A summary of Mark A. Noll's The Civil War as a Theological Crisis

Principal author:
John L. Clark

In the first decades of the existence of the Unites States, leading to the War of 1861, evangelical Christianity had largely imbued the nation's citizenry with a sense that they were being guided providentially on a path that would enable the country to usher in the Kingdom of God. With The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, Mark A. Noll describes the problems that were growing within this national understanding as the war approached and then broke. He also hints at how this crisis may have fundamentally changed religious attitudes throughout the country.

Noll is sensitive to the convictions held by the different religious leaders. He strives to convey a clear and meaningful perspective on the various religious ideologies that developed within the sections, in order to derive a strong understanding of the nature of their conflicts. Unsurprisingly, the book provides a useful discussion of the religious arguments over the morality of slavery itself. Interestingly, the book adds to this with a discussion of other contemporary moral arguments, including conflicts over the problem of racism; issues with the country's economic systems; and, looking back on the war, an intensifying misapprehension about the providence of the battle itself. During the war, uncompromising attitudes about the fundamental morality of slavery overshadowed other concerns, which led many of them to be largely orphaned.

In the end, Noll helps us to see that the literal interpretation of the Bible most readily aided the South in defending slavery; this pushed some elements in the North to move away from reliance on the Bible for moral support, and, after the North defeated the South, led a shift toward emphasizing a less public, less activist faith than had existed prior to the war. This may shed some light on the combination of publically secular and privately pious culture that pervades today.


Mark A. Noll. The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. The University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

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