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The Great Civil War Revival: God at Work in Unlikely Places

White male supremacy dominated life in America. The radical abolitionists pushed the issue of slavery as an ethical principle, but the abolitionists missed the larger issue of mass oppression of entire racial groups and females. America remained stuck in a world voicing the values of equality and liberty while using religion and social systems to maintain a white paternalistic system. Racism prevailed even among many abolitionists. George M. Frederickson describes the common view that abolition of slavery would eliminate those of darker skin from white America:

Sympathy for the black victims of “the peculiar institution” and forthright condemnations of racial inequality as the essence of slavery’s sinfulness were not the dominant themes in this emancipationist discourse. Some prominent northern clergymen even contributed to the Malthusian or proto-Darwinist racism that permitted white supremacists to support emancipation on the expectation that it would lead to a struggle for existence between the races that would end only with the elimination of the exotic African stock from the American population.[3]

Some northerners viewed slavery as evil in spite of the prevailing literal interpretation of the Bible, but few saw the larger issue of racism and sexism. African Americans like Frederick Douglas saw the problem in terms of racism, but the voices of African Americans had little power in antebellum America. As difficult as it might seem to modern minds, many Americans viewed slavery as a more benevolent way to care for the weaker working class than the northern system of paid factory workers. The North increasingly pointed to slavery as proof of moral superiority while the South pointed to the North’s abusive labor system as proof of moral superiority. The oppression of entire races and women rarely arose as the issue.

America remained stuck in a world voicing the values of equality and liberty while using religion and social systems to maintain a white paternalistic system. Racism prevailed even among many abolitionists.

The Second Great Awakening had different effects on northern and southern religious practice. Northern evangelicals primarily expressed awakening through community transformation.[4] Revival led to community transformation, and the abolition of the evil institution of slavery arose in the minds of the abolitionist as a natural effect of awakening. Southerners, however, felt revival as personal rather than societal. To the southern mind the church existed as a spiritual entity, and social or political issues remained out of the realm of religion. The prevailing ethic of the North arose as social transformation while social preservation arose as the prevailing ethic of the South. The separation of church and state, a southern value, prevented the church from influencing politics, and slavery remained a political issue. The Great Awakenings arose in the South among common people, and southerners felt that religion or common people lacked the power to influence the elite slaveholding gentry.[5]

 

Issues Related to War

Slavery arose as the primary issue midway through the war, but in 1861, the regions conflicted over which system best provided the labor needed to support the power elite.

America in 1861 polarized around regional differences. “Each side saw itself as guardian of the nation’s heritage of liberty.”[6] Philip Shaw Paludan points out that the larger story of the war arises from the “transition of the United States from an agrarian society into a market-driven and more industrialized society.”[7] Shattuck believed the religion of America that had unified the nation increasingly formed “one of several ideological factors responsible for exacerbating the sectional conflict.”[8] Preservation of a white paternalistic structure lay at the heart of the issues separating the regions. Slavery arose as the primary issue midway through the war, but in 1861, the regions conflicted over which system best provided the labor needed to support the power elite. Paludan observes the dichotomy from leaders of each region. Southern leaders defended slavery as a benevolent family system of interdependent Christian communities where owners behaved more like parents than masters. The North “was a world where so-called economic equality hid in base hypocrisy the self-centered idolatry of the race for wealth. In fact, free society denied God’s admonition to love one another by atomizing it into a race of each against all.”[9] Two systems of preserving wealth through oppression of labor, class, race, and gender conflicted.

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Category: Church History, Winter 2017

About the Author: F. Wesley Shortridge, D.Min. (Evangel University, 2016), M.A. (Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, 2010), B.A. (Central Bible College, 2009), is the founding pastor of Liberty Community Church in Bealeton, Virginia. Facebook LinkedIn

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