God’s Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War
by George C. Rable, University of North Carolina Press, 2010, $35
UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA professor George Rable has carved out an unusual legacy by rotating his historical endeavors across a wide spectrum. The Rableaisian literary gallery features a series of acclaimed works that follow no topical pattern—the Confederate republic, violence during Reconstruction, a classic battle narrative and Southern women as nationalists. His new religious history of the Civil War again rides a tangent away from any prior Rable investigation, and will surely continue to earn wide praise.
Rable’s characteristically superb research unearthed more than 280 manuscript collections bearing on this topic. He also cites six dozen contemporary serials and literally hundreds of published sources, both primary and secondary, many of them notably obscure. Research that estimable warrants delighted admiration, even were it presented without any special éclat—as so often is the case. But Rable’s prose breaks the mold and makes God’s Almost Chosen Peoples gratifying reading, accessible to any audience.
As Americans of all latitudes strove to win God’s favor during the war, they convinced themselves their behavior affected the war’s outcome. The eminently quotable Confederate General E. Porter Alexander asserted that “Providence did not care a row of pins about it. If it did it was a very unintelligent Providence.” Rable demonstrates that, quite to the contrary, most of Alexander’s contemporaries were certain “that the Lord kept track of individual and collective sins, doling out victories and defeats according to a precisely calculated evaluation.”
As the war’s unparalleled slaughter and misery devastated the land, “confidence in the workings of providence greatly simplified the understanding of everything.” Exhortations from pulpits “denounced every imaginable sin….Maybe poorly attended prayer meetings had angered the Almighty.” Despite the chaos rending the land and shattering its citizenry, somehow “the assumption remained that divine sovereignty worked perfectly, irresistibly, and efficiently.”
A nicely crafted sentence encapsulates one of the book’s primary refrains: “The relentless, often careless application of biblical typologies to national problems, the ransacking of scripture for parallels between ancient and modern events produced a nationalistic theology at once bizarre, inspiring, and dangerous.” Sometimes it “justified remorseless bloodshed.”
Rable concludes, convincingly, that “never before and likely never again would so many ministers, churches, and ordinary people turn not only to their Bibles but to their own faith to explain everything from the meaning of individual deaths, to the result of battles, to the outcome of the war itself.” The story of that ardent quest for understanding, smoothly told on the basis of massive research, is an interesting and important one.
British officer Robert Crisp titled his classic memoir of armored service in Greece in 1941 The Gods Were Neutral. Few Americans on either side of the Mason-Dixon Line were operating on that assumption during the 1860s.
Originally published in the May 2011 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.