In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Bible and the American Civil War

  • Introduction
  • Historiography
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Sources
  • Literature and Literary Studies
  • The Physical Bible as Document
  • Biblical Culture, Abolitionism, and Proslavery Thought
  • Soldiers and Chaplains in the Armies
  • The Bible, Lincoln, and Northern Providentialism
  • Religion and the Bible in the South
  • Biographies
  • African Americans, the Bible, and the Civil War
  • Southern Religion, the Civil War, and the Lost Cause
  • Religion in the Postwar and Reconstruction Era
  • Religion, the Bible, and the West

Biblical Studies The Bible and the American Civil War
Paul Harvey
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0312


The American Civil War is sometimes considered one of the most religious wars in modern history. The contending sides each drew from evangelical ideas of understanding the world and their cause; each experienced great revivals in their respective armies; each claimed the Bible for its own side. Abraham Lincoln perfectly captured these ironies in his Second Inaugural Address in March 1865. Just a little over a month before his assassination, he reflected on how each side had “looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.” Lincoln’s perception of the limits of human knowledge of divine purposes was rare. More commonly (though not universally), Americans expressed righteous certainty about how biblical passages applied to contemporary events. These might include the results of the latest battle, the “message” God might be sending in the outcome of this or that event, or the meaning of vast social transformations such as emancipation. Clergy, laypeople, and soldiers on both sides freely divined God’s purposes in history and suggested scriptures to back up their prognostications. On the key issue of slavery and the coming of emancipation, African Americans found in the Bible the clearest connection to the apocalyptic events they experienced. Verses about Ethiopia stretching out its arms to God came to have a special meaning in an age when the war produced the one thing that most whites had little intention of fighting over when the war came: the freeing of nearly four million slaves. In the spirituals, African American slaves had developed a profound theology of how contemporary lives and events fit into biblical passages and stories. The Bible served one other, more grim, function as well—to bolster two armies armed with increasingly lethal weaponry. As men learned to place their own actions within a biblical cosmological framework, they also came to understand how crucial their role was in realizing a narrative foretold or sanctioned in the biblical passages. Chaplains carried a similar message to the men in both armies. Soldiers on both sides, however, most often turned to the Bible for personal encouragement rather than national ideology, as they memorized verses, quoted Scripture in letters, and remembered Bible stories. Ultimately, the battle for the Bible during the slavery controversy and over the course of the Civil War helped to displace a world in which the Bible itself was the primary mode of interpreting contemporary events.


Work over the last generation, including Ayers 2004, Boles 1988, Howard 1990, Noll 2006, and Noll 2022, has explored with subtlety and sensitivity the way Americans thought the Bible supported their side and deprecated the other, even while Abraham Lincoln warned against any such easy providentialism. The general history of the American Bible Society provided in Fea 2016 documents how and why scriptures became universally available, even to deprived Confederate soldiers, while the essays collected in Goff, et al. 2017 explore the multitude of ways the Bible entered and shaped American life. More recently, Wright and Dresser 2013 has done the same for apocalyptic thought drawn both from scriptures and from popular culture. Meanwhile, Stout and Wilson 1998 remains a crucial starting point into the general topic of religion and the Civil War, and Manning 2020 provides an expert historiographical survey of the subject in the Journal of the Civil War Era.

  • Ayers, Edward. In the Presence of Mine Enemies: The Civil War in the Heart of America, 1859–1863. New York: Norton, 2004.

    Studies of two counties, in Virginia and Pennsylvania, during the war, with an accompanying website giving readers access to the entire body of primary sources forming the research for this book.

  • Boles, John, ed. Masters and Slaves in the House of the Lord: Race and Religion in the American South, 1740–1870. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1988.

    Important earlier collection of scholarly essays on the subject.

  • Fea, John. The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190253066.001.0001

    Definitive history of the society most responsible for publishing and distributing tens of millions of Bibles in the United States and around the world since its founding in the early nineteenth century.

  • Goff, Phillip, Arthur E. Farnsley II, and Peter J. Thuesen, eds. The Bible in American Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

    Contemporary essay collection including many from the nineteenth century and Civil War era examining various uses, productions, and interpretations of the Bible.

  • Howard, Victor B. Religion and the Radical Republican Movement, 1860–1870. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990.

    Study of how Protestant evangelicalism influenced the Republicans who pushed for emancipation and the constitutional amendments after the war.

  • Manning, Chandra. “Faith and Works: A Historiographical Review of Religion in the Civil War Era.” Journal of the Civil War Era 10 (September 2020): 373–396.

    DOI: 10.1353/cwe.2020.0050

    Outstanding and up-to-date brief survey of work on religion and the Civil War, arguing for its increasing importance in the historiography.

  • Noll, Mark. The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

    Definition of “crisis” in terms of contrasting views of Providence and the interpretation of Scripture, including what foreign Protestants and Catholics thought of American religious controversies.

  • Noll, Mark. America’s Book: The Rise and Decline of a Bible Civilization, 1794–1911. New York: Oxford University Press, 2022.

    DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780197623466.001.0001

    Includes full bibliographical notes on the recent surge of excellent histories on religion in the Civil War.

  • Stout, Harry, and Charles Reagan Wilson, eds. Religion and the American Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

    Collection of essays from the 1990s that brought a renewed focus on religion to studies of the Civil War.

  • Wright, Ben, and Zachary W. Dresser, eds. Apocalypse and the Millennium in the American Civil War Era. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2013.

    Collection of essays on the biblical culture of apocalypticism during the Civil War.

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