A summary of James H. Moorhead's American Apocalypse

Principal author:
John L. Clark

How did the United States perceive and justify itself with respect to the crisis surrounding the War of 1861? In order to understand “the moral tone of the victorious Union” (xii), James Moorhead reviews the particular position of Northern “mainstream” Protestant denominations in his book American Apocalypse.

His analysis is largely based around the prominence of millennialism in 19th-century Christian understanding. Expecting the imminent manifestation of the Kingdom of God realized in the United States, Northern churches saw the sectional tension and then the war as a final act of divine perfection of the country.

This book also shows that Protestant ideology was broadly inconsistent and varied dramatically in response to changing events. For example, of the war itself, Protestants variously preached that the Union and democracy were a sacred tool of God and required militant defense; that it was a providential punishment or cleansing action by God against the entire country, or specifically against slavery in the South; that the intensity of the conflict would unify the nation or bring it into maturity. Similar confusion extended to the Protestant understanding of the later process of Reconstruction and the eventual ascent of the country as a world power.

While Moorhead does not make this explicit, his description of the changing church attitudes shows how these churches molded their theology to societal trends, thus also reinforcing those trends. For example, although the details often differed in interesting ways, common threads of patriotism, fierce support for the war effort, and crushing criticism of dissenters were demanded by their teaching.

While Moorhead does a good job of tracking the variations in theology that the Northern Churches used to harmonize various national policies with their faith, the exclusive study of the North leads to an artificially narrow perspective on the moral identity of the post-war Union. Still, he presents a strong argument that the confusing Christian doctrines of the time poorly prepared the Union for dealing with the crisis and its outcomes. “Awaiting a future immeasurably grand, Protestants were almost fated to experience a painful dissonance between hope and reality.” (230)


James H. Moorhead. American Apocalypse: Yankee Protestants and the Civil War, 1860-1869. Yale University Press, 1978.

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