… that God has already judged America for the sin of slavery?
… that God has already judged America for the sin of slavery?
The Civil War (1861-1865) can be legitimately viewed as the price paid by America for the institution of slavery, whether viewed from a Christian or a secular point of view because slavery was the cause of the war. Except for slavery, there would have been no Civil War. There was no other issue that could have led the Confederate States of America to take up arms against the United States government. It was the “costliest and deadliest war ever fought on American soil, with some 620,000 of 2.4 million soldiers killed, millions more injured and much of the South left in ruin.”1. That number of 620,000 equals the number of Americans killed in World War I (116,516), World War II (405,399)2, the Korean War (40,000), and Vietnam War (58,220) which adds up to 620,135. In short, it was, by far, the deadliest war fought on American soil or foreign soil.
Gettysburg Address Lays Bare the Blatant Contradiction of Slavery
After the Declaration of Independence and the ensuing Revolutionary War, the Civil War could be viewed as the most important event in American history if put in the context of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Lincoln saw the war as a test of whether the American experiment would work as expressed in the first two sentences of his address,
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”
In 1863, the year Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address, “four score and seven years ago” takes us back to 1776, the year of the Declaration of Independence which stated that a self-evident truth is, “all men are created equal.” According to the Cambridge Dictionary, a thing is self-evident if it is “so clear or obvious that no proof or explanation is needed”. Slavery flew in the face of that self-evident truth. The contradiction had to be resolved if the nation was to “endure”. How did Lincoln’s contemporaries view this conflict? Was it seen as God’s judgment of the nation? Was it God’s wrath?
Thomas Jefferson’s Prophetic Utterance
First let us consider the almost prophetic statement of Thomas Jefferson, one of the Founding Fathers who died more than three decades before the Civil War began:
“Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever. Commerce between master and slave is despotism. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.” —Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781.3
Clearly if Jefferson had been living when the Civil War broke out, he would not have been surprised and would have seen it as the wrath of God falling on the nation because of the sin of slavery.
The Battle Hymn of the Republic
After visiting an army camp near Washington, D. C. in late 1861, Julia Ward Howe was inspired to write the words of The Battle Hymn of the Republic. She awakened in the wee hours of the morning and could not go back to sleep until she had penned the words to the now famous hymn. It was set to the tune of a marching song, “John Brown’s Body”. Below are the first four lines of the first and last stanzas of the hymn:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.
The first stanza of this hymn is clearly saying that the Civil War is God’s judgment on the land; He was loosening the “fateful lightening of his terrible swift sword”. The last stanza makes it clear that the goal of the war was to get rid of slavery. You might say that this is what the Spirit of the Lord was speaking to Julia Ward Howe. For more than 150 years, this hymn has been performed by many choirs and symphony orchestras. Interestingly in some versions of the song, the last part of line three of the last stanza has been changed from “let us die to make men free” to “let us live to make men free”. What a difference one word makes. Substituting the word “life” for the word “death” changes the whole point of the hymn, namely, that blood had to be spilled to atone for the sin of the nation.
Views of the Church during the Civil War
While the Civil War was going on, almost every Christian denomination expressed the opinion that the Civil War was the wrath of God falling on the nation for the sin of slavery. It was judgment. A sampling of some of the expressions taken from the Christian Life and Character of the Civil Institutions of the United States by Benjamin F. Morris are shown below:
- “…beseeching Almighty God that, if in his justice he chastise us, his mercies may so temper his wrath that we may not be wholly destroyed.” The Methodist Episcopal New York Conference, March 1861, p. 865.
- “…our sins have called for thy righteous judgments”. Episcopalian Churches of Minnesota, April 17, 1861, p. 859.
- “… Believing the institution of Slavery to have been the fruitful source of the great trouble upon us, we cannot but pray and hope that the present war may be overruled by Divine Providence for the ultimate removal of human bondage from our land.” Massachusetts Congregational Association, July. 1861. p. 876.
- “…we acknowledge the Divine hand in our present troubles, and that we discover in them a sign of righteous indignation, on the one hand, at the iniquity which has so cruelly degraded the bondman …” General Conference of the Congregational Churches of Ohio, June, 1861 p. 881.
- “…implore him, in the name of Jesus Christ … to turn away his anger from us…” Old School General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, May, 1861, p. 884.
- “…we recognize in the defeats and disasters of our forces in the beginning of the conflict a deserved visitation of God’s wrath upon us for our complicity in the sin of slavery…” United Presbyterian Assembly, May, 1862, p. 915.
Was this what the Spirit of the Lord was speaking to the Church at that hour?
The above quotations are just a small sampling of the many statements from churches and religious organizations expressing the belief that the Civil War was an expression of God’s displeasure over the institution of slavery in the United States of American.
Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address
Lincoln, in his Second Inaugural address, said that the war looked like divine judgment to him. The next to the last paragraph of this address, filled with Biblical quotations, is all about divine judgment. That paragraph reads as follows:
“The Almighty has his own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses! for it must needs be that offenses come; but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” [Matthew 18:7]. If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through his appointed time, he now wills to remove, and that he gives to both North and South this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to him? 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 bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” [Psalm 19:9]
The scriptural references in brackets were not part of Lincoln’s address but were inserted by this author to identify the scripture that Lincoln quoted. Though he did not dogmatically state so, it is clear that Lincoln felt that the Civil War was God’s wrath on the whole country, North and South, for the national sin of slavery. The whole tenor of the speech conveys that conviction. As noted above, the blood of 620,000 soldiers was spilled in that war. It is by far the bloodiest war America has fought.
Bought with a Price
We Americans of African heritage have been bought with a price two times.4 Jesus spilled his blood to buy us out of the bondage of sin and spiritual bondage. And in the natural, we were bought with a price when the blood of 620,000 was spilled to free us. God saw us. He heard the cries of our ancestors and delivered us. This is holy and sacred stuff! It’s enough to make one tremble!
If God has already punished America for the sin of slavery, does she need to be punished again?
References and Sources
- Civil War, History.Com Editors. https://www.history.com/topics/american-civil-war/american-civil-war-history#section_1
- (Google.com, https://www.google.com/search?q=Number+of+americans+killed+in+w.w.+ii&rlz=1C1CHBF_enUS894US894&oq=Number+of+americans+killed+in+w.w.+ii&aqs=chrome..69i57.19096j0j8&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8
- Quoted in Msgr. Charles Pope, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic as Bible Hymn of the Republic”. Accessed at http://blog.adw.org/?s=battle+hymn+of+the+republic
- I Corinthians 6:20.
Clip art in the Featured Image at beginning of post taken from: https://www.google.com/search?q=civil+war+clipart&tbm=isch&hl=en&chips=q:drawing+public+domain+civil+war+clipart,g_1:drawing:Ibasqd7oyq4%3D,online_chips:public+domain,online_chips:american+civil&rlz=1C1CHBF_enUS894US894&hl=en&ved=2ahUKEwi4v_HT7-PqAhULiFMKHepQDm8Q4lYoCHoECAEQIQ&biw=1903&bih=871#imgrc=UncvGpgsQ-anpM