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God in America | Article

People and Ideas: Civil War and Reconstruction

From Frederick Douglass to Harriet Tubman, scroll to read how different individuals who lived during this era were influenced by religion.

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Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln was raised in his parents' "hard shell" Baptist faith. Here evangelistic fervor combined with a stern Calvinist theology of predestination -- the belief that the fate of all men and women had been predetermined by God. Lincoln rejected this Calvinist view and shunned emotional excess, but the Calvinism of his youth left him with a lifetime sense of fatalism.

The toll of the Civil War led Lincoln to undertake a profound spiritual journey. This journey ultimately transformed his inner being, his conduct of the war, and his understanding of divine Providence. During his presidency, Providence began to emerge in his mind as an active and more personal God, a mysterious presence whose purpose eluded human understanding. 

The eulogy delivered at his son Willie's funeral spoke to Lincoln. It had said, "What we need in the hour of trial, and what we should seek by earnest prayer, is confidence in Him who sees the end from the beginning and doeth all things well." Lincoln began to search for signs of God's will on the question of emancipation. He had resisted freeing the slaves, convinced that he did not have the authority to do so. But abolitionists urged Lincoln to move forward. He gradually recognized a practical and moral reason for emancipation: depriving the South of free labor would make it more difficult for Confederate troops to fight the war. He searched for a signal of God's plan. In September 1862, Union forces drove Southern rebels from Antietam Creek in Maryland. It was not a rousing victory for the Union, but Lincoln took it as the sign he had waited for. He gathered his cabinet and announced: "God had decided this question in favor of the slaves." On New Year's Day 1863, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in the Confederacy.

In his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln endowed the Civil War with sacred meaning, creating an American Scripture and articulating an American civil religion that still suffuses the idea of the nation with religious significance.

Fondly do we hope -- fervently do we pray -- that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, ... as was said 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'

Lincoln himself became a casualty of the conflict. Slain on Good Friday, he died the day before on Easter Sunday. Mourned and honored, he was compared to Jesus. Despite the fact that he had never formally joined a church, Lincoln had become one of America's most theological presidents.

Angelina and Sarah Grimké

With 13 years between them, sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimké were born into a plantation-owning, slave-holding family in South Carolina. Sarah, the elder sister, grew up feeling that she was alone in her questioning of the institution of slavery and the treatment of women. When Sarah was 13, her younger sister Angelina was born, and the two remained the closest of friends throughout their lives.

The Grimké family attended the Episcopal Church regularly, and Sarah read Bible stories to slave children. South Carolina law barred teaching slaves to read, but Sarah chafed at the idea that the slaves were forced to hear the Gospel from others rather than read it for themselves. She rebelled in secret, teaching her handmaid, a slave, to read at night until her father caught her.

The sisters both questioned slavery and desired equality for men and women, but it was not until Sarah traveled to Philadelphia that the sisters felt there was anything they could do as young women.

In Pennsylvania, Sarah was introduced to the Society of Friends, or the Quakers and moved permanently to Philadelphia in 1820. Angelina joined Sarah in 1829, and the sisters became active members in the Society of Friends. The sisters entered the national spotlight as abolitionists when Angelina wrote a letter against slavery published in the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator. Within a year, Angelina issued her most famous pamphlet, titled "Appeal to the Christian Women of the South," urging white Southern women to help end the scourge of slavery:

I appeal to you, my friends, as mothers; Are you willing to enslave your children? You start back with horror and indignation at such a question. But why, if slavery is no wrong to those upon whom it is imposed? ...Do you not perceive that as soon as this golden rule of action is applied to yourselves that you involuntarily shrink from the test; as soon as your actions are weighed in this balance of the sanctuary that you are found wanting? Try yourselves by another of the Divine precepts, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." Can we love a man as we love ourselves if we do, and continue to do unto him, what we would not wish any one to do to us? Look too, at Christ's example, what does he say of himself, "I came not to be ministered unto, but to minister." Can you for a moment imagine the meek, and lowly, and compassionate Saviour, a slaveholder? Do you not shudder at this thought as much as at that of his being a warrior? But why, if slavery is not sinful?

The sisters' public speaking and involvement in the political sphere drew condemnation from religious leaders and traditionalists who did not believe that it was a woman's place to speak in public. The sisters soon found themselves fighting for equality of the sexes and women's rights, following women like Sojourner Truth in linking the rights of blacks and women.

Frederick Douglass

"Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference," wrote Frederick Douglass, a leading American abolitionist and former slave. Douglass rejected all biblical justifications of slavery after living under the cruel institution himself. Born in Maryland in 1818, his master's wife taught Douglass to read at a young age, and Douglass shared this knowledge with other slaves, encouraging them to read the New Testament and interpret Jesus Christ's message of equality. 

After escaping slavery, Douglass  joined an integrated Methodist church where he attended anti-slavery meetings and befriended fellow abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Garrison encouraged the young Douglass to become an anti-slavery lecturer. Douglass also started a weekly journal, The North Star, where he challenged his readers to question the contradiction between America's Christianity and the institution of slavery. Speaking before packed houses in Great Britain and America, Douglass attacked Christianity for not only permitting the continuation of slavery but also encouraging its expansion: "The church and the slave prison stand next to each other. ... [T]he church-going bell and the auctioneer's bell chime in with each other; the pulpit and the auctioneer's block stand in the same neighborhood."

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Daughter of minister Lyman Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe was a noted abolitionist and author, best known for her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Located close to the border of the slave state Kentucky, the city of Cincinnati gave Stowe direct exposure to the institution of slavery. She visited Kentucky and witnessed slavery firsthand. When Stowe and her husband Calvin Eillis Stowe discovered that their house servant, Zillah, was a former slave, the couple helped her to escape to Canada.

In 1850, the Stowes moved to Brunswick, Maine. That same year, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law, which enabled slave owners to reclaim their runaway slaves who had escaped to Northern states. Stowe was outraged and soon began to write her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, a searing indictment of slavery, drawing on freedom narratives, newspaper accounts, interviews with former slaves and conversations with participants in the Underground Railroad, both white and black. She also drew on her own personal experience as a mother. Her son Charlie had died in the summer of 1849. Four years after his death, she wrote to a friend:

I have been the mother of seven children, the most beautiful and most loved of whom lies buried near my Cincinnati residence. It was at his dying bed and at his grave that I learned what a poor slave mother may feel when her child is torn away from her. In those depths of sorrow, which seemed to be immeasurable, it was my only prayer to God that such anguish might not be suffered in vain. ... I allude to this here because I have often felt that much that is in that book had its root in the awful scenes and bitter sorrow of that summer.

Translated into foreign languages, Uncle Tom's Cabin it sold around the world and was made into a popular play. In the United States, Stowe's work galvanized anti-slavery sentiment and aided the abolitionist cause.

Harriet Tubman

Born into slavery on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in 1820, Harriet Tubman s remembered for challenging stereotypes of race, gender and class. As a child, she learned Bible stories from her mother, finding inspiration in the Exodus narrative and rejecting the admonitions for slaves to obey their masters. She would later become known as "Moses" for her work as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, leading slaves North to freedom. As a teenager, Tubman suffered a traumatic head injury that would cause a lifetime of seizures, along with powerful visions and vivid dreams that she ascribed to God. She would rely on these visions first in planning her own escape from slavery and later, when leading others to freedom in the North.

In 1849, Tubman plotted her escape. By night, she followed the North Star and relied on the Underground Railroad, a network of free blacks and white abolitionists, including members of the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers. She arrived in Philadelphia and later recalled: "When I found that I crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven."

She soon returned to Maryland to lead members of her family to freedom. Repeatedly returning to the South, she led approximately 70 people to safety. During the Civil War, she worked for the Union as a cook, nurse, laundress, scout and spy. To make money, she sold homemade pies and root beer. In 1863, she led a group of black soldiers and scouts on surveillance missions along the Southeastern seaboard and worked with Col. James Montgomery to lead a raid on the Combahee River in South Carolina in which 700 slaves were freed. Despite her service to the Union cause, she received no pay or compensation.

Harriet Tubman died in 1913. Just before her death, she told those gathered around her, "I go to prepare a place for you." 

Henry Ward Beecher

Prominent Congregational minister, abolitionist and social reformer, Henry Ward Beecher embodied the transition of American Protestantism from stern Calvinism to a buoyant "gospel of love." One of 12 children, Henry's father was Lyman Beecher, the famous Presbyterian minister who preached a strict Calvinist orthodoxy. Religion pervaded every aspect of Henry's childhood: Church attendance, daily prayer and hymn singing were obligatory. 

In 1847, Beecher was appointed minister of the new Plymouth Congregational Church in New York. His Sunday sermons drew the rich and famous. Abraham Lincoln commented that no one in history had "so productive a mind." Beecher coupled a flamboyant preaching style with a message that broke from the stern Calvinism that had held American Protestantism in its unforgiving embrace. Beecher taught the power of Christ's love: "It is Love the world wants. Higher than morality, higher than philanthropy, higher than worship, comes the love of God. That is the chiefest thing." 

Deeply attuned to the progressive intellectual and social currents of the day, Beecher believed that religion must adapt to changing times. He extolled temperance, embraced women's suffrage and argued that Darwin's theory of evolution was compatible with the Bible. Beecher also advocated abolition. But his liberal sentiments did not extend to the working class. In his famous "Bread and Water" sermon, he proclaimed, "Men cannot live by bread alone, but the man who cannot live on bread and water is not fit to live."

Nat Turner

Born in 1800, Nat belonged to the Turners, white gentry who owned a prosperous farm. The Turners were attracted to Methodism, with its appealing message of free will and individual salvation. Determined that their slaves should have the chance to be saved, the Turners held prayer services and allowed their slaves to attend the local chapel on Sundays.

As a child, Nat was encouraged by his owner, Benjamin Turner, to read and study the Bible. According to Nat's version of his life story, many recognized from his earliest years that Nat Turner was "intended for some great purpose," certain that one day he would be a prophet. Nat studied the Old Testament, committing long passages to memory and heeding the words of the prophets. Working in the fields, he heard a voice call to him and became convinced that he had been chosen to carry out a divine mission. He began to exhort his fellow slaves, promising them that something big would happen one day.

Then came the visions: black and white spirits engaged in battle; the Savior with arms outstretched; drops of blood on corn; leaves with hieroglyphic characters and numbers. Finally he understood the meaning of the signs: "The Savior was about to lay down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and the great day of judgment was at hand." At 2:00 a.m. on Aug. 22 1831, Nat and 20 men killed the entire family of John Travis, Turner's new owner. Moving on, they hacked, stabbed, bludgeoned and shot approximately 60 unarmed white men, women and children. His men were eventually killed or captured. Turner himself was captured and imprisoned.

Nat Turner's legacy remains controversial. To some he is simply a cold-blooded killer who did not hesitate to slaughter innocent and unarmed whites. To others, he is a martyr who died for the cause of freedom. For still others, he stands in a long and distinguished line of prophets, men convinced they were chosen by God to fulfill a special destiny and divine purpose.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson was a writer, thinker and philosopher who became the leading proponent of Transcendentalism, a movement that imbued the austere New England Unitarian tradition with elements of mysticism. After earning a degree at the Harvard Divinity School, he became an ordained Unitarian minister of Boston's Second Church in 1829. He fell into disagreements over the administration of communion and public prayer. After three years, he resigned his post, saying: "This mode of celebrating Christ is no longer suitable to me. That is reason enough why I should abandon it."

Emerson settled in Concord, Mass., and in 1836, he and his colleagues founded the Transcendental Club, which served as the center of the Transcendentalist movement. Refusing to acknowledge any authority beyond themselves, the Transcendentalists believed that each individual must make their own decisions about God, the human race and the world. Emerson declared that the Transcendentalist "believes in miracles, in the perpetual openness of the human mind to the new influx of light and power; he believes in inspiration and ecstasy."

In July 1838, Emerson was invited to address the graduating class at the Harvard Divinity School. In his specch, Emerson dismissed biblical miracles and claimed that while Jesus was a great man, he was not God. His comments created a firestorm; he was not invited back to the Divinity School for 30 years.

Emerson believed God was revealed through nature. Historian Grant Wacker describes Emerson's belief: "God was best understood as a spirit, an ideal, a breath of life; everywhere and always filling the world with the inexhaustible power of the divine presence.'"

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Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth 

Born into slavery in in 1796, Sojourner Truth's experiences as a slave informed her later conversion to Methodism and her staunch commitment to abolition, women's rights and temperance. Truth, born with the name Isabella Baumfree, suffered under cruel masters. 

In 1826 Truth was freed. She settled in New York City where she experienced a powerful, divine vision. During this conversion, she recognized that she -- and all other blacks and women -- deserved equal rights under the law. After this experience, Baumfree changed her name to Sojourner Truth and began what would be her life-defining work. Truth became a Methodist itinerant preacher, traveling the country and sharing her interpretation of the Scripture with its powerful message of reform and equality.

In 1851, Truth delivered her now-famous "Ain't I a Woman?" speech before the Women's Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio: "I can't read, but I can hear. I have heard the Bible and have learned that Eve caused man to sin. Well, if woman upset the world, do give her a chance to set it right side up again." In addition to advocating for women's rights, Truth also campaigned for abolition. She postulated that all humans are equal in God's eyes and therefore should be equal on earth. For Truth, salvation was only available to those who had embraced abolition and equality.

Before her death in 1883, she said, "As I got older I found out that there wasn't no such thing as hell... And that the narrow stairs only showed the narrowness of the mind that conceived the picture. I have found out and know that God's brightness and goodness and glory is hot enough to scorch all the sinners in the world."

William Lloyd Garrison

Garrison was a prominent and radical activist not only for abolition, but also for women's suffrage, temperance and pacifism. While his radicalism attracted some, Garrison's positions frightened many of the more moderate voices. On July 4, 1844, he publicly burned a copy of the Constitution. When the American Colonization Society failed to push for an immediate end to slavery, he broke with the organization. He co-founded the American Anti-Slavery Society and supported the admittance of women to the organization. Most male members protested, and the organization fractured. He quarreled publicly and broke with his former ally Frederick Douglass.

John Brown's failed raid at Harper's Ferry pushed Garrison’s radicalism even further. In 1859, Garrison eulogized Brown's execution with a call for Northern secession from the Union: "By the dissolution of the Union we shall give the finishing blow to the slave system; and then God will make it possible for us to form a true, vital, enduring, all-embracing Union from the Atlantic to the Pacific -- one God to be worshiped, one Savior to be revered, one policy to be carried out -- freedom everywhere to all the people without regard to complexion or race -- and the blessing of God resting upon us all!" An avowed Unitarian, Garrison believed slavery to be in direct moral conflict with Scripture; America could only be pure if it was finally cleansed of slavery. Yet Garrison supported Abraham Lincoln's election and welcomed the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment that outlawed slavery forever in the United States. 

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