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Michael Frizzell

Gospel of Disunion by Mitchell Snay

History, American Civil War7 min read

Gospel of Disunion by Mitchell Snay provides an analysis of Southern religion, identifying it as a key factor in Confederate nationalism and eventual secession. Snay is a good writer and researcher who does an excellent job in wading through all of the sources in order to come to the conclusion that religion and secession go hand in hand.

The importance of religion in the antebellum South, as well as the whole of the country, cannot be overstated. Religion played a significant role in virtually everyone’s life, even those who were not religious themselves were affected by Christianity. The prominence of religion in law, politics, and culture transformed the sectional conflict into a moral conflict with nothing less than orthodoxy being at stake.

According to Snay, religion is essential “in order to understand the origins and nature of Southern separatism” (Snay, 3). The work seeks to “Foster a better understanding of the intellectual origins of Southern nationalism, the coming of the Civil War, and the dynamic relationship between religion and politics in American history,” (i).

Proving his case, the author points to three lines of evidence which show the importance of religion in understanding the secessionist movement. First, that religion was central to the culture and society of the pre-war South. Second, that the sectional controversy had a “strongly religious character” (4). The attacks of the North against the South were not merely theological disputes amongst academics, but rather assaults against the moral and religious fiber of Southern society. Finally, “religion played a major role in the formation of Southern national identity” (5). To the Southerner, being Southern was synonymous with being Christian, a very particular brand of Christian at that. Similar to how the early republic was formed by religion, so was the South, especially in opposition to what they viewed as the creeping Northern liberalism and unitarianism.

All of the above are proven mainly by going to the original sources: denominational newspapers, records of church assemblies and the writings of the so-called gentlemen theologians. Renowned theologians and pastors, like R.L. Dabney and Richard Furman, are used as well as lesser known men and church records. In every case, Snay seeks to show how the majority viewed the conflict, not a select few.

Beyond original sources, when seeking analysis, Snay uses such well respected authorities as Elizabeth Genovese-Fox and James McPherson to gain additional insights. The sources used are more than adequate to prove Snay’s thesis, especially when coming from the writings of the time. The reader is not left with a scarcity of evidence, but rather a mountain of sources that overwhelmingly prove the thesis. This is not to say, however, that the author came up with a conclusion and sought evidence to prove it, but that the conclusion is naturally drawn from the evidence.

As the amount of information would suggest, the possibilities for covering religion in the antebellum South are seemingly endless, and while Snay provides a fairly in-depth look, the reader is not overwhelmed in detail or facts. Even though it is a short work, it is by no means shallow; Snay presents what feels like an exhaustive look at the topic.

The subject is approached topically, giving the reader a large picture view of the religious conflict. This is done instead of moving chronologically because Snay’s intent was not to show a time line or to prove one event led from another, rather his intent was to show how varied religious themes led to one event, namely secession.

Snay moves from a broad topic, religion and politics, to a narrower topic, the defense and sanctification of slavery. He moves from what the South, as a general whole, believed about religion and its effect on slavery to how the South used religion, contra the Northern clergymen, to show the inherent godliness in slavery. From there he moves to an even narrower theme: how the politics of slavery led to Southern nationalism and eventual secession from the Union. This topical approach seems appropriate given Snay’s goals in the book. The first goal of the book is to show the importance of religion in the South. While this is foundational to later claims, Snay spends very little time on it, assuming the reader knows it is self-evident. Religion, especially revivalistic evangelicalism “gave order and meaning to the lives of all but a few Southern men and women, black as well as white,” (3). Beyond being the moral foundation for the South, the Bible sanctioned the hierarchical system they had established. This gave the power for men to lead homes, churches, business, states and the nation, all while the women submit to their authority. This perceived interpretation of the Bible also allowed white Southern men to feel no moral qualms about owning and selling African American slaves.

Snay’s second goal is to show the importance of religion in the sectional controversies of the mid-1800’s. Earlier, clergymen basically stayed out of politics, unless an issue touched on a theological or moral issue. This changed in the early 1830s when Northern abolitionists began assaulting the morality of slavery. Now, slavery was in “their realm,” (79). Southern thinking ran “toward a defense of slavery as a positive good” in the face of Northern claims (20). In fact, Southern clergymen claimed, they were the ones who were upholding God’s law and the Northerners were the ones who had turned away from the Bible. “The morality of slavery and the infidelity of abolitionism became the twin pillars of religious proslavery orthodoxy,” (54).

By the beginning of the Civil War, the question of slavery was almost completely religious in nature. Southern clergymen, who had before stayed out of the debates, were now not only condemning abolition, but also urging slaveholders to make their peculiar institution sanctified, much in the way their homes were. Slavery, according to R.L. Dabney, could not be defended if slaveholders did not instruct them in Christianity.

This is one of the better sections of the book. It does not deal with a defense of slavery, but rather how slaveholders were to treat their slaves. There are a lot of contradictions here; how can one claim to be “Christianizing” slaves while siring children with them? How can a slaveholder believe he has not robbed a slave of his essential humanity, but rather enriched that slave’s life? The messy questions are dealt with, but not in the way one would like. Snay does not provide answers, but rather points out the failings of the Southern system. “The efforts to make slavery conform to the moral law of God implicitly suggested that the institution was falling short of its Christian ideals and hence needed to be reformed,” (98). In other words, the slavery Southerners were defending was not the slavery they practiced.

Finally, the goal of the work is to show how religion, or religious defense of slavery, led to a Southern national identity and eventual secession. While it might be counter-intuitive, the many denominational differences in the South were not accentuated during the pre-war years, as they were in the North. In fact, as the divide became larger between the sections, a distinct Southern identity blossomed. This is seen most clearly in the rise of Southern colleges and seminaries, separate from other denominations, but decidedly separated from the North. “[The South’s] sense of inferiority to and dependence upon the North prompted Southern clergymen to support separate sectional institutions,” (106). With the later denominational schisms, many clergymen began to see themselves as Southerners first, Christians second and their particular denominations last. There was little to no thought of being American.

These schisms were, as Snay put it, “Harbingers of Secession” (113). With Lincoln’s election, the “one issue” brought before the country, slavery, would divide it (177). Southern clergymen claimed slavery was an institution ordained by God, central to their lives; if the Northerners, who were clearly being unfaithful, wanted to take that away, then the South must certainly secede. The South would stand for God even if the North would not.

Snay’s intended audience is not academic, although it is not completely general reader either. He writes with clarity, but much of the theological language would confuse one who does not understand the issues involved. While it is not hard to catch on, a reader with no understanding of religion could feel lost at times. Terminology aside, Snay’s writing is clear and succinct, never striving for anything other than readability.

Nowhere does the author seem to show a bias, whether for or against the Southern secession movement. Snay examines the evidence and analyzes it for the reader, but he appears to do so objectively. An example of this objectivity would be in how he treats the Southern case for slavery and the Northern arguments against the institution. It is clear, from their own writings, that the abolitionists presented a very weak case, in biblical terms. They simply did not provide a compelling argument from the Bible as to why slavery was wrong. The Southern clergymen, on the other hand, presented coherent and theologically precise arguments, ones that satisfied their conservative hermeneutical demands. Seen together, even though most readers would agree that slavery is wrong, the Northern arguments are not comparable to the Southern ones. Snay shows both sides of the conflict, relating the arguments, rebuttals and counter-arguments without a hint of bias for either side. He objectively points the reader to what conclusions people at that time drew and nothing more.

The stated goal of the work is to show the reader how and why religion was so important in the antebellum South and why that lead to secession. Snay accomplishes this goal by showing the importance of religion in the South, and the relationship between politics and religion. This political and religious philosophy inevitably created a Southern nationalism that required, in many Southerner’s eyes, secession from the Union. Snay shows, with the words of Southerners themselves, how and why this happened.

This work is worth reading, both in order to understand religion’s importance in the Civil War and to understand how the war is remembered currently. Similar sectional divides, both politically and theologically are present today and require a historical perspective. Compared to other works on the subject, Snay stands out not only because of his meticulous research, but also because of clear, concise writing style.

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