Book Review | St. Lawrence University President's Office

Book Review

A Visitation of God: Northern Civilians Interpret the Civil War. By Sean A. Scott.

William L. Fox

Church History, Volume 81, Issue 01 (March 2012), pp 222-224 Copyright © 2012 American Society of Church History.  Reproduced with the permission of Cambridge University Press.

In the early 1960s, the centennial reflections and observances of the American Civil War, specially its deeper significance in national self-understanding, were largely overshadowed by the looming presence of the Cold War and the recent memory of World War II. The young American veterans of the 1940s global war in Africa, Europe, and Asia were now running the country, leaning into the future, and had adopted the habit of relative silence about their personal memories of war. If their families had been in the United States by the 1860s, their grandparents would have known first-hand the Civil War generation, former soldiers from both armies and, depending on where they had lived, perhaps they also knew sharecroppers or new northbound laborers who were born into slavery.

The family lore handed down to the World War II generation by parents and grandparents would have insisted that "the greatest generation" had already been determined a century before. Much of the hundredth anniversary of the Civil War, therefore, as those of us who were of school-age or older may recollect, was mainly festive, summarized by band-leader Mitch Miller's television chorus singing mid-nineteenth century hymns in musical arrangements that sounded like popular show tunes.

The sesquicentennial of the Civil War, however, from the distance gained by the twenty-first century, encourages a comparatively larger in-depth consideration of the first "greatest generation's" lived experience. The field of study centered on the 1860s today has exploded into an inexhaustible list and interpretation of fresh topics. The books coming to press now are more
comprehensive than ever imagined by an older generation that was not very far removed from the days of case-study battles, eccentric generals, and great political actors. Sean A. Scott's A Visitation of God, a cellular-level examination of a particular geography, its practices of piety, and the frequent collision on the home front between political positions and religious values,
is a model of this important break-through in historiography. In addition, his work aims at a growing cross-over audience that allows general readers and specialists an equal share of profitable reading.

Scott considers the Northern perspective of the Civil War through personal letters, diaries, and news accounts by those left behind to run the farms, businesses, households, and churches as their sons, fathers, brothers, and friends entered military service. He is looking for a different set of clues than similar primary sources have yielded other writers. Rather, he discovers that the psychological tensions and complex spiritual life within religious institutions are more profound, confusing, and shifting than many students, who are accustomed to neatly drawn boundaries, may expect. Scott takes a new direction, away from the mainstream focus on sermons, the conditions of faith in the soldier camps, or the contextual theology that suggests the Civil War really started in the 1850s as an exegetical crisis and was largely an extension of that unbridgeable bifurcation in the national pulpits. Scott's book is not a wide-angle study of all states in the Union. He differentiates "Northern" from New England, Western, and the Mid-Atlantic regions, so that the small towns and "prairie homes" he explored are only in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa (seven states out of the Union's twenty-five). His study also focuses primarily on members of evangelical Protestant churches, particularly Baptists and Methodists. Presbyterians are also well represented for their diversity of
perspectives on doctrine and national events. The voices of other old line Protestants are also heard, but the volume is close to a whisper. His bare mention of Catholics and Unitarians means that the spectrum of coverage is deficient for a book of this size. It may surprise him that Unitarians, even in New England, were using the same religious vocabulary of providence, sin,
and retribution as the evangelicals of his research.

The work's great contribution is its close tracking of two principles in Northern religious sensibilities as the war begins and grinds on—God's sovereignty as encompassed by Providence's inherent capacity to direct all things to achieve an ultimate good; and the assumption of a postmillennial bias that God gave special favor to America, assuring supernatural assistance in the uncertain conflict. As Scott tells the story in a year-by-year sequence of the war's continuance, the unintended consequences of this credo,
inevitably fusing patriotism and religion, often became the source of a dramatic rift in many local congregations.

In numerous village churches, no moral equivalent of a half-way covenant existed, so members and even clergy who were at odds with prevailing political positions were run out of their congregations and towns. These points of inflection often occurred as the war itself was being redefined from one entered by causa bella of "preserving the union" to one made necessary for the greater cause of emancipation. For many church-goers in the southern parts of Ohio, Indiana, or Illinois that was going too far, particularly as an article of faith that God ordained emancipation. Some churches, however, held themselves together in a pragmatic coexistence so that members "pray together in church and abuse each other out of church." (111).

Sean Scott demonstrates with a superabundance of quotations the deeper subtleties, conflicted consciences, and nagging differences among Northerners who were under heavy pressure to develop appropriate religious thoughts and responses. It is particularly notable how Lincoln's
own theological ambiguity actually inspired many to take an even firmer doctrinal grip upon their first principles of providential sovereignty, national religious righteousness, and divine favor, thus missing the universalistic point the president developed over time, culminating in the
Second Inaugural Address.

Even with the main focus on evangelical groups, Scott makes a persuasive case against the view of a single sweeping, regional theology of the Union. Rather, the varieties of pulpit and personal interpretations, particularly in the face of an accelerating need for meaning about race and death, creates an album of many new pictures of the Northern home front. It is a family
album far different from the one scanned by Americans in 1961.

William L. Fox