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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

The Crisis of Providence and the Civil War

Not only did antebellum Americans have “an implicit trust that the Bible was a plain book whose authoritative deliverances could be apprehended by anyone who simply opened the covers and read” [1], but also believed “they could see clearly what the world was like, what God was like, what factors drove the world, who was responsible for events, and how the moral balance sheet should be read [2]”. Each side in the Civil War interpreted events as revealing God’s providence working for their respective sides in the conflict. Yet despite Americans' claims to understand the workings of God in the War, they failed to recognize the racism which drove the theological crisis. For that, European critiques were necessary. European Protestants made two precise critiques of American slavery: “They repeatedly attacked American slavery in terms of racial oppression rather than of economic organization. They also condemned it for violating numerous ethical norms about which the Bible spoke unambiguously” [3] such as Deuteronomy 23:15, which commanded against returning escaped slaves [4]. Such arguments had been made in America but failed to make an impression in the face of common sense biblicism. Four factors allowed these critiques to play a vital role in European discourse. First, European Protestants saw biblical interpretation as a corporate task rather than an individual enterprise as it was (and is) in America. Second, in Europe, the traditional churches’ interpretation was more significant than it was in America, which prized the democratic readings of the people. Third, America abolitionists often rejected orthodox Christianity, which was not the case in Europe. Finally, Europe was more suspicious of strict, literal interpretations of Scripture than Americans who, in fact, preferred strict common sense interpretations [5].

The racism of antebellum America, and even in the present day, is a denial of God’s original creation: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” [6]. God created all humanity in His image and with dignity. To reject the dignity and rights of fellow image-bearers is simply rebellion against humanity’s Creator.

[1] Noll, Mark A. The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2006. p. 20.

[2] Ibid. p. 75.

[3] Ibid. p. 118.

[4] Ibid. pp. 119-120.

[5] Ibid. p. 122-123.

[6] Genesis 1:27 NRSV

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