The Civil War was the bloodiest and deadliest war in American history as far as American casualties. In many cases, brother fought brother and neighbor fought neighbor. In almost all cases, those who once were fellow countrymen fought each other. What drove these men and women to throw themselves so fully behind a cause to be willing to fight against, and often kill, these people who before were their friends and compatriots? There are many factors and answers to this complex question, but one of note is the role of religion.
““…never in the course of my observation, or in my reading of human history, had I seen the hand of Providence so signally manifested as the events of this war.” Prominent abolitionist Lydia Maria Child wrote these words in a letter to a friend concerning her brother’s death (1863). By “Providence”, Child was referring to a deterministic view of life as designed by a higher power. Under this belief, every choice and action of every person is pre-determined, leading to an end result of Heaven on Earth and a utopia for the rest of eternity. This was a prominent belief amongst many Christian denominations in the early years of the United States. With this letter, Child articulated a view that was widely held across the Union. Freedom and equality for all was part of God’s final plan. This war was just another pre-determined step towards the final utopia. The victory of the Union and the abolition of slavery must happen for the sake of faith. Through this rhetoric, there very much was a melding of the political and the religious of the minds of the people.
Where did this melding begin? Robert Bellah, in his article “Civil Religion in America”, describes a phenomenon he calls civil religion. This phenomenon is essentially what today we call nation-building. In the present day United States, the only thing that ties all Americans together is the fact that all Americans have some sort of affiliation with a geographical territory demarcated by imaginary lines. In order to mobilize this population, it becomes necessary to create more of a sense of unity. Civil religion accomplishes this, metaphorically, with the scriptures of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the prophets of the Founding Fathers and the Presidents, and the holy sites of the Liberty Bell and Washington, D.C. (1967). President Lincoln, who claimed to be Christian but never affiliated himself with a denomination, often saw the Union in an almost mystical light as the torch-bearer of this pre-determined path towards freedom and equality. In his second inaugural address he said, “…if God wills that it continue until…every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgements of the Lord are true and righteous all together’” (quoted in Bellah, 1967, p. 106). This creation of civil religion, placed with the Christian faith of many of the citizens, and coinciding with the Civil War, may have created this sense of a holy war against the South.
There were also other religious movements that may not have been entirely caused by the Civil War but did coincide and may have been encouraged by the horrors people were witnessing. Another prominent abolitionist, Lucretia Coffin Mott, exemplified one of these movements in a letter concerning the death of a family member. She said, “I feel at times as if in spirit she may be nearer to us than we imagine” (1864). She went on to discuss how her entire life, she had been taught that Heaven was a place that was far away and impossible for anyone to reach short of a moral life and eventual death. She began to question this, however, after he family member’s death, claiming her faith was above “sectarian theologies and speculations” (402). This hints towards a religious perspective outside of institutional control. The notion of faith above all is reminiscent of the Roman Catholic and Grandfather of Existentialism, Soren Kierkegaard. Mott may have read Kierkegaard or one of his many students, or she may have arrived at the conclusion on her own. Either way, her doubt in institutional religion and confidence in her own faith is clear, just as it was for many other thinkers of that period.