The Civil War and Sacred Ground: Moral Reflections on War

WhenMar 16, 2012 - Mar 17, 2012 from 7:00 pm - 4:00 pm CT
Location The Center for Applied Christian Ethics at Wheaton
501 College Ave.
Wheaton, IL 60187-5593
Event Details

Video and audio recordings of the conference lectures are available here.

In the years leading up to the American Civil War, theologians, preachers and devout church goers searched the Bible to discern God’s position on slavery. Should have been obvious, right? Not according to Notre Dame professor Mark A. Noll, whose research shows that “the remedy that finally solved the question of how to interpret the Bible was recourse to arms.” Raven partnered with the Center for Applied Christian Ethics at Wheaton College on an event exploring questions of Biblical interpretation, then and now. Using a format combining lectures, dramatic readings, Q&A, and small group discussion, the conference engaged people interested in Civil War history and the use of the Bible to answer contemporary social and political questions.

Reflections on a Conference

From Jim Papandrea, March 21, 2012

Dr. Jim Papandrea is a teacher, author, speaker, and musician, and currently the Assistant Professor of Church History at Garrett-Evangelical Seminary at Northwestern University in Evanston and working as a freelance consultant in the area of adult formation. His works include Spiritual Blueprint: How We Live, Work, Love, Play, and Pray (2010), The Earliest Christologies: Trinitarian Orthodoxy Before Nicaea, Reading the Early Church Fathers, and Novatian of Rome: Theologian and Anti-Pope. His reflections were posted in his blog, Spiritual Blueprint: The Civil War: Then and Now.

From Suzanne Ross, March 19, 2012

Our Civil War and Sacred Ground conference at Wheaton College’s Center for Applied Christian Ethics is over, but the moral reflection it prompted in me and the fifty participants will be continuing for some time. My ideas about the causes of the Civil War, even about who the good guys and bad guys were, have been shaken to their core. I will be offering my reflections in more detail in the coming weeks, especially as the videos of the keynote addresses become available. For now, I’d like to offer the comments I made on Saturday morning as the conference was already underway and my moral certainty was wavering. Here’s what I said in response to Tracy McKenzie’s presentation the night before:

Welcome back to CACE and to the Saturday session of Civil War and Sacred Ground: Moral Reflections on War. I’m Suzanne Ross of the Raven Foundation, your co-host for the event with Vince Bacote of CACE. Before we get started, let’s take a look at today’s schedule. You will see that there are two small group discussion sessions, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. These sessions are designed to engage you in reflection on the presentations. Tracy McKenzie set the context very well last night for reflecting on history responsibly. His hope was that we focus less on what he called moral judgment and focus instead on moral reflection, which he described as deeply introspective and involving a willingness to make ourselves vulnerable.

I’d like to add two key insights about violent conflict that guide our commentary at Raven Foundation that I hope will be helpful in making that move toward moral reflection that Tracy recommended.

First: Parties to any conflict always insist on telling a narrative of how completely different they are from their adversary, which really comes down to this: I’m right, you’re wrong; I’m good, you’re wicked. But the truth is that we don’t come into conflict because we are different, we come into conflict because we share the same desires. Tracy said something extraordinary last night, that soldiers on both sides of the conflict were fighting for the same thing – liberty, to preserve the legacy of the Revolutionary War, and strong feelings of patriotism. Shared desires can unite us by “the mystic chords” of friendship, but if we insist on sole possession, on being victorious over the other, shared desires can divide and destroy. The irony, to add to Tracy’s list of ironies, is that the thing that causes conflict contains the seed of its cure.  So the claim of difference is what we call Myth because it falsely blames the conflict on differences when it’s really cause by what we have in common.

Second: to tell the truth about a conflict, you have to include the perspective of the victims, the ones whose story is not part of the good guy/ bad guy storyline but would reveal it for the lie it is. In other words, you have to find the dead bodies and let them speak. That’s where the Raven comes in – the Raven is a scavenger bird that has a way of finding the decaying carcass and cawing rather annoyingly about it. When we become convinced of our own goodness, we start to believe in the goodness of our violence as well, something our victims might beg to differ with, if we’d only pay attention to their perspective. So the two points about conflict are: Differences are a false narrative, a myth about the conflict, and the victims hold the key to the truth.

As I said last night, we normally don’t do history, but when I read Mark Noll’s book, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, I couldn’t help but think he was offering the Raven view on the Civil War. He wasn’t buying all the shouting about differences and he wasn’t turning away from the devastation of the war, but was allowing it to hover in the background as a painful, haunting question: How could a good, Christian nation have needed to shed so much blood to solve a moral and theological problem? I’m sure you’ve already noticed that at this conference you will not hear stories of bad guys with whom we have nothing in common.

Our distinguished presenters are bringing us stories about good, God-fearing, Bible believing Christians just like you and me who held racist beliefs and sanctified bloodshed without ever doubting our own goodness. I encourage all of us to hold on to our similarities with these historical figures, to not retreat into finding some difference that will allow us to condemn them for their failures while leaving our sense of goodness enhanced by comparison, what Tracy called moral judgment. Remembering the cawing of the Raven can help us resist the temptation to the easy comfort offered by myths of difference, enabling that journey into moral reflection during our small group discussions so that not only learning but personal transformation can take place.


Mark Noll was a member of the Wheaton College history department for twenty-seven years before becoming the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.  His books include The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (University of North Carolina Press, 2006) and America’s God:  From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (Oxford University Press, 2002).  With Luke Harlow he edited Religion and American Politics:  From the Colonial Period to the Present (Oxford University Press, 2007).  His articles on the religion of Abraham Lincoln have appeared in the Journal of Presbyterian History and the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association.  He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Patton Dodd of Patheos recently conducted this interview of Mark Noll.

Photo used by permission of William Koechling


Tracy McKenzie taught for twenty-two years at the University of Washington, where he held the Donald Logan Chair in American History, was a fellow in the UW Teaching Academy, and a recipient of the university’s Distinguished Teaching Award.  In 2010 he joined the faculty of Wheaton College, where he serves as professor and chair of the Department of History.  A specialist in the history of the American Civil War, he is the author, most recently, of Lincolnites and Rebels: A Divided Town in the American Civil War,the 2007 recipient of the Fletcher Pratt Literary Award for best non-fiction work on the Civil War.

Luke Harlow (Ph.D., Rice University) is Assistant Professor of History at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. He is co-editor, with Mark Noll, of Religion and American Politics: From the Colonial Period to the Present (Oxford University Press, 2007). He has published scholarly articles on slavery, emancipation, and the Civil War era in Slavery and AbolitionOhio Valley History, and the Register of the Kentucky Historical Society (forthcoming), and he serves as co-editor of the Journal of Southern Religion. He is completing a book manuscript, Religion, Race, and the Making of Confederate Kentucky, 1830–1880, under contract with Cambridge University Press.

Laura Rominger Porter is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Notre Dame. Her research examines links between evangelical church discipline, civil jurisprudence, and the politics of moral regulation in the nineteenth-century upper South, and how these interconnections related to theological debates over church jurisdiction and prerogative in the slaveholding states. Her dissertation, Church, State, and Moral Regulation in the Upper South, 1830-1880, demonstrates how evangelical churches and civil courts at first cooperated, and later diverged, on matters of moral regulation in the nineteenth-century upper South, and connects this differentiation of church and state functions to the subsequent political mobilization of white southern evangelicals for moral legislation.


Friday, March 16, 2012

“And the War Came”: Moral Reflection and the Causes of the Conflict, Prof. Tracy McKenzie

The evening will include a dramatic reading of the letter from Major Sullivan Ballou of the 2nd Rhode Island Vols, to his wife written one week before the first major battle of the Civil War, the First Battle of Bull Run, in which he was mortally wounded.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Morning Session

“Both Pray to the Same God”, a look at Divine Providence, Prof. Mark Noll

The morning session includes dramatic readings of two Civil War-era sermons:

Welcome to the ransomed, or, Duties of the colored inhabitants of the District of Columbia by Daniel A. Payne

God’s Providence in War by Rev. J.W. Tucker

The Civil War in Four Minutes: Video courtesy of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum

Afternoon Session

Panel presentation

Religion, Race, and the Significance of Civil War-Era Kentucky, Luke Harlow

The Problem of ‘Sin’ in the Civil War-Era Upper South, Laura Porter


Andrei Verzea


You may also like