political localism.

A parallel development, or perhaps the primary underlying development, has been the “southernization” of American Christianity. Although mainline Protestant Christianity has grown more liberal, tolerant, and open in recent decades, they have also been declining in influence. During this same time conservative evangelical and fundamentalist churches have been growing in size and power.

Christian Nationalism in America is largely a consequence of the spread of Southern Christianity. Southern Christianity has long been more conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist, militaristic, and nationalistic than churches elsewhere in the nation. As these attitudes have spread, they have transformed Christian churches that were once more liberal, especially where issues like feminism, the ordination of female clergy, and homosexuality have been concerned.

Southern Christianity holds firm to a male-dominated church situated in a male-dominated society, hyper-patriotism which is inextricably linked to traditional Christianity, hostility towards homosexuality and any divergence from traditional gender roles, opposition to sexual license and liberty, and the defense of traditional privileges for males, Christians, and at times even whites. All of this is gradually being incorporated into American Christianity generally, transforming not just American churches but also American culture and politics as well.

Austin Cline, “Christianity in the Confederate South: Southern Nationalism and Christianity”

After The Civil War

In The Slaveholdersʼ Dilemma (1992), and again in this most recent book, A Consuming Fire, Eugene Genovese shows that in the contemporary self–understanding of Southerners, their views of states rights, religion, and society were all mixed with slavery. The slave system provided the social context for how they thought about local political authority, economics, and their social and religious duties. Before the war the best of Southern thinkers and clergy of all denominations defended slavery on its moral, religious, and social merits. During the war white Christian Southerners regarded slavery, not states rights or military valor, as the fulcrum of divine judgment; and slavery became for them the key to explaining the failure of Southern arms.

Russell Hittinger, “A Confederate Theodicy,” a book review of A Consuming Fire: The Fall of the Confederacy in the Mind of the White Christian South by Eugene D. Genovese, as appeared in First Things, No. 95 (August/September 1999), p. 67-72


Methodist Ell Gertrude Clanton Thomas, a member of the planter elite in Augusta, Georgia, owned more than ninety slaves; the Civl War destroyed much of her wealth, and she and her husband were “reduced from a state of affluence to comparative poverty.” Until emancipation, she had not realized “how intimately my faith in revelations and my faith in the institution of slavery had been woven together… if the Bible was right then slavery must be—Slavery was done away with and my faith in Godʼs Holy Book was terribly shaken. For a time, I doubted God.”… Reluctantly she admitted, “Our cause was lost. Good men had had faith to be lost? I was bewildered—I felt all this and could not see Godʼs hand.”

Central to their [Southernerʼs] remarkably resilient worldview was the adamant conviction that God still favored the South and its churches. Slavery as an institution and secession were not sinful, though most admitted that some abuses had existed in the practice of slavery. Since northern denominations were hopelessly political and radical, the southern denominations had a duty to preserve the Gospel untainted. Furthermore, while northerners and freedpeople controlled much of the political and economic life of the South, southern evangelicals had to maintain their churches as bastions of regional identity.

Religious reconstruction was the process by which southern and northern, black and white Christians rebuilt the spiritual life of the south in the aftermath of the disruptions wrought by the Civil War. Each group, however, had a different vision of what was necessary and how best to accomplish this process. For white southern Christians, the task was primarily to restore the antebellum status quo in their religious lives. In the immediate aftermath of the war, they made their intentions clear as they tried as much as possible to restore the old order—political, social, and religious—and only grudgingly accepted change.

Daniel W. Stowell, Rebuilding Zion: The Religious Reconstruction of the South, 1863-1877 (Oxford University Press)


After decades of denouncing the emancipation of the slaves many members of evangelical Southern Protestant denominations applauded the “magnificently constructed” walls of segregation that followed. As Rev. Clayton Sullivan recalls:

“Blacks were viewed as inferior. They rode at the back of the bus, went to separate schools, lived in shanties on the other side of town, and attended black churches (called ‘nigger churches’). Nor do I recall from my… youth hearing anyone question the justice or injustice of segregation… For a white Southerner to question segregation would have seemed as surprising as to question the existence of God.”
—Clayton Sullivan, Called to Preach, Condemned to Survive: The Education of Clayton Sullivan (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1985), p. 141-42.

In the 1950s Rev. Clayton joined nonprejudiced seminarians at the Southern Baptist Louisville Seminary in wincing “…when Dr. W. A. Criswell [the famous Southern Baptist preacher] in Dallas spoke to the seminary students in Alumni Chapel and said, “Fellows, things are changing down home. You used to be able to say ‘chiggers.’ But now you have to say ‘cHEE-groes.’”
—Sullivan, p. 143

Two decades later, things had changed:

“The ‘impregnable walls of segregation’… were not, so it turned out, impregnable after all… [For instance] Mississippi now has the highest number of elected black officials of any state. Negroes patronize motels, restaurants and libraries. The public schools have integrated and blacks compose the backbone of the Ole Miss football team. The only institutions left segregated are churches, funeral homes, country clubs, and chapters of the Daughters of the Confederacy.”
—Sullivan, p. 154.

In the 1960s in Greenville, South Carolina the former tent-evangelist and fundamentalist founder of Bob Jones University, Bob Jones, Sr., cited the apostle Paulʼs statement in the book of Acts (17:26, KJV) in order to oppose interracial schooling and dating. Paul wrote, “And [God] hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation” (emphasis added). Bob Jones, Sr., interpreted Paulʼs statement this way:

“If you are against segregation and against racial separation, then you are against God Almighty, because He made racial separation in order to preserve the [Jewish] race through whom He could send the Messiah and through whom He could send the Bible. God is the author of segregation. God is the author of Jewish separation and Gentile separation and Japanese separation. God made of one blood all nations, but He also drew the boundary lines between races… [compare Paulʼs statement, above-ED.] Slavery was not right… The colored people should have been left over in Africa, and we should have sent missionaries over there and got them converted. That is what we should have done. But we could not have converted them as fast that way; and God makes the wrath of men to praise Him… We had planned to build a school, just like Bob Jones University, here in the South for colored people… Where Christian colored people could get their education in ‘an atmosphere where their talents in music and speech and art and all could be preserved and handed down… We had that in mind until all this agitation started… [Yet how did ‘all this agitation’ really ‘start?’ With the enslavement of a people.-ED.] No nation has ever prospered or been blessed like the colored people in the South.”
—Bob Jones, Sr., Is Segregation Scriptural? (Greenville, S.C.: Bob Jones University, 1960), p. 16,19,22,24-25,32.

So spoke Bob Jones, Sr., in an address delivered over radio station WMUU at Bob Jones University, Greenville, South Carolina, April 17, 1960, transcribed and printed/as the pamphlet Is Segregation Scriptural? But that sermon is no longer seen on the shelves of the campus bookstore at Bob Jones University. Furthermore, a handful of black students now attend Bob Jones University each year. It seems that the university is gradually losing sight of its founderʼs original teachings, or, in the words of Bob Jones, Sr., they are going “against God Almighty!”

However in 1968 one Bob Jones University alumnus, Dr. Dennis Ronald MacDonald, recalls how he was attending a Bible conference on campus that year when the news arrived of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.ʼs assassination. The audience with few exceptions clapped and cheered on hearing that Bob Jones University would not be hanging its American flag at half-mast to honor Dr. King, who was viewed as an “apostate” for his “social Gospel” message.

Edward T. Babinski, “Fundamentalismʼs Grotesque Past,” Leaving the Fold: Testimonies of Former Fundamentalists (Prometheus Books, 1995)


The South may have lost the Civil War, but By God, theyʼre still doing what they can to keep those damn “Nigras” in line. Blacks continue to receive the harshest sentences in court, including the death penalty. Blacks make up 41% of the total percentage of inmates living on death row in America yet blacks comprise a far lesser percentage of the nationʼs citizenry. 207 blacks received the death sentence last year for killing white people, while only 12 whites received that harsh sentence for killing blacks. Thatʼs “southern” justice for you. Everyone should be playing on the same level field in court, but let me know if you can find a playing field (other than a football field) where blacks are treated as equal.

D. A. Stacy, “U.S. Executions Reach 1000” [circa 2004?]


By the mid-1960s, the legal status of segregation had been settled in Americaʼs courts and political chambers. But segregationʼs staunchest proponents continued to fight, insisting that integration was the leading edge of a social revolution bent on “overthrowing Godʼs established order.”

As conservative Christians reacted to what they regarded as perilous change, they pressed Nimrodʼs legend into service. One example is Corey Daniel of Dallas, a Baptist preacher who utilized the legend to depict integration as part of a demonic social scheme… Daniel combined race and disorder in his portrait of Nimrod, “the Negro leader of the Babelbuilders (Gen 10:6-10), whose name means ‘Rebel’”…

Like many Southern conservatives, Daniel associated the campaign for civil rights with socialism, internationalism, and revolutionary dictatorship. In fact, the alliance between integration and the loss of individual freedom is exceedingly close in Danielʼs mind. Using epithets such as “those first unholy one worlders” and “the United Nationsʼ modern tower of Babel,” Daniel applies Genesis 11 to popular anxieties about Americaʼs role in a changing world…

Like the Babel-builders, the UN seeks to integrate races and governments, “lest [they] be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” Again like the architects of that ancient UN, the modern internationalists “are ignoring, when they are not actively blaspheming, the Lord Jesus Christ and His glorious gospel blood redemption.” Thus, in Danielʼs view, Nimrod is the patriarch of all schemes to consolidate in rebellion against God.

Stephen R. Haynes, Noahʼs Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery

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