Was the Civil War Punishment From God?

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I got a kick out of reading Richard Williams’s response to my post.  I’m not going to respond to the content other than to say that my “policing” of the blogosphere extends no further than his own.  Sometimes I wonder whether he reads his own blog.

What I do want to comment on is a point made by Williams early on concerning the role of God in bringing about the Civil War:

I believe that God allowed the Civil War to occur due to the SIN OF SLAVERY and punished both sections of the Nation for their involvement in that evil.

The problem with any analysis of such a view hinges on how we interpret the word, “allowed”.  It could mean that God caused the Civil War as a way to punish the nation or it could suggest that God failed to intervene and allowed Americans on both sides to butcher one another as punishment.  Either way on this view African Americans were expendable as white America worked out its moral kinks with the full understanding and blessing of God.  That seems to be just a bit problematic.

If we stick to the second reading of ‘allowed’ we ought to be able to ask why God failed to intervene earlier in human affairs.  In other words, why did God allow the situation to spiral out of control to a point where Americans were willing to kill one another?  Why not intervene on the smallest of scales to prevent the introduction of slavery in the early 17th century?  [Come to think of it has God ever intervened in American history?]  It clearly would have lowered the overall suffering of scores of Africans and African Americans and it may have prevented the forming of a slave nation in 1787 and a civil war in 1861.  On this second reading it also looks like we must acknowledge the centrality of slavery to the Civil War.  In fact, it looks like we must indeed view the goals of the Confederacy as a Lost Cause given that God must have known that the war would end slavery since it was allowed to take place and God certainly would not have permitted bloodshed on such a scale to end with slavery intact.  So much for all those prayers from Confederates pleading for God to deliver a victory.  It was never going to happen.

We can also interpret ‘allowed’ along causal lines as described above.  Questions persist for this interpretation as well.  First, why did it take God so long to punish the nation for slavery?  Couldn’t such an act have been carried out before so many Africans had been kidnapped and brought to the United States, not to mention the rest of the western hemisphere?  And where does this leave African Americans?  I suspect that some in the black community may be wondering why so many of their ancestors had to be sacrificed just to teach white America a lesson between 1861 and 1865.  It also seems problematic that God waited to punish the nation after one entire section had abolished the institution.  Of course, we could focus on the extent to which the North was involved in this hideous practice as late as 1861, but there was plenty of time for God to punish the nation at a time when every state included the practice.

Of course, I could go on and on, but what’s the point.  Actually, I agree on a certain level with Williams that the war was punishment; however, we don’t need to bring in the mysterious workings of divine intervention or contemplate the moral profile of God to make the point.  The Civil War was the result of Americans’ inability to work through very difficult problems that plagued the nation from the beginning.  Americans at different times and places made decisions and these decisions had consequences.  By 1861 the nation was split regionally between slave and non-slave states.  “And then the war came.”

22 comments… add one

  • Scott Manning Apr 12, 2010

    Why did you work so hard to draw Richard Williams out and when he finally responds, you take a single sentence and run with it? It seems petty.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 12, 2010

      Scott,

      Thanks for the comment. Actually, I don’t work hard at it at all. You may think it’s petty, but I think it’s worth commenting on and since it’s my blog I get to make those decisions. I actually think that this is a very interesting issue. Thanks.

      • Scott Manning Apr 12, 2010

        Fair enough. There was just so much more substance to Richard’s response. I would like to read your commentary on those parts as well. It is as if you stood outside his house calling his name for days and when he finally came out swinging and you responded by talking about his religion.

        • Kevin Levin Apr 12, 2010

          I didn’t think the rest of it was really worth my time. Sorry about that. It’s fair to say that the two of us read each others blogs. On occasion we respond to what the other has written; it is the blogosphere after all. Let me be clear that I was not “talking about his religion.” I take that to be much more substantial than one sentence. I took issue, however, with the implications of that idea and went with it. If you don’t find it interesting than so be it, but I don’t understand why you are making such an issue of it. Thanks again for stopping by.

    • Jonathan Dresner Apr 12, 2010

      There’s not much to respond to in the rest of it. The war was destructive and tragic: true, but Appomatox marked an end rather than a beginning or continuation. The end of the war (at least for those soldiers) was a solemn moment: true, but any sadness “for America” that was reported was related to the war itself, not to the timely and appropriate end.

      And why not take that sentence and discuss it? Most of Williams’ commenters do the same thing. Williams himself highlighted the sentence in red text, so clearly he thought it should stand out.

      • Kevin Levin Apr 12, 2010

        I am willing to admit that my analysis may not be worth much, but it’s out there now if anyone cares to think about this issue.

        • Jonathan Dresner Apr 12, 2010

          I was agreeing with you. I’ve had the “God-in-history” argument before.

          • Kevin Levin Apr 13, 2010

            Sorry Jonathan. I was responding to Scott Manning’s comments.

  • abpow Apr 12, 2010

    I’m not versed whatsoever in the controversy that sparked this post, but I will say that I agree wholeheartedly that an analysis of history that involves some sort of deity figure is essentially superficial and unhelpful. What is more interesting is how each side perceived god on their side — a phenomenon that occurs in a great deal of conflict (the ‘war on terror’ comes to mind).

    Perhaps my perception of this issue is colored by the fact that I am an atheist. However, an understanding of historical events colored by religious bias is, to me, similar to a reading of history with a decided political bias (left or right). Either way, it is a distortion based on personal beliefs that should be divorced from careful source reading altogether.

  • Richard Apr 12, 2010

    Why would God punish America for slavey? Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, all slave owners. The old testament can be used to justify slavery. But someone will probably tell me it was a different kind of slavery, not as bad.

  • Michael Lynch Apr 12, 2010

    Well, at least Richard’s in good company, since Lincoln had some similar ideas. Of course, I doubt that he’d be thrilled to find himself in agreement with Lincoln.

    –ML

    • Kevin Levin Apr 13, 2010

      I always suspected that he is a closet Lincoln lover. :D

  • Leonard Lanier Apr 12, 2010

    I usually don’t pay that much attention to Richard Williams’ blog. Yet, this statement about the Civil War as “punishment” for the “sin of slavery” just rubbed me the wrong way. Whether or not you believe in a higher being, godly intervention is just not a testable historical thesis. I contributed my two cents over at Williams’ site. Maybe it did some good, but I doubt it.

  • heidic Apr 12, 2010

    I believe that religion should be studied as a facet in the Civil War, not necessarily from a religious persepective, but rather, from how men in the Civil War viewed religion. I believe it could be a very interesting topic, looking at how men overcame sanctions against killing, whether they were religious or not, and if God did cause the war and so on.

  • Matt McKeon Apr 12, 2010

    Isn’t Richard Williams referencing Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Address? (If slavery be one of those offenses….if every drop of blood drawn by the lash…etc.).

    I think he’s trying to spread the stain of slavery outside the South, which has some historical validity, but its in the vein of “everybody does it, so I get a free pass.”

  • Brooks D. Simpson Apr 13, 2010

    I understand Richard and you are in disagreement on this topic. Speaking for myself, I thought Richard was expressing his opinion. He’s not alone in holding that opinion, and he’s not alone in hewing to a certain form of explanation. Lincoln expressed his uncertainty about divine will (and questioned others’ simple renderings of it), and Grant saw the Civil War as in part punishment for the Mexican-American War.

    I understand that you don’t share Richard’s opinion. However, my take on all this is that these disagreements are getting needlessly pointed and nasty, argument for the sake of argument. I didn’t like Richard’s characterization of how the governor’s original proclamation on CHM was discussed on Civil Warriors, because I thought he distorted what was said there to score points on his own blog, but I’m also uncomfortable with anything that goes beyond expressing disagreement with someone’s religious explanation of events or with raising questions about how that explanation might not prove satisfactory. Somehow this post struck me as being somewhat more pointed than that. Richard’s entitled to his opinion and his beliefs, and I’d be happy if these personal issues were more successfully and completely separated from examining methods of historical explanation.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 13, 2010

      Brooks,

      If I had it to do over again I would not have posted this. It’s incredibly petty and clearly reflects a weakness on my part. I guess I go through these cycles of frustration at having to watch my own comments and posts mangled by Williams. I find it hilarious that he sees himself as some kind of victim.

      You are absolutely justified in calling me on it. I owe readers such as yourself a much higher standard. As you can see we are back to business as usual and I promise to do a better job in the future.

      I apologize to anyone else who may feel the same. :(

      • Steven Mynes Apr 13, 2010

        My planned comment on this post no longer seems appropriate given Brooks’ comment and your reply. Let’s just say apology accepted (though not required). On a positive note, while my faith does inform my conclusions about historical meaning, I recognize that academic discourse requires a strictly empirical approach, and your post helped refine my thinking on that.

        No need to post this if you would like to let this thread go at this point. Also wanted to say I enjoyed your article on Confederate executions for desertion in CWT, particularly your use of “The Soldier’s Wife” to illustrate the perspective of civilians. Not sure I would enjoy the play, but it reminds me of the importance of literature to the historian. Maybe I’ll actually put my History/English majors to good use one of these days…

        • Kevin Levin Apr 14, 2010

          Steven,

          Feel free to post if you so desire. I have no problem with that. Thanks for the positive feedback re: the CWT article. I have another article slated for later this year.

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