The Civil War as a Theological Crisis

In early September 1862 following disastrous Union losses, President Abraham Lincoln meditated on the role of God in human affairs and the attempts of humankind to discern divine will: “In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God can not be for, and against the same thing at the same time.” Lincoln’s observation aptly summarized a major dilemma facing Americans, North and South, in the Civil War and the decades preceding it. How could each side claim the support of God for its position?

Mark A. Noll, the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame, looks beyond the more obvious political, economic, and social lines of cleavage between opposing sections and instead focuses on their contradictory opinions of God’s will, which transcended geographical lines. Even Northerners were divided among themselves in interpreting the Bible. In this collection of expanded lectures originally delivered at Penn State University and based on his analysis of writings of American and European theologians, Noll poses the questions: How could Protestants who had so much in common come to understand the Bible and God’s will so differently? How was this divergence manifested in views on slavery, which ultimately led to the Civil War? And, why did this dissension result in a theological crisis for American Protestants?

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