Book Review: The Civil War as a Theological Crisis

Rating: 5 out of 5.

American Historical Review “[A] masterful analysis of Civil War-era religion.”

Books & Culture “Raises momentous questions for the history of American Christianity while offering . . . intriguing insights into an understudied aspect of our nation’s greatest civil ordeal.”

Civil War Book Review “A distinctive piece of Civil War scholarship. . . . This slim set of lectures greatly enhances the study of religion’s role in the American Civil War and the study of Christian intellectual life during a crucial period of U.S. history. Scholars in both fields will profit especially from its pioneering research into Christian Europe’s varied reactions to the American Iliad and its causes. Advanced students and discerning general readers will appreciate the book’s lively prose and its suggestive conclusions.”

Americans claimed to be following a higher law, even when this higher law only turned out to be a personal preference.

Mark A. Noll

The Rundown

This is the second book written by historian Mark Noll that I’ve had the privilege of reading. The first being “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” which helped me cope with a difficult season of my and my family’s life as we left a church we loved dearly but no longer felt comfortable or welcome within. This first book helped me understand the anti-intellectual drive that led to many of the sentiments I saw and experienced, furthering my understanding of why certain people who held the Bible and Christ as supreme King over their life could behave in such dejected and Christless ways.

But in this other book, “The Civil War as a Theological Crisis” Mark Noll ventures onto the subject of why the American church at one point supported chattel slavery, then felt that the bible was somewhat ambiguous on it, and later the body of American believers became schismatic over slavery in the abstract and slavery in practice in the American south.

Mark gives a report, a damning one, on how European scholars and theologians (from England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, and France) and Canadian ministers wrote, extensively so, on the ills of American slavery, at first from a conscience stand-point, and later, backed by scripture.

Mark gives us a picture of how divided the United States was on the matter, at times, using scripture to support slavery more so than abolitionists did to condemn it. And a faulty hermeneutic in the American intellectual sphere is revealed when Southern slavery promoting and defending ministers ventured to protect the institution of slavery based on scriptural texts located in the Pentateuch, (first five books of the bible). Abolitionists later ventured to condemn it based on scriptures found in the new testament.

What American Southern ministers failed to comprehend at the time, Mark explains, is that the model of slavery that took place within the Old Testament narrative was limited, humane, and punishable by death if one were to become a slave trader, chaser, harmer, or slave killer. Southern ministers distorted the same scriptures they used to protect slavery as a means to sear their own conscience and those of their slave-owning congregants because there was too much capital to be made from the trade and too great a moral compass to consider if they were on the wrong side of this debate, scripturally speaking.

Mark also mentions the racism behind Southern efforts to maintain slavery as a divine institution. He states that abolitionists abroad and those in North American states pointed to the reality that in the Old Testament, slave owners were middle-eastern, and their slaves, also, middle-eastern. He also states that abolitionists criticized Southern support for slavery because they quoted the apostle Paul and his Pauline letters to various churches where slavery is mentioned and not condemned by the apostle but they fail to realize that in the Roman Empire, whites were slaves as well. Abolitionists put Southern racism on full display because they would never enslave a white man but used the bible, erroneously so, to enslave the ‘negro race.’

All in all, Mark makes mention that the disdain for slavery grew over time not because of slavery in the abstract, in the distant past or slavery as indentured servitude as experienced in biblical times, but because of slavery in practice in the Americas. This disdain was first a conscience and emotional sentiment but only later, decades later did abolitionists decide to revisit the Bible to condemn slavery as a demonstrably disgraceful practice in the American Deep South but also slavery in general.

What hurts my heart most is that even though many abolitionists fought to end the slave trade many of them were still staunch racists (i.e., Abraham Lincoln) as they did not see a future where black people could socialize and congregate and integrate with whites. What began as a societal and political effort to demonize and abolish an evil institution turned into a theological war over what slavery was in the past, what it was in present times compared to the past, and why the institution should be abolished on the basis of Christian virtue. But even then, under this heartfelt sentiment of emancipating the negro, the same groups, Northern Americans and Southern Americans, did not see blacks as equals.

Mark does not venture further into Post-Civil war theology in this book, but he does so in “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” with how Southern Christians lost the war and found other ways by which to deprive their black brothers and sisters in Christ of their God-given dignity and sanctity in the American sphere of life. Anti-intellectualism festered, poor or overtly erroneous bible hermeneutics evolved to promote a new form of disdain for black people in the south which, as it began in the church to promote slavery in the past, here, after the war, it continued in the church to damn and disgrace black people anywhere and everywhere.

What Mark teaches us in his writing is that in America, in particular, the Bible was used, erroneously so, to support a disastrous institution that was neither biblical nor moral. And this is a warning to us readers today as to how Americans continue, unashamedly so, to distort the words of God to promote all forms of disgraceful and regrettable behaviors. It begins with a moral lapse that is later supported (erroneously so) by scripture.


  1. Introduction
  2. Historical Context
  3. The Crisis over the Bible
  4. “The negro question lies far deeper than the slavery question”
  5. The Crisis over Providence
  6. Opinions of Protestants Abroad
  7. Catholic Viewpoints
  8. Retrospect and Prospect
  9. Notes
  10. Index

RSDB (Read, Share, Dismiss, or Burn) Verdict:

Read and share.

Help yourself to a better, more wholesome understanding of American theology and American Christianity contrasted with Biblical and historic Christianity found outside of a western context. In this pursuit you will find that the version of faith found this far west was in many ways contradictory to the person and teachings of Jesus Christ.

Easy to read and understand. Read it.

Mark A. Noll is a historian by trade and a deconstructionist with a bone to pick against anti-intellectual circles within Christian literature and culture. He categorically informs the reader how modern-day evangelicals think the way they do, adhereing to such flawed reasoning regarding intellectual pursuits, shrinking from scientific evidence and displaying cult-like behavior by following political icons who contradict Christian principles in their public and private lives.

It was some time before the Europeans found a more compendious way of procuring African slaves, by prevailing upon them to make war upon each other, and to sell their prisoners.–Till then they seldom had any wars: But were in general quiet and peaceable. But the white men first taught them drunkenness and avarice, and then hired them to sell one another. Nay, by this means, even their kings are induced to sell their own subjects.

John Wesley

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