Religion And The Civil War

First let me apologize for the continual change to this blog’s appearance.  For some reason I get bored with the look of it and find a need to explore other possibilities.  I’m sure I was an interior decorator in a past life.

The other day I posted some concerns about so-called Christian studies of the Civil War.  As many of you now know it led to an interesting dialog with a fellow blogger who challenged some of the assumptions that lay behind the post.  I wish the focus would have been more on the specific points made, but that was not to be.  Anyway, I thought I would offer a short reading list for those of you who are interested in historical studies that actually take religion seriously.

A great place to start is the edited collection by Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout, and Charles R. Wilson titled Religion and the American Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1998) and Mark Noll’s short, but thorough The Civil War As A Theological Crisis (UNC Press, 2006).  Harry Stout’s Upon The Altar of The Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War (Viking, 2006) gives the reader a chance to think about the war as a moral crisis brought about in part by conflicting theological assumptions.  I plan to use part of this book next year in my Civil War elective.  Though it is hard going the new book by Eugene and Elizabeth-Fox Genovese, titled The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholder’s Worldview (Cambridge University Press, 2006) provides the most thorough analysis of the role of religion among wealthy white Southerners.  Although I have not read it I’ve heard very good things about Michael O’Brien’s Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life and the South, 1810-1860 (University of North Carolina Press, 2003).

On religion and Civil War soldiers there is no better place to start than Steven Woodworth’s While God Is Marching On: The Religious World of Civil War Soldiers (University of Kansas Press, 2003).  One of the best soldier diaries is Diary of a Christian Soldier: Rufus Kinsley and the Civil War (Cambridge University Press, 2003.

There are numerous studies that I believe address the fundamental interpretive mistakes contained in many so-called Christian biographies/studies of the Civil War.  The best place to start is Charles R. Wilson’s Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865-1920 (University of Georgia Press, 1981).  Get through that and take a look at David Goldfield’s Still Fighting the Civil War: The American South and Southern History (LSU Press, 2004) and Daniel Stowell’s Rebuilding Zion: The Religious Reconstruction of the South, 1863-1877 (Oxford University Press, 2005).  Finally there is Edward J. Blum’s Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and American Nationalism, 1865-1898 (LSU Press, 2005).

This list doesn’t even constitute the tip of the iceberg.  Feel free to offer any additional suggestions.  I did not attempt to be inclusive; many of these studies offer broad interpretations of the Civil War and religion.  The titles in the last section should give you some  idea of why Americans continue to interpret Confederate generals such as Lee, Jackson, and Stuart as religious icons that almost appear to stand outside of history entirely.  Happy reading!

27 responses... add one

Kevin, you say that these are examples of works that have taking religion “seriously,” yet they are mostly released from university presses tied to schools that have been anything but “faith-friendly.” Now not knowing these specific works I cannot comment on them directly (and I do thank you for pointing them out as I will investigate some), but I would like to say that many of these schools and the materials that they publish are just as susceptible to the same kind of “selected memory” and “agenda-driven bias” that you accuse others of publishing. In other words, it appears to go both ways.

I personally find it difficult to read books on Christian themes that are not written by practicing and devout Christians themselves, and I would have to question a religious-based history book that is released from an institution’s press that repeatedly finds itself mired in anti-religious controversy. For example, the presses that you cite above come from:

Oxford University that has been repeatedly recognized in the press as being a very secular/progressive institution and has a number of anti-religious extremists on their faculty including a leading international anti-religion crusader, devout atheist and supporter of Darwinian theory, Dr. Richard Dawkins, who has been quoted as stating that the pseudo-science of eugenics that drove the Nazi regime’s genocidal project “may not be bad.”

The University of Kansas has also been noted as having several published faculty members that are openly battling against organized religion including Professor Paul Mirecki who decided to offer a class on intelligent design as “mythology,” and whose outrageous statements about evolution, intelligent design and religion shine a light on why he wants to teach this class right now. It isn’t just his comments on intelligent design that have got him in hot water, but his callous and nasty comments over the years about religion in general, such as referring to the Pope as “a corpse in a funny hat wearing a dress.”

The University of Georgia is being sued after school officials refused to officially recognize a Christian fraternity. The lawyers pointed out that the university permits political party-affiliated groups to have a party membership requirement but won’t allow a Christian group to require that its members be Christians. The university recognized the fraternity during the 2005-2006 academic years, but recognition was revoked in 2006 because of the group’s requirement that members profess Christian beliefs.

Cambridge University has also been criticized for the growing tensions of anti-faith groups and also for publishing a number of extremist works on Atheism and Anti-Religious Propaganda.

Once again, my point in all of this is that when it comes to the study and presentation of religion and history – BOTH sides probably have a biased-perspective whether they are secular or religious. University Presses are often a reflection of the institutions that they represent. However, there is certainly a place for both of these approaches to the subject on the bookshelf, and I still cannot understand why you have such difficulty accepting that.

I’m not sure what to say about your comment re: books about religion written by non-Christians. You could take this argument and apply it to any category which would lead you to all sorts of absured conclusions. If you ever do get around to reading one of the books cited above let me know what you think about the ARGUMENTS CONTAINED IN THEIR PAGES. Everything else you mentioned is irrelevant. I don’t know the first thing about the religious convictions of these authors nor do I care. For the sake of argument I am willing to admit that everything stated in your comment is true; unfortunately, it has nothing at all to do with the interpretatins cited in this post.

You said: “I don’t know the first thing about the religious convictions of these authors nor do I care.”

Yet you would still recommend them as “serious” authors on the subject of religion… Hmmm?

George Fredrickson’s “The Inner Civil War: Northern Intellectuals and the Crisis of the Union” includes some discussion of religion in the North. It is old, but my in opinion nothing has surpassed it in terms of an intellectual history of the Civil War. Anne Rose’s “Victorian America and the Civil War” also includes a chapter on the changing meaning and experiences of religion to the Victorian generation. Richard Carwardine’s “Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power” does an excellent job of describing Lincoln’s views on religion and how Northern Protestant evangelicals help to shape the Republican party and the Civil War. For religion in the South and sectionalism, James Fuller’s “Chaplain to the Confederacy: Bishop Basil Manly and Baptist Life in the Old South” is worth a look. Fox-Genovese and Genovese mention Rev. Stephen Elliott of Georgia. His fire-eating sermons are interesting and worth going through the effort to find.

Peter, — Thanks for the suggestions.

Michael, — That you do not understand this basic point sums it all up for me. I am interested in the CONTENT OF THE INTERPRETATION, INCLUDING THE KINDS OF EVIDENCE UTILIZED AND THE ANALYSIS OF THOSE SOURCES. WHETHER OR NOT A HISTORICAL STUDY HAS MERIT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH ONE’S PERSONAL CONVICTIONS.

“WHETHER OR NOT A HISTORICAL STUDY HAS MERIT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH ONE’S PERSONAL CONVICTIONS.”

I think that says it all. Thanks.

“Serious authors on religion. Hrm… Let’s start with you. From what you’ve said you’ve written studies of good Christians that include Anglicans (Lee), Calvinists (Jackson), and Catholics (one of your two minor Northerners). It seems to me that however you define a good Christian, you can’t reconcile all of these people as being ‘good.’ For instance, during the Civil War, a Calvinist would dispute the Papal authority the Catholic would claim. You are looking at Christianity in a way that is completely ahistorical to serve your own present needs. With your approach the best you can possibly say is ‘they stayed true to their own beliefs.’ Of course, this is what most people do. It also encourages perverse interpretations of history and religion. One, in the fashion that you do, might claim that Osama bin Laden was a good Muslim, and that his terrorism was just politics and did not detract from him being a positive role model. Shame on you for claiming to be a historian.”

Hank, I think you are misinterpreting my point here, and I want to be the first to publicly apologize for taking this to an argument-stage. That was not my intent and I am sorry. I am merely trying to say that BOTH approaches to the subject are EQUALLY valid and that there is room for BOTH of these types of works. I take offense to the use of terms such as “so-called, ” “irrelevant,” and “not legitimate” when referring to Christian works that are meant to be uplifting and inspirational, especially when they cite direct primary sources from individuals who actually knew the subjects personally. My point in listing the controversies on these campuses was only to show that they are also questionable in their motives and convictions. I would never even bother to comment on this – but I seem to be repeatedly quoted and used as an example.

This, all in all, seems to be a quite moderate response. Completely wrong, of course, but I am surprised. What is amusing is the “there is room for both.” Of course there is. Wacky Neo-Confederates who want to pray using devotionals from Stonewall Jackson and Marse Bob can find Christian inspirationals stories useful, while the rest of us can actually use history.

I want to add that I don’t think it is easy for any of us to discuss and debate sensitive topics (such as religion) via cyberspace where our words are not always “read” in their proper tone or context. As amazing as this internet technology is we cannot read each other’s faces, hear the tone in our voices, or witness the postures and expressions in which we “speak.” I know that Kevin and I have had difficulties communicating in the past on the web, and I think that it may be best for me to take a leave of absence from posting here as I do not appear to be very good at expressing my emotion via the keyboard. The use of all capital letters by some and the resulting comments that have been posted have taken this discussion to a level that I don’t feel comfortable with.

Above all else that I “am” (whether a writer or “historian” etc.), I am a Christian, and it sets a poor example for others by arguing online. Ultimately, there are many people like what I do and get joy from it, and people like what you do and get joy from it. “Cutting each other down” is an exercise in self-righteousness and conceitedness, and I like to think that we are all better than that. Calling us “Wacky Neo-Confederates who want to pray using devotionals” is frankly uncalled for. I also think that a little grace and humility are called for (especially now at Christmastime) and will bid a kind goodbye. Thanks for the discussion.

Kevin,

I understand George Rable is working on a book about religion in the Civil War as well.

Regards,
Cash

That’s right Cash. It is being written as part of the Littlefield Series which is being edited by Gary Gallagher. This promises to be a thorough scholarly study of religion. I have a rough draft of one of the chapters that Rable presented at a seminar at the University of Virginia in 2004.

Michael,

It seems to me that you are forgetting one of the purposes of a university. A university is a “marketplace of ideas” and attracts a number of people of diverse views. You look at one product of a university or at one aspect of a university and taint the entire university and its outputs based on that one item. Professor Dawkins, for example, has nothing at all to do with any products of Oxford University Press that would discuss religion in the Civil War. The approach you have used in what appears to me as an attempt to dismiss these works is entirely fallacious. A university is much more than one or two people or products with whom you happen to disagree.

My apologies to Kevin for using his forum to address another individual directly.

Regards,
Cash

Cash, — Michael’s claim about the connection between individual cases on university/college campuses and studies of religion and the Civil War that are pubished by their presses is indeed “fallacious.” The fallacy revolves around the fact that his claim is neither meaningless because it’s not even clear what it means for it to be true or false.

Cash, I know that I said that I was done here, but I did want to give you the courtesy of a reply. It was not my intent to dismiss those works that were cited above. All I was trying to present (and apparently did not do a very good job) was that (IMO) University’s (and their published materials) are just as susceptible to the same type of scrutiny as the types of works that Kevin has criticized in the past. I took his post to be saying that these books were to be considered “serious” in his opinion BECAUSE they were from University Presses. Apparently, I was wrong in this assumption and should not have replied with that angle.

However, the University’s that they come from do not impress me because they allow this type of anti-Christian behavior, and if this is what the idea of a “marketplace of ideas” propagates, then I have no use for that either. Once again, we must be looking at the world through very different eyes and I would not have replied in the first place if not “quoted” in yesterday’s post. Apparently, I am a “shameful” “wacky” “neo-Confederate” who “wants to pray to Devotionals from Stonewall Jackson”. I have no absolutely problem with that assessment if that’s what I “am”.

I will add though that one of the religious books most frequently criticized here (by Richard Williams) has the Foreword and endorsement written by Professor James I. Robertson, Jr., who I think knows a lot more about the subject of Civil War history than any of us. In other words, I think that he trumps all of our opinions and I’ll proudly go with his “take” on the subject over yours – or even mine. Thanks again for the chat.

Michael,

Thank you for your kind reply. I don’t want to “hijack” Kevin’s forum, but I think these comments are applicable and may be useful.

University press books should be considered serious because they are peer-reviewed. Other experts in the field check the book over before it is published to make sure the author proceeded in a scholarly fashion and was able to get his or her facts straight.

No process is perfect, of course, and you will be able to find some university press books that have since been discredited, but they are very much the exception rather than the rule.

I learned Civil War History from Professor Robertson many years ago, and my daughter is a student of his now, so I share your high esteem of his knowledge and his scholarship, but he would disagree with you about universities and university presses.

I’ll leave it up to those who are more knowledgeable than I to discuss forewords and endorsements.

Regards,
Cash

Thank you Cash. And I also want to add that I would not of commented on this subject in any way if I didn’t feel so defensive after yesterday (That is MY problem – not yours, or anyone else’s). I was not posting on any of these books specifically (as I stated above that I had not read them)… I was just trying to “give it back” from the “other side”. It was an exercise in futility and I wasted a lot of bandwidth on Kevin’s blog.

I’m off doing “my own thing” and these critical posts on religion that show up from time to time bother me as they usually include me or a friend in someway. I am not trying to rewrite history or indoctrinate anyone. Christians find joy in these books, and I find joy in writing them. I get a lot of support and praise from people (a lot smarter than I am) who understand what a Christian writer’s purpose is in writing religious-historical material. To celebrate and educate in an uplifting and inspirational manner. None of these men were perfect. They (like us) have faults. But I think that there is a reason that we still remember them today and (IMO) faith has a lot to do with that.

My one book on Stonewall simply states: “This is a story about faith. A story filled with the kinds of heartache and hardships that would leave many of us questioning our own beliefs. It is a love story that is filled with sorrow, testimony, hope and despair. It is a story that reaffirms the power of prayer and that all things in Him are possible. Ultimately, it is the story of a man who suffered greatly, but chose to embrace the Will of his Savior as the foundation for a legendary life.” I think that explains my belief on this entire subject.

That’s my only goal in all of this and I am afraid that I have been caught up in some kind of online feud (by my own doing) that serves no purpose. I apologize for jumping in “half-cocked” on this one. I am sure that these books are very good. I like to think that mine are too – if you want to see how faith can carry you through the most desperate of times. Maybe they do belong in the “self-help section” as Kevin notes. I don’t have a problem with that either. Thanks again.

Cash, — Just a quick note to say that I have no problem if you want to address a point that has been made by someone else. That is part of the purpose of the comments option.

On a different note as of 2pm someone has been logged onto this site for 240 minutes and counting. Hmm…I wonder who that could be?

Sorry Kevin, I left the web-browser open in the background waiting for replies… which BTW: makes me one of your most “loyal” readers… doesn’t it? :)

I appreciate the reference to my book, but why are we referenced (by M. Aubrecht) as non-Christian? In fact, I just finished a religious biography of W. E. B. Du Bois (to be published in a few months by the University of Pennsylvania). I am a person of faith and a historian- I consider both perspectives (their commonalities and differences) to be very important. So – please read the books before making such comments.

Professor Blum, – Thanks for taking the time to make that point. Although I have never met him from what I know Steve Woodworth would probably agree with you. As I understand Aubrecht’s point you are given that label because you are associated with universities and university presses, which he has concluded are godless. Adn how does he know that? Because they publish work by some of the brightest secularists, including Richard Dawkins. My guess is that he’s never read _The Selfish Gene_ or _The Extended Phenotype_ either. It was a silly point that does not really deserve a response.

Congratulations on your forthcoming study of Du Bois. I mentioned a few weeks ago that I am plugging my way through David. L. Lewis’s 2-volume study.

Hopefully you will find my book on Du Bois a great corrective (if not challenge) to the overly secularist approach to Du Bois taken by David Levering Lewis. I find it a shame that Du Bois – who had so much to teach about faith, belief, and Christ, has been neglected as a religious force in American history. I think you’ll like my book.

I look forward to the book’s publication. Unfortunately, I am not far enough into Lewis’s biography to appreciate your point re: Du Bois’s religious convictions. Is this a tendency in the literature on Du Bois or just an oversight by Lewis?

The general consensus from Du Bois biographers is that he was either irreligious or antireligious. Susan Jacoby claims him for the freethinker camp in her book on Freethinkers, while Shamoon Zamir refers to Du Bois as “irreligious”. You’ll be able to read all about this in my Du Bois book.

Kevin,
Thanks for this list. I’ll be doing my paper for Dr. Sheehan-Dean on the role religion has played in preserving Civil War memory. Great sourses here.
Mark Graves

Hi Mark, — Glad to hear that the list is helpful. This post generated quite a discussion, but most of it as you can see is quite absurd. They are first-rate studies that deserve to be read.

Good luck.

Join the Conversation