Cycles of Justification: George Rable’s God’s Almost Chosen Peoples

Rable, George C. God’s Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.

One of the most foundational lessons of any history major’s Methods class, if they haven’t learned it already, is that we cannot assume the historical actors of our sources thought or perceived of the world in the same way we do, whether separated by decades or millennia. Thus, while the majority of my reading deals with political, economic, or other systemic history, I also very much enjoy works attempting to glean insight into these differences. I have, ironically, had just such a book in my possession since before I was a history major. George Rable’s God’s Almost Chosen Peoples was given to me as a high school graduation gift from my church and now, over a decade later, I finally dove in.

In this ambitious work, the subtitle says it all: Rable presents a religious history of the American Civil War in all the complexity that entails. The list of topics covered is impressively comprehensive. Religious rhetoric of both sides from the outbreak of the war through to its conclusion; theological debates over slavery and abolition; the providential framework through which 19th-century Americans viewed their lives and the larger working of history; internal politics of denominational Churches; concerns over the holiness and morals of the armies and their soldiers; discussions of the separation of church, state, and civic religion; religion among the enslaved and reactions to emancipation; treatment of “traitorous” preaching and government interference with churches; views of death; even an analysis of the faith of Abraham Lincoln makes it in. The only caveat is that this is overwhelmingly a Christian religious history; the Jewish faith is the only other religion to be mentioned, and it is treated cursorily and always in relation to trends in the more dominant Christian churches.

Given the astonishing amount of information covered, it is impressive just how successful Rable’s narrative is. That said, such a thematic work needs to be impeccably organized for greatest effect, and here God’s Almost Chosen Peoples noticeably fails. Rather than devoting chapters to each one of these topics in their entirety, Rable tries to spread his themes out across a broadly chronological framework, revisiting them in their context of the early, mid, and late war. The problem with this approach  is that, at least according to Rable, the nature of religion and personal faith changed very little across the course of the conflict among those who expressed it in their writings. A sizable amount of reading, then, becomes devoted to absorbing the same sentiments over and over again referring to slightly different events. I couldn’t help but think that, if I were his editor, I could have helped Rable cut his book down by at least a third and clarified his history greatly in the process. I shudder to think what the longer previous drafts he mentions in his introduction looked like if this was the final product.

And yet, all this repetition has the (likely) unintended side effect of elevating God’s Almost Chosen Peoples into a case study in the human condition. The human impulse to justify our own actions and locate some other source of failure beyond ourselves is evident every time Northern and Southern ministers using the same Biblical commentary to support their own nations (all while condemning the other side for “preaching politics”) or one side thanks Providence for their victory while the other assumes loss to be just a lesson in God’s plan–only to have positions reversed months later. While it’s impossible to make any responsible conjecture about how many lost their faith as a result of the war, it it truly surprising the number of Americans who retained full faith in not only their cause but that cause’s divine backing through four years of carnage, especially on the part of the South. Both for its insight in the minds of religious 19th-century Americans and for what it shows of us as a species, I highly recommend God’s Almost Chosen Peoples for any interested in this era of our history.

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