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The Civil War as a Theological Crisis

4.15  ·  Rating details ·  693 ratings  ·  129 reviews
Viewing the Civil War as a major turning point in American religious thought, Mark A. Noll examines writings about slavery and race from Americans both white and black, northern and southern, and includes commentary from Protestants and Catholics in Europe and Canada. Though the Christians on all sides agreed that the Bible was authoritative, their interpretations of slave ...more
Hardcover, 166 pages
Published April 24th 2006 by University of North Carolina Press
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Apr 22, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
Mark Noll's book argues, convincingly, that the civil war can be understood not simply as a constitutional crisis but a theological crisis for American Protestants (and really, for Christianity at large in light of the existence of American Protestantism). In fact, the constitutional crisis had significant theological roots, and we cannot understand the constitutional crisis in absence of this theological context. Given that America was a de facto Protestant nation, with its firm belief in sola ...more
James Korsmo
Aug 03, 2011 rated it it was amazing
The Civil War as a Theological Crisis is The Steven and Janice Brose Lectures in the Civil War Era, delivered at the University of North Carolina, and as a book that came out of a series of lectures, it has a relatively conversational and approachable tone. Mark Noll is an eminent historian of Christianity and specifically evangelicalism in America. In these lectures, Noll looks at the theological issues, which Noll argues in fact constituted a theological crisis, that shaped the Civil War and i ...more
Christopher Smith
Jan 06, 2011 rated it liked it
This book shows how the beliefs and assumptions held by American Christians in 1860 precluded any kind of critical reflection on the Civil War. If you've read Nathan Hatch's Democratization of American Christianity, this serves as an excellent second installment in the saga. Many of the ideals whose development Hatch chronicles played important roles in paving the way for the Civil War ethos. This book is also a nice supplement to Harry S. Stout's Upon the Altar of the Nation. Stout beautifully ...more
Matthew Richey
Aug 25, 2019 rated it it was amazing
An excellent read that addresses a deficit in our understanding of the Civil War. Recommended for students of theology and history alike. I was constantly surprised how similar many contemporary theological debates sound in comparison to the arguments of abolitionists versus proponents of slavery.
Brian Eshleman
Mar 28, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, audible, faith
Intriguingly even handed. Won't just assume that the America of the past was more religiously faithful, but endeavors to quantify that. Won't just assume that the consequences of that fervor and piety are entirely positive but endeavors to show the firmly-held divisions that result. Even for readers not obsessed with help biblical interpretation impacted the Civil War, this is a good, brief read to consider how biblical interpretation impacts the current culture. ...more
May 24, 2019 rated it it was amazing
It seems unthinkable now that so many thousands of Christians thought the Bible justified the enslavement of an entire race of people. Noll's book does a great job of explaining how Christians found themselves at that place at the beginning of the Civil War.

Essentially, the ingredients that made the United States a perfect place for Christianity to thrive - removal of ruling hierarchies, constitutionally guaranteed freedoms to worship and believe how you want, Enlightenment-era thinking on indiv
Dec 26, 2013 rated it it was amazing
I've gotten into debates with people about whether the Bible allows for slavery. Everyone I have ever argued with has argued that the Bible condemns slavery. We are unified as Christians in seeing slavery as a horrific sin.

Yet go back to the era of the Civil War and the mainstream opinion was that the Bible approved of slavery. Mark Noll's fantastic book documents this in great detail. He shows that the very ideologies that made America what it was, such as individualism and democracy, led to a
Vance Freeman
Sep 16, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Highly recommended history of the pro-slavery and anti-slavery arguments made by pastors and theologians leading up to and during the The Civil War.

One of the results of the broad secularization of education in the 20th Century is that we don’t teach the religious underpinnings of the Civil War (or other major historical events). Both sides understood this conflict as part of a religious narrative. But now we only teach this as a legal and economic conflict. As a result, we don’t get the full p
Aug 27, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
Essential reading that offers explanatory power for America’s most vexing problem. The chapter on the evolving biblical interpretations, both for an against slavery, is fascinating if also sobering—a reminder that we bring more into the text from the culture around us than we’d care to admit. Reading books like these, rather than spending hours on inane and outrageous social media discourse, will actually help deepen our understanding.
Sep 16, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Chapter three,"The Crisis over the Bible,"is the meat of the book. In it Noll observes that antebellum protestantism was mostly unified in its interpretation of slavery with some exceptions (Quakers, for example) along with a robust confidence in Scripture. He explains that Christian values in revolutionary America were appropriated into the national culture to create a uniquely American hermeneutic. It was a plain "commonsensical approach" to reading and applying the Bible. Noll uses Thomas Tho ...more
Jan 30, 2021 rated it really liked it
What happens when professing Christians who also profess to hold the authority in the Bible in high esteem have diametrically opposing views of slavery based on those very Scriptures? Does God speak from both sides of his mouth? Who is right and by what authority and hermeneutic? According to historian, Mark Noll, what you have is a national theological crisis. This book examines those opposing arguments and also includes the critiques (even support) of slavery and the Civil War from outside the ...more
Aug 03, 2015 rated it it was amazing
This book is fantastic. I had to slow myself down to consider and process some of the info and analysis. It's a short volume but scholarly. If you've haven't read much on the Civil War you probably should read some more generalized book(s) on the conflict unless you are only focused on the theological crisis. And, this is not a history of religion in the Civil War nor does it focus on one denomination (both the Methodist and Baptist church split over the slavery issue leading up to the war). The ...more
Jun 21, 2008 rated it it was amazing
A fantastic, deep study of religion and society during the turning point in our country's history. I'm going to have to read more books by Mark Noll, because he's bringing the intellectual study of Christianity that I've always craved.

I read the book on Sunday mornings, usually sitting outside with a cup of coffee and the chance to think hard about what I was reading. One chapter or even just part of one was all I could manage at one time, since there was so much material to turn over in my mind
Mike Horne
Sep 21, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Much easier book to read than his massive America's God, this book does a great job of putting you into the theological arguments of a great number of antebellum Americans. And theology leads to the Civil War (by cutting off compromises). Two good quotes:

"The inability of evangelicals to agree on how slavery should be construed according to Scripture, which all treated as their ultimate religious norm, was in fact connected to the economic individualism of American society." p. 158

I don't know
Susie  Meister
Jul 13, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Noll describes how and why the Civil War was a theological crisis. One indicator of the depth of the schism is that even among Northern ministers there was disagreement about what the Bible taught on slavery (i.e. it was not merely a North/South split). At the core are America's focus on the Word, their belief in interpreting the Word without religious authority, and God's providence on American culture. Noll demonstrates how the Bible and its interpretation was a part of American identity and t ...more
Sam Sgroi
Jun 27, 2020 rated it really liked it
I never really thought of the American Civil War as a theological or religious crisis, or at least before I read this book. When we think of the War Between the States (a phrase the author really likes to use), we think of the massive political battle in the Congress over the issue of slavery. The Industrial North wants slavery to be ended immediately, and the Rural South did not want their cotton monopoly threatened.

Bleeding Kansas had occurred in 1850, a microcosm of the war to come, people c
This book clarified a number of important things for me in a very readable format. Originally a set of lectures, the chapters come across as someone talking to you and the arguments are laid out so that one might be able to follow them orally easily.

I had always wondered about the Biblical arguments over slavery. Pro-slavery arguments always seemed able to quote chapter and verse, and I could never seem to find any anti-slavery arguments with a similar approach. There were some, apparently, but
Jun 27, 2017 rated it it was amazing
A very interesting book. Heart-breaking many times. Quite a bit of coverage to main-stream Protestants and more conservative Catholics - would have liked to have seen a little more about Lutherans, which I think might have also been helpful.

"It is clear that the American Civil War generated a first-order theological crisis over how to interpret the Bible, how to understand the work of God in the world, and how to exercise the authority of theology in a democratic society."
"The theological crisi
William Guerrant
Despite having been a student of the Civil War era for a half-century now, I'd never given much serious thought to the theological and religious atmosphere of the country at the time. I'm now persuaded that it is impossible to understand the era without that context. I had not appreciated how pervasively evangelical the country was in that era--we've never been more religious, before or since--and how the commitment to the Bible as the ultimate authority on all questions ,and the corresponding b ...more
Luke Magnuson
Aug 10, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 4-faith
"The theological crisis of the Civil War was that while voluntary reliance on the Bible had contributed greatly to the creation of American national culture, that same voluntary reliance on Scripture led only to deadlock over what should be done about slavery."

An important work. Important takeaways:

Protestant theology combined with republican/democratic principles shaped american culture and american theology heading into the civil war. Yet theology failed to solve the crisis of the Civil War; t
Matt Tyler
Aug 19, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2020
Mark Noll’s purpose is “to explain why clashes over the meaning of the Bible and the workings of Providence, which grew directly out of the nation’s broader history before the Civil War, revealed a significant theological crisis.”

He examines how those on both sides of the conflict used the Bible to assure themselves that God was on their side. Noll also considers international Protestant and Catholic perspectives on America’s Civil War and slavery from the time.

This is a fascinating read, which
Sarah Powers
Oct 05, 2020 rated it it was amazing
An excellent book dissecting how the CW was "...interpreted as a theological event at the time? ...what contribution did the CW make to the history of theology more generally?" The book discusses the differences of American and European Christians as well as Catholic vs. Protestant, and black vs. white theologians in discussing the specific issue of slavery, but of the larger issue of the authority of Scripture and its interpretation.

The question, "how, in fact, are Bible believers, especially
Melody Schwarting
Apr 17, 2020 rated it it was ok
Shelves: r-2020, r-nf-history
While I don't disagree with Noll's overall thesis, the subjects of his study are severely limited, decreasing the usefulness of his work. He references few female abolitionists besides Harriet Beecher Stowe, and conveniently ignores those who contradict his conclusions. Anti-prejudice rhetoric in antebellum America is unknown to this book, as are black female abolitionists. Yet, Noll couches his claims with such nuance that he avoids his myopia being revealed for what it is.

Worth reading if you
Apr 19, 2017 marked it as to-read
Recommended here. ...more
Feb 02, 2019 marked it as to-read coming soon....
Señor Chiqui
May 25, 2019 rated it it was amazing
A chronicle of the historical events and fallout that knocked the Bible off of its pedestal in America.
Jaek Wraf
Feb 18, 2019 rated it really liked it
A really fascinating read, mostly as a study of American bible interpretation and application habits. I assume an intended takeaway-- my main takeaway-- is that evangelicals today are just as likely to clash with each other over "self-evident" understandings of what the Scriptures "simply" or "obviously" say, with probably less bloody results but a lot of strife and division nonetheless. And, like in the Civil War era, these interpretative issues have political and social repercussions. Really t ...more
Apr 23, 2016 rated it it was ok
Wrongly narrow focus, errors, undercut thesis of book

Noll makes a few errors, mainly, but not entirely, in setting the framework for this book.

Other than a semi-coda chapter on Catholic opinions, he tries to make the "theological crisis" about Protestant Christianity, and more specifically, Reformed Protestant Christianity.

Well, until the Jacksonian Revolution, Episcopalianism supplied much of the national-level political leadership, very much the state-level Southern leadership, and a fair amo
Adam Shields
Sep 10, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Short Review: This is the second time I have read this book. I read it it first a bit over a year ago accidentally. I borrowed it because it was by Noll, not because I actually knew anything about it. But it has been one of the books I frequently have recommended since then. Since it dropped down into reasonable price range for kindle I picked it up and read it again.

The main takeaway is still the same, that we read scripture through cultural lenses. And too often we do not even know that the le
Apr 04, 2018 rated it really liked it
In the short but dense collected book of lectures, “The Civil War as a Theological Crisis”, author Mark Noll sets out "to show how and why the cultural conflict that led to such a crisis for the nation also constituted a crisis for theology (6)." The crisis was made up of two parts, the first of which was what the Bible had to say about slavery - for or against. The second was what the Civil War, so rooted in theological arguments as to become religious in nature, seemed to suggest about the pro ...more
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Christian Theolog...: Reading the Bible in Light of History 49 32 Oct 17, 2014 02:21PM  

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Mark A. Noll (born 1946), Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame, is a progressive evangelical Christian scholar. In 2005, Noll was named by Time Magazine as one of the twenty-five most influential evangelicals in America. Noll is a prolific author and many of his books have earned considerable acclaim within the academic community. The Scandal of the Evangelic ...more

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