5 Lessons the Church Can Learn from the Civil War


When it comes to commemorations, there’s something about round numbers that appeal to people. A couple’s 20th anniversary is more celebrated than their 19th. John Calvin’s 500th birthday in 2009 felt more significant than his 501st the next year. We continue to witness this phenomenon with the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. A recent study revealed that events in Virginia related to the 150-year anniversary have generated more than $290 million in revenue. PBS is re-releasing Ken Burns’s classic Civil War documentary in “ultra high definition,” though one wonders if some images are best left in low definition. PBS will air the updated version of Burns’s series beginning tonight and running through September 11.

As a Civil War historian, I am thrilled for any opportunity for people to learn more about this tragic chapter in American history. Over the last few years much has been written about the lessons today’s society could glean from the war. But the church could also benefit from some reflection on this tumultuous period.

Here are five lessons the church can learn from the Civil War.

1. Promote the sanctity of human life.

The Civil War was by far the deadliest war in American history. (World War II resulted in less than two-thirds the number of casualties.) This isn’t to say it was unjust. It was the war to end slavery, after all, even if everyone didn’t grasp this at first. Nevertheless, it may not have needed to evolve into a war that would end in more than 620,000 deaths. As Yale historian Harry Stout explains in Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War, it changed “from a limited war for the ‘Union’ to a moral crusade for ‘freedom’ and abolition.”

America’s clergy led this crusade. As the conflict dragged on, slavery rightly became the central issue, and ministers North and South declared God to be on their respective sides. The war, then, turned into a cosmic battle between good and evil. Imbued with such significance, it isn’t surprising both sides were willing to win at any cost. Stout is fair to question whether America’s churches took the sanctity of human life seriously enough.

In addition to stirring the embers of a conflict that resulted in staggering casualties, many pastors exhibited disregard for the sanctity of life through their promotion of slavery and white supremacy. It continues to appall that any sincere Christian aware of the realities of American slavery—beatings, rapes, separation of families, deprivation of basic liberties—could defend the institution with a clear conscience. While it’s true some of slavery’s defenders were unaware of its full scope, these ministers were still quick to support—both during and after the war—the suppression of African Americans’ basic civil liberties. (And this group included more Northern pastors than most think.)

2. Be cautious about engaging in political preaching.

The primary way ministers stoked the war’s fires was through political preaching. In February 1862 Boston’s Saturday Evening Gazette reflected on the alarming trend of declining numbers in the region’s church attendance:

The clergy of New England have been offering “strange fire before the Lord,” and the inevitable retribution has followed. And this “strange fire” is the vulgar fire of secular politics—the fire of worldly passions—which wastes and consumes the heart on which it feeds. . . . Politics are usurping the place of religion, to a deplorable extent, in the pulpits of New England.

Such political harangues weren’t isolated to Northern pulpits, as many Southern ministers regularly used their sermons to champion the Confederate cause. Political preaching often achieved its objective in convincing parishioners God was on the side—and only the side—of the North or the South as it fought for righteousness.

Click here to read more.

SOURCE: The Gospel Coalition
Marcus McArthur

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