The Civil War and the Failure of White American Christianity

Robert Lewis Dabney

The American Civil War was a crisis on a number of levels, including, as Mark Noll has explored, a theological crisis (see Mark A. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis). As Abraham Lincoln noted in his second inaugural address, both sides, “read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.” Among the various lenses available for exploring this crisis is that of Robert Lewis Dabney, a Reformed Presbyterian seminary professor (at Union Seminary), and a pro-slavery, white-supremacist. Dabney had seen war coming years before the fateful events of 1860 and 1861, and he warned against what he feared would be its destructive results. In particular, Dabney’s concerns highlight a deep deficiency in white American Christianity, one that Dabney himself was unable to see, but which may be instructive for white American Christians today.

“Shame on the boasted Christianity of America” — March 29, 1856

On March 29, 1856, Dabney published an editorial in the Central Presbyterian titled “Christians, Pray for Your Country” (in Discussions, Vol. 2, 393–400). He  lamented: “what a war that will be? Civil feud has ever been known as the most bitter of all.” He described, “the conflagration of battle which will rage along this narrow line across the whole breadth of a continent!” (396). He especially feared for the state of religion: “Christianity will sicken and droop amidst the crimes of national convulsion and the license of camps” (398). “Christian America” would be wasting time fighting with each other, “and meantime, the redemption of the race is by so many ages postponed; and sin and hell pray [sic] upon so many more of the teeming generations!”

Dabney then exposes a deep inability at the heart of white American Christianity, an inability which would prove itself in the country as a whole, and in Dabney’s own life in particular, as he later fought for the Confederacy:

Christians of America, will ye suffer this ? If such a crime against God and man be wrought in this land of thirty thou­sand evangelical ministers and four millions of Christians, how burning the sarcasm which it will contain against your Chris­tianity ! What, was there not enough of the oil of love in all these four millions of the servants of the God of love to soothe the surging billows of party strife? Was there not enough of the majesty of moral weight in these four millions of Christians to say to the angry waters, “ Peace, be still ?” ”Were not all these strong enough to throw the arms of their love around their fellow-citizens, keep down the hands that sought each others’ throats, and constrain them by a sweet compulsion to be brethren? Did this mighty church stand idly by and see phrenzy immolate so many of the dearest hopes of man and so much of the glory of God on her hellish altar, and not rather rush between and receive the sword in its own breast? And this church knew, too, that the fiend had borrowed the torch of discord from the altar of Christianity, and that therefore Chris­tians were doubly bound to arrest her murderous hand before the precious sacrifice was lost in the conflagration! If this be suffered, then shame on the boasted Christianity of America, and of the nineteenth century! With all its parade of light and evangelism, wherein will it be less impotent and spurious than the false Christianity which permitted and sanctioned the butcheries of the Crusades, the torture of the Inquisition, or any other great iniquity of the dark ages ?

(“Christians, Pray,” 398–99)

Dabney’s questions are perceptive: “was there not enough of the oil of love in all these four millions of the servants of the God of love to soother the surging billows of party strife?” No, among white American Christians, there was not enough of the “oil of love,” first to love their Black brothers and sisters (which Dabney did not have in mind here), and then, out of those deeds of love and justice, eliminating entirely the need for war.

“Was there not enough fo the majesty of moral weight in these four millions of Christians to say ‘peace be still’?” No—there was not enough moral weight in 4,000,000 white Christians to do what was morally right and just, let alone work for peace.

I agree with Dabney on this point: “shame on the boasted Christianity of [white] America, and of the nineteenth century.” For all of her evangelism and revivals, it proved “impotent and spurious.”

November 1, 1860

Four years later, on November 1, 1860, Dabney preached a sermon on a special “fast-day” appointed by the Synod of Virginia (“The Christian’s Best Motive for Patriotism,” in Discussions, Vol. 2, 401–412). Five days later, Lincoln would be elected and in December, South Carolina would secede from the Union, but for now, Presbyterians in Virginia were gathering to “pray for escape from national convulsions” (401). The sermon includes many of the same themes, but includes some new elements as well:

Now, in view of this picture of possible crime and misery, would to God that I could reach the ear of every professed servant of Jesus Christ in the whole land! I would cry to them : Christians of America—brothers—shall all this be ? Shall this church of thirty thousand evangelical ministers, and four millions of Christian adults—this church, so boastful of its influence and power; so respected and reverenced by nearly all; so crowned with the honors of literature, of station, of secular office, of riches; this church, which moulds the thought of three- fourths of our educated men through her schools, and of all, by her pulpit and her press; this church, which glories in having just received a fresh baptism of the Spirit of heaven in a na­tional revival—permit the tremendous picture to become reality ? Nay, shall they aid in precipitating the dreaded consummation, by traitorously inflaming the animosities which they should have allayed, and thus leave the work of their Master to do the devil’s ? Then, how burning the sarcasm which this result will contain upon your Christianity in the eyes of posterity! Why, they will say, was there not enough of the majesty of moral weight in these four millions of Christians to say to the angry waves, “ Peace be still ” ? Why did not these four millions rise, with a love so Christ-like, so beautiful, so strong, that strife should be paralyzed by it into reverential admiration ? Why did they not speak for their country, and for the house of the Lord their God which was in it, with a wisdom before whose firm mod­eration, righteousness, and clear light, passion and folly should scatter like the mist ? Were not all these strong enough to throw the arms of their loving mediation around their fellow citizens, and keep down the weapons that sought each other’s hearts; or rather to receive them into their own bosoms than permit their mother-country to be slain ? Did this mighty church stand idly by, and see phrenzy immolate so many of the dearest hopes of man, and of the rights of the Redeemer, on her hellish altar ? And this church knew, too, that the fiend had borrowed the torch of discord from the altar of Christianity, and that therefore Christians were bound, by a peculiar tie, to arrest her insane hand before the precious sacrifice was wrapped in flames. Then shame on the boasted Christianity of America, and of the nine­teenth century! With all its parade of evangelism, power, and light, wherein has it been less impotent and spurious than the effete religion of declining Rome, which betrayed Christendom into the dark ages; or than the baptized superstitions which in those ages sanctioned the Crusades and the Inquisition? In the sight of heaven’s righteous Judge, I believe that if the Chris­tianity of America now betrays the interests of men and God to the criminal hands which threaten them, its guilt will be second only to that of the apostate church which betrayed the Saviour of the world ; and its judgment will be rendered in calamities second only to those which avenged the divine blood invoked by Jerusalem on herself and her children.

“Patriotism,” (405–406).

In addition to what he had observed four years previously, Dabney also lays potential (soon to be actual) blame specifically upon the seminaries and churches (“this church, which moulds the thought of three- fourths of our educated men through her schools, and of all, by her pulpit and her press”). He highlights a deep incongruity (via his own anti-Catholicism): “With all its parade of evangelism, power, and light, wherein has it been less impotent and spurious than the effete religion of declining Rome, which betrayed Christendom into the dark ages.” 

He also poses a good question: “Why did not these four millions rise, with a love so Christ-like, so beautiful, so strong, that strife should be paralyzed by it into reverential admiration ?” The answer, which Dabney could not grasp, was that these four millions would not rise with such a love because they did not have it in them. Had a “Christ-like love” actually inhabited white Christians, it would have been evident in their lives long before the eve of Civil War in their treatment of Black brothers and sisters. That horse had not merely “left the barn,” before November 1860—it had never resided there in the first place.

The 1858 “Revival”?

Interestingly, Dabney calls attention to the “revival” of 1858: “this church, which glories in having just received a fresh baptism of the Spirit of heaven in a na­tional revival—permit the tremendous picture to become reality ?” (“Patriotism,” 405). 

This event has sometimes been called the “Businessman’s Revival,” the “1858 Prayer Revival,” or the “Awakening of 1858.” Historians have noted how difficult it is to know how to assess this revival, given how widespread it was, and how short-term its effects. Indeed, it is “so haphazardly interpreted that there exists little unanimity on what even to call it.” (See Leonard I. Sweet, “A Nation Born Again: The Union Prayer Meeting Revival and Cultural Revitalization,” in In the Great Tradition: In Honor of Winthrop S. Hudson: Essays on Pluralism, Voluntarism and Revivalism, ed. Joseph D. Ban and Paul R. Dekar (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1982), 193–221; cited in Kathryn Long, “The Power of Interpretation: The Revival of 1857-58 and the Historiography of Revivalism in America,” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 4.1 (1994), 77; Baptist historian William McGloughlin concluded that it was not “any kind of national awakening but merely a response to financial insecurity and newspaper publicity”; William G. McGloughlin, Modern Revivalism, Charles Grandison Finney to Billy Graham (New York: Ronald Press Company, 1959), 164.)

Frederick Douglass

As you might expect, the spuriousness of white Christianity is see in her so-called revivals too. As Frederick Douglass said, “revivals in religion and revivals in the slave trade go hand in hand together” (“American Slavery: Report of a Public Meeting, May 22, 1846,”).

In 1858 at least one anti-slavery figure instantly criticized the “revival” precisely because of what he saw as its pro-slavery features. Isaac Nelson was an Irish evangelical minister who worked with Douglass and Garrison in the 1840s to oppose slavery (see Daniel Ritchie, “Transatlantic Delusions and Pro-Slavery Religion: Isaac Nelson’s Evangelical Abolitionist Critique of Revivalism in America and Ulster,” Journal of American Studies 48.03 (2014), 761).  Nelson critiqued the revival because “it had not led to emancipation or even to the American churches disciplining slaveholders” (“Delusions,” 764). He believed that “a genuine spiritual awakening would have led to an increased interest in anti-slavery,” and that absent this, any so-called revival was “spurious” (“Delusions,” 765). He noted that in some parts of America experiencing this revival, leaders had forbidden prayer on behalf of emancipation. At the epicenter of the revival, the Fulton Street prayer meetings in New York, it was reported that they segregated the meetings and made Black people pray by themselves on a separate floor removed from the main meetings. “This is the first time I have ever been to any of these meetings, and this shall be the last,” said one Black woman. “I told her that these things were a part of the American Religion,” replied a Black man who had also visited the meetings that day (“Letter from a Colored Man,” New York Tribune, March 27, 1858).

Daniel Ritchie makes an acute observation regarding the revival: “when one considers that American quickly fell into the most destructive Civil War, Nelson’s argument about the specious nature of the 1857–58 revival appears accurate… If 1857–58 had been a true revival, then, according to Nelson’s reasoning, it is not likely that the American states would have been plunged into a brutal war only a few years later in 1861” (“Delusions,” 776). Indeed—if 1857–58 had been a true revival, genuine Christianity would have been manifest long before the brutal war in their treatment of Black brothers and sisters in Christ.

“Humble Confession of Our Sins, Individual and Social”

Back to Dabney’s 1860 sermon—the remedy to this dire danger includes, first, “Christians should everywhere begin to pray for their country” (“Patriotism,” 406). Next, Dabney turns to confession: “And along with this should go humble confession of our sins, individual and social.” Dabney understands the connection between individual sin and its social and systemic aspect as well: 

It is for our own sins alone that we are responsible to God. It is our own sins alone that we have the means of reforming, by the help of his grace. Let each man, then, consider and forsake his personal transgressions; for as your persons help to swell the aggregate of this great people, so your individual sins have gone to form that black cloud of guilt which threatens to hide from us the favorable light of our heavenly Father’s face But let us remem­ber, and confess also, our social sins: that general worldliness which hath set up the high places of its covetous idolatries all over the good land God hath given us; that selfish profusion and luxury which have squandered on the pride of life so much of the goods of our stewardship; that heaven-daring profanity and blasphemy by reason of which the land mourneth. And let me not forget faithfully to protest, on such a day as this, against that peculiar sin of the southern country, the passion for bloody retaliation of personal wrong, which has been so often professed and indulged among us, unwhipped of justice. You have allowed too often the man of violence, the duelist, profess­ ing his pretended “ code of honor ”—most hateful and deceitful pretence of that father of lies, who was a murderer from the beginning—to stalk through the land with wrongs upon his angry tongue and blood upon his hand, while his crime was winked at by justice, and almost applauded by a corrupt public opinion. “ So ye have polluted the land wherein ye are; for blood, it defileth the land, and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it.’”

Dabney acknowledges a number of sins that characterize the South, but though he names “worldliness and covetous idolatry; selfish profusion and luxury” he refuses to see white-supremacy and chattel enslavement as the foundation of such covetousness and the source of that luxury. Especially interesting is his calling out of the “duelist,” that “peculiar sin of the southern country, the passion for bloody retaliation of personal wrong, which has been so often professed and indulged among us,” driven by their honor/shame culture, “professing his pretended ‘code of honor.’”

Dabney had many of the resources at hand to combat the deep sickness in his country, and in particular, in white American Christianity. He had his Bible, and he knew deeply of its teachings of “Christ-like love”; he had categories for not just individual, but social sins; he knew that seminaries, churches, and printing presses despite their “vaunted successes” could prove utterly impotent in the face of a real call for moral weight; and yet, this form of Christianity—his form of Christianity—proved impotent. 

What was missing? More theology wouldn’t fix it (Dabney himself was a theology professor at Union Seminary); more printing of books, more preaching of sermons (see also “We have much theology, but what does it amount to?”: William Lloyd Garrison’s critique of the American Tract Society“). What was needed was repentance at such a deep level that the entire society would be changed from the bottom up. Even preaching on “Christ-like love” remains impotent when that love is only intended for fellow white people. 

White American Christianity needed to be born again. I think it still does.