Roots of Dominion Theology in American Politics: The Theological War Thesis of the American Civil War (Part 2)

Submitted byRWMaster onSat, 11/26/2016 - 07:07
Robert Lewis Dabney

Robert Lewis Dabney (1820-1898)

Note: This is Part 2 of an 8-Part Series: See Part 1:Dominion Theology in American Politics: The Radical Right Under Spotlight

The Theological War thesis  is the interpretation of the American Civil War as having been essentially a "Theological war" (the preferred euphemistic term for "Holy War") between orthodox Christian Confederate States and heretical Union States

The Theological War thesis is widely considered as having originated in the theological intellectual circles of the Southern Presbyterian Church of the mid-nineteenth century era of the Civil War. The leading advocates of the Theological War thesis included prominent theologians such as Robert Lewis Dabney (1820-1898), professor at the Union Theological Seminary, Virginia; Benjamin Morgan Palmer(1818-1902), editor of the Southern Presbyterian Review and professor at the ColumbiaTheological Seminary; James Henley Thornwell (1812-1862), President of the South Carolina College and also professor at Columbia Theological Seminary. In the years before and during the American Civil War, Presbyterian theologians were considered the intellectual elite of the Southern Church.

The writings of these men, according to Sebesta and Hague (The US Civil War as a Theological War: Confederate Christian Nationalism and the League of the South), though published by the Southern Presbyterian Church after the Civil War, drew little attention because it did not fit into what became accepted as the "mainstream" Southern post-war "Lost Cause" apologetics. Richard Weaver, Rousas Rushdoony and Greg Singer, however, contributed to reviving interest in the writings of the Southern theologians after the Second World War and, in the 1980s and 1990s, a number of American historians (such as Eugene Genovese) initiated scholarly reappraisal of the text.

The thrust of the Theological or Holy War thesis as originated by Dabney, Palmer and Thornwell, and as already stated, was that the Confederacy was an orthodox Christian nation and the Civil war a Holy War waged by Christian orthodoxy against heretical anti-Christian Northern interests. The body of arguments marshaled in defense of Southern Christian nationalism by the Southern Presbyterian theologians embraced, most importantly, an elaborate theological defense of slavery, opposition to mass schooling (especially African American) and proposals with regard to sustaining an agrarian society based on slave labor.

While several mid-nineteenth century Presbyterian leaders, such as Frederick Ross, gave assent to this interpretation of the Civil War, yet others like Robert Livingston Stanton, professor at the Theological Seminary of the Presbyterian Church, Danville, rejected the position of these theologians. Palmer's pulpit sermon, in which he urged the South to secession in defense of "…the cause of God and religion…to conserve and perpetuate the institution of domestic slavery," was condemned by Stanton as "steeped in sin, guilt and crime."

Dabney would, however, become the staunchest defender of the Theological War thesis, maintaining his position for decades after the war. He continued to argue in lectures and books that the Civil War was Holy War between Christian South and "atheistic" North. He continued to insist on the rights of the Southern States to secession and extolled the late General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson as a model Presbyterian Christian and soldier. He defended slavery against abolitionist arguments in the strongest terms he could muster, claiming that slavery was God-ordained institution for subjecting lower and "depraved" races to superior races. It has been pointed out several times by American historians that for Dabney abolitionism was tantamount to rejecting the authority of the bible which approved of it.

Certain aspects of Dabney's polemics sound uncannily like those of present day conservative Christian right wing of the so-called Bible Belt: he condemned science, especially evolutionary theory; he condemned the philosophy of human rights, women's right (these being the mainstay of the present day American liberal left) and stated his opposition to black public schooling (a problem that American public policy makers would attempt addressing by  "busing" black children in the 1970s). With regard to the Theory of Evolution, Dabney spoke of anti-theological scientific ideas that would result in future generations of Americans growing a contempt for the bible of their forefathers and do irreparable damage to Christian civilization. Dabney argued that allowing blacks social equality with whites would mix the blood of whiteswith what he described as the "vile stream from the fens of Africa."

So hauntingly premonitory of the late twentieth century conflict between the conservative right and the progressive left in American politics were Dabney's mid-nineteenth century polemics that he has been described by a conservative intellectual (Douglas Kelly) as a "prophet who foresaw the life and death struggle that would take place between secular totalitarianism and Christian liberty in America, in the latter part of the twentieth century."

Read Part 3: Origins of Dominion Theology in American Politics: Southern Agrarians and the Christian Reconstructionists (1930s-1960s)

Suggested Reading:

1. Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life (American Reformed Biographies)

2. Sebesta and Hague: The US Civil War as a Theological War: Confederate Christian Nationalism and the League of the South

JohnThomas Didymus is the author of "Confessions of God: The Gospel According to St. JohnThomas Didymus" (Read a Free Three Chapters Excerpt Here)

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