A summary of Mitchell Snay's Gospel of disunion

Principal author:
John L. Clark

A major development that would contribute to the US war of 1861 was the Southern decision to secede from the Union. Many historians see an array of factors that led the South to this point. With Gospel of disunion, Mitchell Snay argues that the moral and cultural influence of religion contributed significantly to the South's growing sense that it no longer could participate in the Union. In this book, Snay shows how Southern religion ended up being a multipurpose tool in facilitating the coming war: it identified points of conflict with the North while it also helped to bring Southerners together.

The Southern religious perspective on slavery developed rapidly in response to criticism from the North that started to intensify in the 1830s. Where Southern religious sentiments had been ambivalent about slavery prior to this period, they changed dramatically to aggressively defend slavery as necessary and good. This took on a call and response style that highlights the ideological militancy that hinted at the more traditional kind to come. Snay provides a concise and yet detailed summary of both the Southern moral defense of slavery as well as the progression of events that led to the schisms in the three largest Christian denominations, schisms that prefigured the eventual political crisis.

In addition to these divisive trends, Snay emphasizes the way in which religion helped to unite the South. In effect, religion did for the South what it had previously done for the nation as a whole: it provided a common sense of moral identity. Southern religion shifted to emphasize the need to convert and minister to slaves, which provided a common set of goals. It also instilled in the South the sense of independent millennial destiny that had previously been assigned to the Union as a whole. Taken together, Southern Christianity saw the North as having moved away from the national and Christian tradition, as being unfaithful, which provided Southerners with grounds for their move to independence.


Mitchell Snay. Gospel of disunion: Religion and separatism in the antebellum South. Cambridge University Press, 1993.

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