A Conflicted Message: Christian Theology and Political Action During the Civil War Era

A Conflicted Message: Christian Theology and Political Action During the Civil War Era

When citizens of a democratic society participate in electoral politics, they are often forced to determine the extent to which they are willing to compromise on their beliefs when voting. Voters sometimes find ideal candidates who share most if not all of their views, but oftentimes the best candidate in a given election holds a mix of views that an individual voter simultaneously agrees and disagrees with, leading them to believe they must choose between “the lesser of two evils.” While voters of all types throughout the United States are grappling with this tension amid the current 2016 Presidential election, the conflicted emotions of Christian voters have been particularly noteworthy in popular media coverage. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, many Christians believe that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have poor religious credentials and values that contradict the church’s teachings. Christian voters are studying their Bibles and using its words to interpret the various issues at hand, but their conclusions are widely divergent. Some frustrated Christians are holding their noses and supporting either Clinton or Trump, but some believe that a vote for either is a sinful compromise.[1]

Conflicting political actions among the faithful today echo the ones that emerged before the outbreak of the Civil War. For example, Frederick Douglass, an ordained minister of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, came to believe that participation in electoral politics was the best method for enacting the end of slavery in the U.S, while the Unitarian William Lloyd Garrison could not fathom voting in a sinful political system that condoned the institution. Christians who did vote often disagreed about the best candidates to represent their values. They also debated the proper boundaries for establishing the separation of church and state and discussed if such a boundary was even necessary.

Taken as a whole, the political conflicts between Christians that emerged before the war offer an important reminder that while Christian principles have played an integral role in shaping American values, the challenge of translating Biblical teachings into secular government policy has been fraught with inter-faith disagreements that previously pushed the country towards the brink of destruction. Equally important, these disagreements provoked serious theological crises that questioned what religious principles were necessary for living a virtuous Christian life.

What constituted the “true principles of God” and the correct understanding of the U.S. Constitution was hotly debated during the antebellum era, particularly on the issue of slavery. While Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and other Christian denominations had debated the merits of slavery in the United States since the country’s founding, growing antislavery and abolitionist agitation within the church led to each of these denominations splitting into Northern and Southern wings. By the time the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed in 1854 the religious debate over slavery led to an unprecedented politicization of the pulpit in Christian churches throughout the country, according to historian Timothy L. Wesley.[2]

The Slave’s Friend, Volume III (New York: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1836). The American Anti-Slavery Society was led by abolitionist ministers who believed slavery was incompatible with the Bible’s teachings. Proslavery ministers and congregants considered abolitionist agitation outrageous, and they detested the politicization of the minster’s pulpit. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Slavery’s defenders believed that the institution was a standard economic, social, and political practice divinely ordained by God. Proslavery ministers cited Ephesians 6:5-8, which calls upon slaves to “obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.” Southern Baptist minister James Robinson Graves wondered in 1857 “where in the New Testament did Christ and his apostles command the master to free his slave? . . . if any man asserts that the slavery of the family of Canaan be a sin, then God is the author of it, which would be blasphemous to affirm.” That same year Presbyterian minister Frederick Augustus Ross affirmed Graves’s views in the provocatively-titled Slavery Ordained of God, which argued that the Union could only be preserved if all white Christians agreed to support slavery’s preservation and westward expansion “for the good of the slave, the good of the master, the good of the whole American family.”[3]

Antislavery ministers argued with increasing ferocity in the 1850s that the particular form of race-based slavery practiced in the South was not biblically-sanctioned but instead the logical endpoint of racial prejudice throughout the country. Dutch Reformer Tayler Lewis acknowledged that the Bible offered divine approval of non-Jewish “heathens” of all colors to be purchased as slaves, but argued that it offered no such approval for the purchasing of slaves based solely on their color. Lewis also asked if the “heathen” slaves of the South converted to Christianity, why were they not immediately emancipated upon conversion? Baptist James M. Pendleton suggested that if slavery promoted “holiness and happiness” within the black population, why would it not do the same for the white population? And following passage of the Compromise of 1850—which potentially allowed slavery in the Utah and New Mexico territories and strengthened federal power to capture runaway slaves—Congregationalist Henry Ward Beecher denounced the compromise, saying that “if the compromises of the Constitution include requisitions which violate humanity, I will not be bound by them.” He also echoed Lewis’s argument that the “Hebrew law of slavery” was not being practiced in the South, leading to millions of black Christians in the bondage of their fellow white Christians.[4]

The arrival of civil war in 1861 was partly the result of hardening sentiments and divergent biblical interpretations within American Christendom over the proper understanding of Christian living within the republic. President Abraham Lincoln understood as well as anyone that these contrasting visions of Christianity were incompatible with each other. “We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing,” he commented in 1864. Expanding this thought during his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln remarked that supporters of both the United States and the Confederacy “read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other,” but that “the prayers of both could not be answered.” Regardless of any one person’s interpretation of the Bible, Lincoln startlingly concluded, “the Almighty has His own purposes.”[5]

“Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, 1865.” President Lincoln hoped God would bring an end to the bloodshed of the Civil War but acknowledged that it may have been His punishment for “all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil.” Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

While the deep theological splits of the Civil War era will most likely not be replicated as a result of the 2016 election, evidence suggests that the election is fostering growing divisions in the Christian faith over issues such as abortion, homosexuality, racial equality, the death penalty, and capitalism. A recent Washington Post essay argues that many pastors are unsure of who to support and are struggling to communicate with their conflicted congregants about the election. Churches around the country are debating the theological underpinnings that guide Christian life and the extent to which compromise is appropriate when participating in electoral politics. These discussions, however, can potentially breathe new life into Christianity. Historian John Fea powerfully argues that churches must use this moment to find spaces “where conversations can take place about how to apply the Christian faith to culture, politics, art, nature, [and] our understanding of the past and its relationship to the present.”[6] Either way, President Lincoln’s words ring true: Christians should all proceed with caution before trusting their mental facilities with the ability to completely understand God’s often-mysterious intentions.

[1] Marisa Peñaloza and Tom Gjetlen, “Religious Voters May Lean Republican, But Feel Conflicted About the Candidates,” NPR, September 21, 2016, http://www.npr.org/2016/09/21/494722694/religious-voters-may-lean-republican-but-feel-conflicted-about-the-candidates; Steven Andrew, “5 Bible Verses Explain Why Voting for Trump and Clinton is Sin,” USA Christian Church, July 14, 2016, accessed October 1, 2016, https://www.usa.church/5-bible-verses-explain-why-voting-for-trump-and-clinton-is-sin/; Pew Research Center, “Faith and the 2016 Campaign,” Pew Research Center, January 27, 2016, accessed September 30, 2016, http://www.pewforum.org/2016/01/27/faith-and-the-2016-campaign/.

[2] Timothy L. Wesley, The Politics of Faith During the Civil War (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2013), 1-7.

[3] James Robinson Graves, The Little Iron Wheel, A Declaration of Christian Rights and Articles, Showing the Despotism of Episcopal Methodism (Nashville: South-Western Publishing House, Graves, Marks & Co., 1857), 10, 13; Frederick Augustus Ross, Slavery Ordained of God (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1857), 5.

[4] Lewis and Pendleton quoted in Mark A. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 48-49, 54-55; Henry Ward Beecher, “Shall We Compromise?” (speech), quoted in William Constantine Beecher, Samuel Scoville, et al., A Biography of Rev. Henry Ward Beecher (New York: Charles Webster & Co., 1888), 237.

[5] Abraham Lincoln, “Address at Sanitary Fair in Baltimore” (speech, Baltimore, MD, April 18, 1864), The American Presidency Project, accessed October 1, 2016, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=88871; Abraham Lincoln, “Second Inaugural Address” (speech, Washington, D.C., March 4, 1865), Bartleby, accessed October 1, 2016, http://www.bartleby.com/124/pres32.html.

[6] Michelle Boorstein, “Why Donald Trump is Tearing Evangelicals Apart,” Washington Post, March 15, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/03/15/evangelical-christians-are-enormously-divided-over-donald-trumps-runaway-candidacy/; John Fea, “In Supporting Trump, Evangelicals Are Reaping What They’ve Sown,” The Way of Improvement Leads Home, September 30, 2016, https://thewayofimprovement.com/2016/09/30/from-the-archives-in-supporting-trump-evangelicals-are-reaping-what-theyve-sown/.

Nick Sacco

NICK SACCO is a public historian and writer based in St. Louis, Missouri. He holds a master’s degree in History with a concentration in Public History from IUPUI (2014). In the past he has worked for the National Council on Public History, the Indiana State House, the Missouri History Museum Library and Research Center, and as a teaching assistant in both middle and high school settings. Nick recently had a journal article about Ulysses S. Grant’s relationship with slavery published in the September 2019 issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era. He has written several other journal articles, digital essays, and book reviews for a range of publications, including the Indiana Magazine of History, The Confluence, The Civil War Monitor, Emerging Civil War, History@Work, AASLH, and Society for U.S. Intellectual History. He also blogs regularly about history at his personal website, Exploring the Past. You can contact Nick at PastExplore@gmail.com.

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