The Civil War as a Theological Crisis by Mark Noll – Favorite of 2012

I am even more convinced of the importance of this book nearly a year after I first read the book.  I am planning on re-reading this in 2013.

The Civil War as Theological Crisis by Mark NollTakeaway: A perfect example of why we need historians to help us work through modern problems.

This is a whim book.  I borrowed it on Lendle because it was by Mark Noll, not because I knew anything about it.  What a wonderful surprise!  I have been working through a project over the last year to understand what scripture is and how we should be using it as Christians.  Had I known about this book I would have read it earlier.

Noll does a masterful job walking the reader through the theological issues of the Civil War.  I grew up hearing about the brave Christians that called for an end of slavery.  In recent years there was a decent movie and book about William Wilberforce and his explicitly Christian work to abolish slavery in England.  I went to Wheaton College, which was a stop on the underground railroad and started by Jonathan Blanchard an outspoken Abolitionist. (Noll taught at Wheaton for 15 years, including while I was there.)

But the story is not so simple. Many people are aware that people on both sides of the Civil War thought that God was on their side.  Abraham Lincoln has a famous quote, “The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong.”

Noll contends that the Civil War was a theological crisis not only because of slavery, or the problems of war, but because it called into question the way the United States understood scripture, religion in public life, America as a chosen nation and the connection between scripture and American democracy.

What most struck me about this book is that it was the theological conservatives that defended not only slavery, but a plain reading and literal interpretation of scripture.  Defenders of the institution of slavery (whether they thought it was appropriate in the US or not) could point to a number of scriptures where slavery was either explicitly authorized or implicitly understood as the normal way of things.  On the other hand, those that opposed slavery could not point to a scripture that said, “slavery is evil” or “do not have slaves”.

In fact, many abolitionist rejected the authority of scripture precisely because there was not an easy way to illustrate from scripture the evil of slavery.  This meant that defending scripture and defending slavery became combined in many people’s minds, both in the North and in the South.

Another significant theme of the book is that cultural issues impact the understanding of scripture.  This comes out in a number of ways.  One, for virtually all of US White Christians, from the North or the South, there was an unquestioned assumption that Whites were better or more favored by God than Blacks.  So the implicit racism of the US at the time (and for a long time since) has influenced the way that the scriptures were read.  Slavery was defended because there was slavery in Israel.  But Israel slavery was not based on race, nor was the Roman slavery at the time of Christ.  A few radical voices agreed that slavery was not immoral according to scripture, if and only if it was operated on a racially neutral basis.  But White slavery was anathema, not on the basis of theology, but on the basis of culture.

Another cultural blind spot was the economic system that encouraged slavery.  A few Southern theologians spoke against consumption or currency as a God, but they were blinded to the problems of slavery.  Very few Northern theologians saw any problems with either the Northern or Southern economic system and read their scripture as a confirmation of God’s blessing on the United States, in spite of the decimation of Native Americans, the slavery of Blacks and the urban poverty created under the new economic models.

One of the best parts of Noll’s book is the time he spends looking at how Christians outside the US looked at US slavery and the Civil War.  It is interesting that virtually all countries outside the US had made slavery illegal prior to the Civil War.  The problems of orthodox scriptural interpretation and slavery just did not exist in Europe or Canada.   And what is more, there were strong voices outside of the US that identified the problems of race and economics as the blind spots that did not allow US Christians to see that neither slavery nor biblical interpretation were the primary problems.  Catholics, both inside and outside the US, were a particularly interesting case.  The US’s republican values (free speech, universal human rights and universal voting) were at the time condemned by the Catholic church as a rejection of God’s authority.  But at the same time the Catholic church was also rejecting slavery and the inherent racism within the US.  Catholic policy was for a single racially mixed Mass.  So the democratic North and the slavery supporting south were both against the Catholic church.

There are a number if implications for current theological and social concerns.  One is that there are other issues that are currently defended by the ‘plain reading’ of scripture on one side and the ‘whole view of scripture’ on the other.  The death penalty is a prime example.  The US is one of the few countries that still authorizes the death penalty and Evangelical Christian are some of the staunchest supporters.  I have had people tell me that until I can point to a scripture that says that the death penalty is wrong, they will support it because the Old Testament says ‘an eye for an eye’.  Christianity Today has an article last week about spanking and addressed this very issue because there are scriptures that say ‘spare the rod’ (Proverb 13:24), while others like William Webb paint a broad picture of scripture that would seem to indicate that there is a type of progressive interpretation that leads us away from spanking as a discipline method.  Other issues would include women in ministry, environmentalism, use of alcohol, divorce, etc.

There are also evangelism implications.  In the 19th century, Native Americans rejected Christianity in part because there was a fear (both rationally and with historical examples) that if they became Christians and lived peaceful lives, that they would become enslaved or be pushed off their land that had been agreed to by treaty.  European visitors to the US rejected the evangelicalism of the 19th century in part because those evangelicals supported slavery and economic models that were considered barbaric to cultured Europeans.  I have had people tell me that they reject a God that supports the death penalty or one that does not allow women to speak in church.

In many ways this is a very good book to read in conjunction with Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible.  Some of the issues are different, but many of the issues that Smith brings up were very real problems 150 years ago.  This is a history book, Noll spends very little time in his conclusion thinking about modern ramifications.  But Christian Smith’s solution of submitting to a community (and converting to Catholicism) seems like one that has historical support from Noll. (Although Catholicism has had its own blind spots.)

This book is not cheap.  Expect to pay $12 or more for the Kindle and around $20 for the paperback (even used).  If you are thinking about hermeneutical issues, this is a great historical resource. (It is lendable on kindle, but neither Lendle or Booklending currently have any copies to borrow when I checked.)  The cheapest option is the audiobook from if you buy with with audiobook credits.

Civil War as a Theological Crisis Purchase Links: Hardcover, Kindle Edition, Audiobook Audiobook is discounted to $5.99 with purchase of Kindle Book 

0 thoughts on “The Civil War as a Theological Crisis by Mark Noll – Favorite of 2012”

  1. As an aside to the issues you raise: many people point to Ephesians 6:5-9 (“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.”) for its biblical discussion of slavery.

    Here’s the question, though: is Ephesians even relevant to the discussion of American slavery?

    Servitude, as referred to in Ephesians, is about the duty a servant owes to his “master.” The implication is that the master has a right to receive (or compel) duty or service, and the servant has an obligation or duty to provide such service.

    But let’s consider the recent case of the three young women who were held as virtual sex slaves in Cleveland, OH. The sexual predator housed, clothed, and fed these women. Did that mean they owed him some type of duty or service? Did that mean that the children born of these women owed duty or service to the predator?

    Well, of course not. But this situation raises the question: under what conditions is it fair and right to expect and compel the duty and service of another? Is it “right” to kidnap somebody and exploit their labor, and then expect that the captive has a duty to the kidnapper?

    For many people, that is exactly what American slavery was: kidnapping. Furthermore, given their real status as captives, many say that “slaves” owed no duty or service to the master, but rather, they owed it to themselves to seek escape and freedom whenever the opportunity presented itself.

    Bottom line is, Ephesians says obey your master, NOT obey your kidnapper. The question for me is not, does the Bible sanction slavery, but rather, does the Bible sanction kidnapping, and doesn’t slavery in America amount to legalized kidnapping?

    Just some food for thought.

    – Alan

    • Clearly that is what you as a 21st Century Christian with the hindsight of the civil war believe. Noll’s point is that that was not the common understanding of the time. However, that was more common in Europe and other parts of the world. Noll is saying that because of inherent bias of pre-civil war Americans (northern or southern) there was a racism that was part of the culture that said that slaves could not be independent. You cannot kidnap someone that is either not fully human or was ordained by God to be a slave.

      I think that is why this book is important, because when we are distanced from previous eras, we have a hard time understanding why they made the decisions that they did theologically.

      One option that has become fairly common is to assert that no one that owned slaves could have really been a Christian. But that is a problematic position because that would also suggest that the cultural biases that we have may be also be preventing us from being ‘real Christians’.

      As a slight push back against your position, you have to think about what is fundamentally different about slavery that Paul was talking about as opposed to American slavery. Were the institutions of slavery fundamentally different? Did Roman style slavery not rape women or beat men? Were all Roman masters worthy of duty? While I think the types of slavery were different. That does not mean that we should believe that slavery in Roman times was less abhorrent than slavery under 19th century southern United States.


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