In the summer of 1864 the chaplain of the United States Senate, Byron Sutherland, sat down at his desk to write a forward for a book that a friend sent him weeks earlier. In addition to his duties as senate chaplain Sutherland served as pastor of Washington DC’s First Presbyterian Church in the years before the Civil War. Washington remained a culturally southern city throughout the Nineteenth Century, so Sutherland’s New England birth and abolitionist sympathies and his closeness to the city’s free black community marked him among the city’s largely slavery-sympathizing populace.
The book Sutherland blurbed—in our modern parlance—was a giant history of the United States written by Ohio-born Benjamin F. Morris. It was not just any history, either. Morris’ massive book retold the story of the United States and its history as a history of an explicitly Christian government and people. Morris, also a Presbyterian minister, used his history to espouse the Evangelical social and religious commitments that reformist-minded northerners like himself saw as essential American ideals.
Morris, like many northern Evangelicals, hated slavery and saw abolition as inevitable in what he believed was a Christian country. He saw the American Revolution as a Christian enterprise that inevitably would lead to the emancipation of bound humans across the American republic. The Founders, wrote Morris, were “great and good men, inspired with the sentiments of religion and liberty” who felt slavery’s incompatibility “with the Christian life and character of the civil institutions which they founded, and on all suitable occasions declared it to be their first and fervent desire and purpose to have it removed and destroyed.”
Morris’ assertion was not new. Abolitionist northern Calvinists—Congregationalists in particular and also some northern Presbyterians saw the American Union as a new Israel that had to stay faithful to God and maintain the Christian religion in order to maintain the republic. Theodore Frelinghuysen, a Dutch Reformed politician from New Jersey who served as a leader of the American Sunday School Union and the emancipationist American Colonization Society, made a name for himself as a Christian statesman and was picked by the Whigs to be Henry Clay’s running mate in 1844. He believed that if “the faith by which the Puritan fathers were animated” ceased to inspire their descendants, “then will the golden bowl of our institutions be broken at the fountain and hope itself take leave of a reprobate land.”
Northern Evangelicals saw slavery in particular as a grievous sin that God would eventually demand the American republic to account for. For many northerners in fact, Christian nationalism served as the first cause for the region’s nascent abolitionism during the Early Republic. La Roy Sunderland, a northern Methodist, warned that the United States was the only Christian nation where slavery was permitted to exist. Frelinghuysen, Morris, and Sunderland were not outliers. Evangelical Protestants in many ways instigated the abolitionist crusade in the North, and they did so, as John R. McKivigan noted in his The War Against Proslavery Religion (1984) by specifically appealing to church members to make political choices by electing Whigs to congress. Northern Evangelicals, especially those involved in social reforms or what we might call the social justices causes of the mid-Nineteenth Century, undeniably appealed to Christian nationalism to justify their movements. Grant Brodrecht states this explicitly in his Our Country: Northern Evangelicals and the Union During the Civil War Era (2018). Northern Evangelical Protestants, wrote Brodrecht, subsumed issues associated with African Americans under their larger vision for the Union’s persistence and continued flourishing as a Christian nation.”
The preservation of the United States as a Christian nation became an acutely important cause when the Civil War began in 1861. Northern Protestants saw the United States’ war effort against the Confederacy as a Christian nationalist enterprise to put down a faux-Christian oligarchy. Morris argued that it was the Christian element in American political and social life that “greatly aided in achieving the liberties of the republic and in forming our constitutions of government” and that when American liberties were threatened by the Confederacy “with subversion and destruction,” the Christian element in American politics “again came forth with fresh and earnest life and energy to shield and save the institutions of the nation.”
Many scholars today suppose that southern slaveholding Protestantism represents the roots of white Evangelical Christian nationalism, but in fact Northern abolitionists most vocally claimed that mantle, while southerners like James Henley Thornwell and Robert L. Dabney vocally eschewed the idea of Christian nationalism in favor of the Spiritualty of the Church doctrine that largely separated religion from political causes. Benjamin Morris declared that the Confederacy “aimed not only to exterminate the life of a great Christian nation,” but that it was “an attack on the Christian religion and the institutions of a Christian civilization which had grown out of it and were cherished and sustained by it.” The United States, therefore, acted in harmony…with the traditional history and genius of the Christian religion” when it arrayed “its whole force against the rebellion” and rallied in Christianity’s “spirit and principles, to defend and support the General Government.”
Byron Sunderland supported the northern war effort and after the Civil War ended, he supported the cause of civil rights and education for freemen and formerly enslaved African Americans. Sunderland’s commitment to the Christian nationalist ideas of Benjamin F. Morris sustained his commitments to social reforms and black rights in the era. Sunderland eventually served as president of Howard University, and created controversy when he invited Frederick Douglass to preach from his pulpit in 1866. Abolitionism and rights for African Americans were part and parcel of White Evangelical Christian nationalism in the Nineteenth Century North. In many ways, Christian nationalism was a first cause of abolitionism and women’s rights movements.
There are many reasons to question the prudence of Christian nationalism’s ties with the Evangelical legacy of reform movements—including abolitionism—in the Nineteenth Century. Northern abolitionists fit the definition of white Evangelical Christian nationalists far better than southern Protestants of the era, but influential segments of northern Evangelical Christian nationalism also led to major heterodoxies and even heresies by the turn of the Twentieth Century. Still, in an era when “Christian nationalism” and “white Evangelical” are increasingly nothing more than imprecise and vaporous taxonomies perpetuated by commentators and scholars for the purpose of out-grouping conservative Christians, it’s important to not concede certain rhetorical anathemas. Conceding terms to the usage of contemporary sociologists would blur and obscure historical motivations for the sake of what is actually contemporary political partisanship disguised as scholarship.
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Miles Smith is a lecturer in history at Hillsdale College. He specializes in intellectual and religious life in the Nineteenth Century United States and the Atlantic World.