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Posts Tagged ‘Theological Issues

The American Civil War as a Theological Crisis

Mark Noll has written a book by the title of my post.  I have not read his work but assume he is speaking of the same subject as my own concerning the theological nature of the American Civil War.  The roots of the Civil War lie as far back as the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain in 1776.  Even then the seeds were planted for division between the States as some of the founding fathers wanted a strong Federal Government while others wanted a Union among individual and yet equally powerful States.  The issue of slavery was not settled with the signing of the Bill of Rights and this moral issue would tear at the nation for nearly 100 years before the Civil War would erupt in 1861 after the election of abolitionist President Lincoln (who actually only favored forbidding slavery in the West and did not wish to end the practice in the South) and the session of South Carolina from the Union in December of 1860.

What goes unnoticed is the theological crisis that culminated with the Civil War.  This issue was slavery.  For the Church, States’ rights was not the issue.  It was the evil practice (according to the abolitionist) of slavery or the fact that the Bible did not forbid slavery from the pro-slavery point of view.  There were passionate evangelicals on both sides.  For instance, George Whitefield stood before the Georgia State Assembly during his trip to America in the 18th century and asked the Georgia Assembly to continue the practice of slavery.  Whitefield justified slavery for two main reasons.  First he said that this gave the slaves from Africa the opportunity to hear the gospel and be saved and then secondly, the fact that the Africans could work the harsh lands of Georgia and were use to the heat.  John Wesley opposed Whitefield over this issue and Wesley encouraged William Wilberforce in his fight to end slavery in England.  It would be the last letter Wesley would ever write.

Jonathan Edwards owned slaves.  Edwards felt that slavery was not forbidden in Scripture, like Whitefield, and he argued that God could use slavery to save souls (such as the case with Paul in the epistle to Philemon).  Edwards also felt that it was the duty of the Christian to not be harsh to slaves, to preach the gospel to them, and to be good to them.

Charles Finney opposed slavery in all forms.  He believed it went against the Word of God that says that we are all created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27).  How could another human enslave another human made in God’s image?

E.M. Bounds, the great prayer warrior from the state of Georgia, fought along side the Confederates and was their chaplain.  He was captured and put in prison in Tennessee.  Bounds would there learn to pray for as much as 9 hours a day.  Bounds opposed slavery but because he was a Southerner, he supported States’ Rights and believed his duty to serve his country during the War.  He returned to his home in Washington, Georgia where he lived out his days in peace, praying and preaching the gospel in Methodist churches.

Henry Ward Beecher was the most famous preacher during this era.  Beecher was known for his powerful speaking ability and pastored a church in New York City (one of the largest in America at that time if not the largest).  He even was invited to London, England to preach alongside of Charles Spurgeon but Surgeon declined because Beecher was known for his adultery (which he committed several times during his ministry).  Beecher was the first “seeker sensitive” preacher as he learned early on not to preach on any subjects his crowds did not enjoy.  Beecher was also very outspoken against slavery.  His sister wrote the famous book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and it was Henry Ward Beecher who would preach at the dedication of Fort Sumter in Charleston, SC back to the Federal Government following the end of the Civil War.  Beecher was loved and adored by slaves for his passionate preaching against slavery.

Even among the military, there were men on both sides who argued from the Bible.  Robert E. Lee, the general of the Confederate military, was deeply religious.  He would spend hours reading his Bible and praying.  Lee did not favor slavery but he did own slaves whom he released after the start of the Civil War.  Lee felt the South would never win the war so long as slavery was not banned in the South.  To Lee, it was a moral issue and one that the North would win unless the South followed suit.

General Stonewall Jackson was likewise deeply religious.  Jackson was known for his encouragement to his men to pray and read their Bibles.  Jackson opposed allowing his soldiers to invite prostitutes into the camp, opposed gambling, opposed drinking.  Jackson would spend hours on his knees in his tent before going to battle praying.  Jackson, however, loved war.  He loved to fight.  He found glory in commanding an army and he was a very good commander.  Jackson also believed, like Edwards and Whitefield before him, that slavery could be used to further the kingdom of God.  How else could the Africans hear the gospel?  Who would dare venture into the dark continent of Africa to preach the gospel (that would be the great David Livingston)?

In the North, President Lincoln wrestled with the “African problem” of slavery.  Lincoln is hard to pinpoint theologically.  He never attended church very much.  Never joined a church.  He did pray and he did read the Bible.  From the time he was a boy he would memorize from the book of Psalms.  His second inaugural address is filled with Bible references.  Lincoln, at the beginning of the Civil War, did not want to end slavery in the South.  He merely wanted to contain it and not allow it in the Western states.  The South knew that if this happened, the “free” States would force their rule upon the South and end slavery.  They would rather secede then try to fight that battle in Washington.  Lincoln realized that the North needed a moral reason to fight.  During his re-election campaign in 1864 we begin to see Lincoln’s anti-slavery position begin to take root.  Lincoln knew that the North would not want to continue to fight the South unless they could see that their battle was a moral battle and not just a battle for land.  This issue, wrote Lincoln of the South’s secession, was not about the Federal Government but whether men would be allowed to be free.  Was our Bill of Rights wrong to say that all men are created equal and deserve liberty?  How can this be when 4 million African slaves were in bondage?  Lincoln believed their fight was a fight to free people from bondage.  Their mission was much like Christ’s, to free people from bondage.  I am not sure where Lincoln stood regarding salvation but he used the Bible often to back his belief that slavery was wrong.

More thoughts about this issue are coming….

Written by The Seeking Disciple

10/29/2012 at 9:49 PM

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