It is said that those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it. I have argued numerous times that we can look back in our history and find situations very similiar to what we are now experiencing concerning the cultural and religious changes we are fighting through in the Culture Wars, primarily over homosexuality and by extention same-sex marriage.
I have been told numerous times that the social and religious experiences of Americans leading up to the Civil War over the slavery issue is not a valid comparison to what we are now experiencing in the Culture War over homosexuality. I’ve said again and again that I am not comparing homosexuality to race or same-sex marriage to the emancipation of the slaves, but rather the way Christian Americans used and interpreted Scripture, demanded that and then fought over narrow and often sectarian application of Scripture, and how we dealt with one another and our differences. The religious dynamic over slavery back then is, in fact, very, very similiar to today.
So, now I am reading histories of the time period. Here is a rather lengthy quote from my current read, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, by Mark A. Noll.
Does this not sound so very familiar as our country, and more specifically our Anglican church, is pulling itself apart?
The Bible, or so a host of ministers affirmed, was clear as a bell about slavery.
The Bible, for example, was clear to Henry Ward Beecher, the North’s most renowned preacher, when he addressed his Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, NY, on January 4, 1861, a day of national fasting to have people pray for the country’s healing. In Beecher’s view, the evil for which the U.S. as a nation most desperately needed to repent, “the most alarming and most fertile cause of national sin, ” was slavery. About this great evil the Bible could not speak with less ambiguity: “Where the Bible has been in the household, and read in the household, and read without hindrance by parents and children together – there you have had an indomitable yeomanry, as state that would not have a tyrant on the throne, a government that would not have a slave or a serf in the field.” (1)
But of course, the Bible spoke very differently to others who also rose to preach in that fateful moment. Six weeks earlier… the South’s most respected minister, James Henley Thornwell, took up before his Presbyterian congregation in Columbia [South Carolina] the very same theme of “our national sins”… To Thornwell, slavery was the “good and merciful” way of organizing “labor which Providence has given us.” About the propriety of this system in the eyes of God, Thornwell was so confident that, like Beecher, he did not engage in any actual Biblical exegesis; rather, he simply asserted: “That the relation betwixt the slave and his master is not inconsistent with the word of God, we have long since settled… We cherish the institution not from avarice, but from principle.” (2)
The fact that Beecher in the North and Thornwell in the South found contrasting messages in Scripture by no means indicates the depth of theological crisis occasioned by this clash of interpretations. Since the dawn of time, warring combatants have regularly reached for whatever religious support they could find to nerve their own side for battle. Especially in our postmodern age, we think we know all about the way that interests dictate interpretations. It was, therefore, a more convincing indication of profound theological crisis when entirely within the North ministers battle each other on the interpretation of the Bible. In contrast to the struggle between Northern theologians and Southern theologians, this clash pitted against each other ministers who agreed about the necessity of preserving the Union and who also agreed that the Bible represented authoritative, truth-telling revelation from God.
Thus only a month before Beecher preached to the Brooklyn Congregationalists about the monstrous sinfulness of slavery, the Reverend Henry Van Dyke expounded on the related theme to his congregation, Brooklyn’s First Presbyterian Church, just down the street from Beecher’s… But when Van Dyke took up the theme of the “character and influence of abolitionism,” his conclusions were anything but similar to Beecher’s. To this Northern Presbyterian, it was obvious that the “tree of Abolitionism is evil, and only evil – root and branch, flower and leaf, and fruit; that it springs from, and is nourished by, an utter rejection of the Scriptures.” (3)
An even more interesting contrast with Beecher’s confident enlistment of the Bible against slavery offered by Rabbi Morris J. Raphall, who on the same day of national fasting that provided Beecher the occasion for his sermon, addressed the Jewish synagogue of New York. Like Van dyke’s, his sermon directly contradicted what Beecher had claimed. Raphall’s subject was the biblical view of slavery. To the learned rabbi, it was imperative that issues of ultimate significance be adjudicated by “the highest Law of all,” which was “the revealed Law and Word of God.” …Raphall’s sermon was filled with close exegesis of many passages from the Hebrew Scriptures. Significantly, this Northern rabbi was convinced that the passages he cited taught beyond cavil that the curse pronounced by Noah in Genesis 9 on his son Ham had consigned “fetish-serving benighted Africa” to everlasting servitude. Raphall was also sure that a myriad of biblical texts demonstrated as clearly as demonstration could make that slavery was a legitimate social system… Raphall’s conclusion about the scriptural legitimacy of slavery per se reflected his exasperation at anyone who could read the Bible in any other way: “Is slaveholding condemned as a sin in sacred Scripture?… How this question can at all arise in the mind of any man that has received a religious education, and is acquainted with the history of the Bible, is a phenomenon I cannot explain to myself.” (5)
One of the many Northerners with good religious education who know the Bible very well, yet in whose mind questions did not arise about the intrinsic evil of slaveholding, was Tayler Lewis, a Dutch Reformed layman… a professor of Greek and oriental studies… Professor Lewis complained that “there is… something in the more interior spirit of those [biblical] texts that [Van Dyke] does not see; he does not take the apostles’ standpoint; he does not take into view the vastly changed condition of the world; he does not seem to consider that whilst truth is fixed,… its application to distant ages, and differing circumstances, is so varying continually that a wrong direction given to the more truthful exegesis may convert it into the more malignant falsehood.”(7)
So it went into April 1861 and well beyond. The political standoff that led to war was matched by an interpretive standoff. No common meaning could be discovered in the Bible, which almost everyone in the United States professed to honor and which was, without a rival, the most widely read text of any kind in the whole country.
Mark A. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 2-4.
Are we condemn to repeat our past mistakes? It seems so, at least concerning this issue of homosexuality and how we handle Scripture, its application, and how we deal with one another. I’ve heard people say that we truly are in a national and cultural state so similar to the leading up to the Civil War that the possibility of yet another large scale civil conflict coming out of the Culture Wars (Red and Blue states mentality) could well come to pass.
1.) Henry Ward Beecher, “Peace Be Still,” in Fast Day Sermons; or, The Pulpit on the State of the Country (New York: Rudd and Carleton, 1861), 276, 289.
2.) James Henley Thornwell, “Our National Sins,” in Fast Day Sermons,48, 44-[??]
3.) Henry Van Dyke, “The Character and Influence of Abolitionism,” in Fast Day Sermons, 137.
5.) M.J. Raphall, “Bible View of Slavery,” in Fast Day Sermons, 235-236.
7.)Tayler Lewis, “Patriarchal and Jewish Servitude No Argument for American Slavery,” in Fast Day Sermons, 180, 222.