"Divine Providence, North and South" : The Spring 2011 GIFT Lecture

Friday, April 8, 2011

After wretched winter weather caused a month-long delay, Dr. Scott Reisinger gave the GIFT (Growing In Faith Together) Lecture for Spring 2011 on March 27 at St. Andrew's Church Hall in Worcester. "Divine Providence, North and South: Religion and the American Civil War" proved to the 60 members of the audience that Scott, the deacon at St. Peter's - St. Andrew's Church in Worcester, as well as headmaster of The Bancroft School, is also an accomplished historian.

Scott's knowledge of the Civil War era, with its complicated religious history, was very much on display as he took us from Lincoln's First Inaugural (March 1861) through his Second (March 1865), given about a month before his assassination. Thus, we saw how Lincoln raised the issue of faith in 1861 when he remarked that both sides, North and South, read the same Bible, and pray to the same God. . .and each invokes His aid against the other. Scott then asked the question: "But did they? Did they really pray to the same God? Read the same Bible?" His talk was an attempt to offer some answers to these tough questions.

The belief systems of white Southern and Northern Protestants of the time, especially with respect to their understanding of slavery or rather, their understanding of God's understanding of slavery, affected the way that they lived. Celebrated Southern preachers, for example, believed that God had ordained whites to be Christian masters. According to Southern doctrine, preached Sunday after Sunday to mixed congregations of whites and blacks (the slaves up above in the back gallery), Christian Masters protected their child-like black slaves from responsibility and care. (Scott pointed out, however, that this protection lasted only as long as the Master's plantation was showing a profit; if he had to, the Christian Master rarely scrupled from selling off slaves and breaking up families as he did so.) Meanwhile, black Christians had their own understanding of their Christian faith, in effect, a theology of liberation. This theology led thousands of men, women, and children to risk everything to make their way to the Union lines and freedom. It also led 186,000 African American men to serve in the Union Army, putting their lives on the line for their newly won freedom.

Ironically, the pre-war South had seen blacks and whites worshiping together. After the war, these churches disappeared, replaced by segregated congregations --creating in the process what Martin Luther King, Jr. called the most segregated hour in America: 11:00 on Sunday morning. In addition, American churches that had split over slavery remained split, a situation that continues to this day, with, for example, the Southern Baptists and the American Baptists having two separate conferences.

At the same time, Scott pointed out, ways to reunite the country after the bloodiest war in its history were deeply necessary. One way was through an embrace of Civil Religion. Thus, in the generations after the war, the United States developed its own rituals, from the Inaugurations to the Pledge of Allegiance to the State of the Union address. The President takes on the role of a kind of high priest of this religion, -- most notably, perhaps, when he must act as Chief Mourner: think of President Reagan after the Challenger disaster or President Obama after the recent shootings in Tucson. Our Civil Religion has its shrines: the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial, Vietnam Memorial, and so forth. It has its myths: whether about Washington's chopping down the cherry tree or Lincoln's studying by firelight and countless others. All of these things and many more provide the fabric of the Civil Religion of the United States, helping to unite Americans of every background and point of view. At least up until now.

Scott ended by asking us to think about two key challenges:

First, until recently America has been, in the words of one historian, Protestant, Catholic, Jew. Where do Muslims fit in? Second, how about American Exceptionalism? Where does that fit in an increasingly globablized world?

People went home with a lot to think about. Everyone agreed that Scott's GIFT was well worth the wait!

The Fall 2011 GIFT lineup will be published later this year.

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GIFT (Growing In Faith Together) is a series of short lectures for adults on spiritual topics sponsored by the Religious of the Assumption and St. Peters-St. Andrews Church, under the auspices of The Assumption Center. The Assumption Center is a project of the U.S. Province of the Religious of the Assumption, undertaken as a way to mark and celebrate the canonization of our foundress, Marie Eugenie Milleret, in June 2007. It offers an educational outreach to the neighborhood through ESL classes, tutoring sessions, programs for teens and adults and also serves as the headquarters of AMA, the Associate Missionaries of the Assumption, our lay volunteer organization.

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Some previous GIFT Lectures: