The Theology of Reconstruction: White Southern Religious Leaders in the Aftermath of the Civil War
Boles, John B.
Doctor of Philosophy
The Civil War transformed American life like no event in the nation’s history. Historians are still working to understand the cultural reckoning following the war. This dissertation contributes to that goal by analyzing the response of white southern ministers, mostly evangelical Christians, to Civil War defeat and continued powerlessness during Reconstruction. These religious leaders responded to the spiritual and material needs of their parishioners in trying times by creating public theologies, which took into account both sacred and secular matters. Though they professed an apolitical stance, ministers addressed secular problems in moral terms that allowed them to offer religious guidance without explicit commentary on electoral politics. This theological approach to current events bore close similarity to twentieth-century liberation theology, in its stance that the South was poor and oppressed in relation to the conquering North. Correspondingly, white clergy depicted the South as God’s chosen people, even though they were suffering. By cultivating this relationship with the divine, southern Christians expected deliverance from unjust worldly circumstances. Religious leaders identified common problems standing in the way of southern prosperity—most notably doubt, poverty, and educational inadequacy— but agreed upon no strategies for combating them. Denominationalism, race, and other differences worked against regional religious cohesion, limiting the efficacy of ministerial efforts toward uplift. This failure to cooperate for the benefit of the South demonstrates the relative weakness of lingering Confederate identity in relation to religious belief and church affiliation. Nineteenth-century southerners believed in a world governed by Providence and thus filled both civil and sacred institutions with religious significance. White southern theology incorporated practical as well as metaphysical and doctrinal considerations, responding to the needs of the present while using the wellspring of tradition as a source of hope for a better future.
Civil War, 1861-1865; Reconstruction; American religion; Southern states