Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Booknotes: Our Country

New Arrival:
Our Country: Northern Evangelicals and the Union during the Civil War Era
by Grant R. Brodrecht (Fordham UP, 2018).

With its origins in the previous century, the Protestant multi-denominational movement known as evangelicalism was a strong force in 1800s American culture. As the introduction to Grant Brodrecht's Our Country: Northern Evangelicals and the Union during the Civil War Era notes, some historians argue that it was the predominant American subculture of the period and profoundly shaped the country's ethos. The book's working definition of the core tenets shared by evangelicals has three parts: belief in (1) the bible's fundamental authority in all things related to "salvation, religious practice, and morality" (2) the "necessity of an individual conversion experience" and (3) the principle that all should aspire to a vigorous life of "Christlike" action. The last often extended into social and political reform activism.

The central theme of the book appears to be widespread evangelical determination, in the main, that saving the Union overrode all other considerations. "Believing their devotion to the Union was an act of faithfulness to God first and the Founding Fathers second, Our Country explores how many northern white evangelical Protestants sacrificed racial justice on behalf of four million African-American slaves (and then ex-slaves) for the Union’s persistence and continued flourishing as a Christian nation."

More from the description: "By examining Civil War-era Protestantism in terms of the Union, author Grant Brodrecht adds to the understanding of northern motivation and the eventual "failure" of Reconstruction to provide a secure basis for African American's equal place in society. Complementing recent scholarship that gives primacy to the Union, Our Country contends that non-radical Protestants consistently subordinated concern for racial justice for what they perceived to be the greater good. Mainstream evangelicals did not enter Reconstruction with the primary aim of achieving racial justice. Rather they expected to see the emergence of a speedily restored, prosperous, and culturally homogenous Union, a Union strengthened by God through the defeat of secession and the removal of slavery as secession’s cause."

"Brodrecht eloquently addresses this so-called “proprietary” regard for Christian America, considered within the context of crises surrounding the Union’s existence and its nature from the Civil War to the 1880s. Including sources from major Protestant denominations, the book rests on a selection of sermons, denominational newspapers and journals, autobiographies, archival personal papers of several individuals, and the published and unpublished papers of Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, and Ulysses S. Grant. The author examines these sources as they address the period’s evangelical sense of responsibility for America, while keyed to issues of national and presidential politics."

The study concludes that evangelicals' "love of the Union arguably contributed to its preservation and the slaves’ emancipation." However, "in subsuming the ex-slaves to their vision for Christian America, northern evangelicals contributed to a Reconstruction that failed to ensure the ex-slaves’ full freedom and equality as Americans."

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