The State of the Country and the Church
The State of the Country and the Church
Abstract and Keywords
Chapter forty-nine examines Hodge’s early engagement in the events surround the beginning of the Civil War. Hodge was strongly pro-Union, and wrote early about the need to keep the Union intact. In this effort, he wrote one of his most famous and widely read Repertory articles: “The State of the Country.” Once it became clear that Lincoln’s election would lead to succession, Hodge attempted to keep Southern and Northern Old School Presbyterians united. This effort also failed as James Thornwell and Benjamin Morgan Palmer led Southern Old School Presbyterians to form their own denomination. Hodge had little sympathy for the South, who he saw unlawfully seceding as it turned its back on the Constitution, but he worked hard to attempt to avoid the breakup of the Union.
Keywords: Charles Hodge, Constitution, James Thornwell, Missouri Compromise, Henry Boardman, Hugh Hodge, The State of the Country, Kansas-Nebraska Act, slavery, Fugitive Slave Law, Natural Law, Benjamin Morgan Palmer, Dred Scott Case, Gardner Spring
In November 1860, the same month as the country’s presidential election, Hodge decided to add his voice to the political cacophony that was engulfing the nation by writing one of his most famous articles: “The State of the Country.” He hoped to offer the general public a level-headed and biblically based case against secession. Hodge believed that both the North and the South were being driven by passions which, if left unchecked, would lead the country down a path of blood-soaked destruction. He felt the topic to be so important and urgent that he contemplated publishing it in advance of the January volume of the Repertory, so that it might appear before “the union may be dissolved.”1
In the end, Hodge could not finish the article before January. While visiting Hugh in Philadelphia, Hodge read aloud a draft of the essay to his brother, whose eyesight had begun to fail in 1858. (In just a few years, Hugh would be forced to give up his medical practice due to blindness.)2 Hugh made a number of suggestions that took Hodge time to incorporate into the essay’s final version.3 Hodge made the changes and presented the essay as the lead article in the 1861 Repertory.
Even before the essay appeared, however, controversy swirled around it. Henry Boardman, Hodge’s close friend and partner in getting the Repertory published each quarter, was so disturbed by the piece that he asked the printer to halt work on the volume until he could implore Hodge to either withdraw the essay or modify its contents. Boardman told Hodge that he had composed a dangerous “fire-brand” that would do “a world of evil.”4 He believed that in Hodge’s attempt to strike a middle ground, the article would please neither Northern nor Southern Presbyterians whose differing regional views were quickly hardening in the wake of Lincoln’s election. Hodge refused to make any further changes to his essay, believing the piece to be a (p.312) model of moderate reasoning. In Hodge’s mind, if anyone was acting like a fire-brand it was Boardman himself whose sermons did much more to fan the flames of regional animosities than anything he had written in “The State of the Country.”5
Hodge opened his article declaring that religion was essential to governing the country. He proclaimed that “there are periods in the history of every nation when its destiny for ages may be determined by the events of an hour…. On such occasions the distinction between secular and religious” voices are obliterated.6 Hodge saw it as the “privilege and duty of all who have access in any way to the public ear, to endeavor to allay unholy feeling, and to bring truth to bear on the minds of their fellow-citizens.”7 In the nearly forty pages that followed, Hodge did all in his power to stop the country’s headlong flight toward disunion. He was not only worried about the state of the Union, but he saw its fragmentation as a blow to the global cause of Christ.8 The United States was a Christian beacon to the world. Its implosion would only mean that its redemptive light to the nations would be dimmed, possibly even extinguished.
In writing such an overtly political piece for the Repertory, Hodge showed just how little patience he had with fellow Presbyterians who believed that the church should play no role in political discussions. James Thornwell was one such Presbyterian who stood as a strong advocate for separating the realms of politics and religion.9 Thornwell lived to see only a few months of the Civil War, as he died of consumption and overwork in 1862, but in his final years he spearheaded a Presbyterian entrenchment against allowing the church to mingle too closely with political matters. He argued that “to unsecularize the Church should be the great aim of all who are anxious that the ways of Zion should flourish.”10 He viewed Christ’s church on earth as primarily a “spiritual body” whose principle aim was “the gathering and perfecting of saints, to the end of the world.”11
Thornwell’s separation of religion and politics became particularly important when it came to the issue of slavery. Like Hodge, Thornwell firmly believed that there was not a single passage of scripture that condemned the practice of slavery outright. Thornwell differed from Hodge, however, when he argued that slavery was “purely a civil relation, with which the Church, as such, has no right to interfere.”12 Hodge was anything but a radical reformer, but he severely disliked Thornwell’s position because it too tightly circumscribed the church’s ability to stand against any social evil or take any kind of political stand. Thornwell’s thinking proved immensely influential, particularly in the South. His constant stress on the church’s spiritual nature provided the theological framework for Southern Presbyterians to absent themselves from involvement in political and social issues before, during, and after the Civil War.13
Early in “The State of the Country” Hodge admitted that the South had “some just grounds of complaint, and that the existing animosity towards the North is neither unnatural nor unaccountable.”14 He largely blamed the divisive rhetoric and inflammatory (p.313) actions of Garrisonian abolitionists for these problems, but he also made it clear that it was terribly misleading to judge the North by looking only at this “small band of fanatics.”15 While Hodge was disturbed by abolitionists’ anarchic tendencies, he was equally aware of just how mighty a monarch old King Cotton was in the South. Whereas the total American export of cotton at the end of the eighteenth century had been roughly two hundred thousand pounds a year, the invention of the cotton gin and the growing use of slave labor in the South had moved this annual figure to an astounding 2.3 billion pounds. Three-quarters of the world’s cotton was produced in the United States, and almost all of it was grown in the South. Cotton stood as the country’s major export, often equaling—sometimes doubling—the value of all other American exports combined.16 The great engine of the Cotton Kingdom was slavery, and Hodge knew it. He struck at the heart of the South when he used “The State of the Country” to argue that the South’s main motive for secession was its desire “to reopen the African slave trade.”17
Unlike Garrison’s abolitionists, Hodge wished to position himself as a reasonable man. He did not push the South to abandon slavery altogether. Instead, he used two lines of reasoning to argue against national division. First, he advocated, along with Lincoln, that the best solution to the country’s current turmoil could be found in reinstating the territorial agreements of the Missouri Compromise that had been thoughtlessly thrown aside in the Kansas-Nebraska Act.18 Slavery could exist in states south of the parallel 36°30’ and in the state of Missouri. Yet in the weeks after Lincoln’s election, it became painfully clear that the time of the forty-year-old Missouri Compromise had passed.19 Not only did the South have no interest in limiting slavery within certain defined geographical boundaries, but it now wished to argue that the Constitution had always intended that slavery should be permissible in every state.20 Hodge later commented that the cause of the War had been built upon the Northern sentiment that “you may hold slaves, if you please, but you shall not make slaveholders of us.”21
Second, Hodge decried the Southern claim that the federal government had never adequately supported the Fugitive Slave Law. Hodge believed that the federal government had done all in its power to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law.22 He went so far as to add his own personal “condemnation of all resistance to the restoration of fugitive slaves” because it was the law of the land to do so.23 If one could not obey the law, one had to accept the penalty for any noncompliance.24 That was the way Christians should respond to the governing authorities that God had, in his provident wisdom, placed over them. In Hodge’s mind, that the South was thinking of secession because it disagreed with governmental policy. Its unwillingness to work through the proper channels to address their complaints was a complete “breach of faith.”25
Upon its release, Hodge’s “State of the Country” instantly created a sensation. American Christians from a multitude of denominational backgrounds eagerly read (p.314) what one of the nation’s most prominent Presbyterians had to say about the state of their nation. Hodge himself commented that “no article every printed” in the Repertory “from the pen of its editor, ever excited greater attention” as it was reprinted at length in several prominent religious papers of the day and was circulated in the thousands as a stand-alone pamphlet.26 In the end, however, it did nothing to accomplish Hodge’s heartfelt goal of preserving the Union. The essay pleased no one. It outraged Northerners who felt that Hodge was too conciliatory toward treasonous states. Southerners saw the article as just one more example of how little the North appreciated the South’s rights as sovereign states.
Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, it was James Thornwell, a man who had worked so hard to draw firm distinctions between religious and political activity, who became a major religious voice in the politics of the South’s secession movement.27 Thornwell wasted no time in publishing a forceful rebuttal to Hodge in the form of his own “State of the Country” essay, which he published in the winter volume of The Southern Presbyterian Review.28 Thornwell offered the country the South’s principal rationale for secession when he declared that “[t]he universal sentiment of all that the Constitution of the United States has been virtually repealed” with the election of Lincoln.29 Thornwell argued that the Constitution by its very nature was supportive of slavery throughout the United States and that the federal government had systematically moved away from acknowledging and enforcing this fact. Thornwell argued that Southern secession had nothing to do with reopening the slave trade and everything to do with the rights of states to stand as sovereign entities when their government so clearly worked against their interests.
If Thornwell’s essay did not make it crystal clear to Hodge that the dissolution of the Union was inevitable, the political events during the winter and spring of 1861 did. By June, eleven southern states had joined together to form the Confederate States of America. As state after Southern state slipped into the Confederacy, Hodge changed his tack from trying to save the Union to attempting to save the unity of the American Presbyterian Church.
American Old School Presbyterians had a proud history of unity in the years leading up to the Civil War. While the issue of slavery had fractured the Methodists along regional lines in 1844 and had done the same to the Baptists in 1845, the Old School Presbyterians had remained a coherent national entity since their theological split with the New School brethren in 1837. Hodge considered the value of this unity as being beyond measure. It testified to the power of right theology and the power of the bond of love shared by all those in Christ.
Hodge reponded to Thornwell’s “State of the Country” article in the very next issue of the Repertory in an essay entitled “The Church and the Country.” This piece was also widely distributed in pamphlet form and argued for maintaining the truly (p.315) precious unity shared by both Southern and Northern Old School Presbyterians. To read the essay now, one marvels at just how little Hodge appreciated the deep resentments that had been long festering in the South and its Presbyterian churches. Hodge’s basic argument was simple: “Neither state nor federal authorities have any control over the courts of the church…. We remain substantially one people despite of the disruption of the Union.”30 Hodge believed that all “antecedent reasons for our ecclesiastical union remain in full force,” and a divided Presbyterian Church would “be a great calamity to the country and the world.”31 He held out to his fellow Presbyterians an even brighter hope, however, for he firmly believed that a single, unified Presbyterian Church could provide the nation with a profound model of unity and thus play a pivotal role in restoring “our political union.”32
Hodge knew that if he was to convince Southern Presbyterians of the need for unity, he had to address directly Thornwell’s “State of the Country” essay. Thornwell’s immense stature among Southern Presbyterians could not be ignored, and no hope of Presbyterian unity remained if Thornwell’s justifications for Southern secession were left unanswered. Thornwell’s reasons for secession found some of their deepest roots in his conviction that slavery was based in natural law. Thornwell wrote that “if there be any property that can be called natural, in the sense that it spontaneously springs in the history of the species, it is the property of slaves.”33 Building upon this natural-law premise, Thornwell argued that the Constitution itself acknowledged it as “THE UNIVERSAL CUSTOM OF MANKIND,” and to call it only a local or municipal law was “of ‘all absurdities the motliest.’”34 Because of slavery’s universal nature, it had the right to go into “every territory from which it is not excluded by positive statute.”35 The natural state was one that allowed slavery to be practiced everywhere, a fact Thornwell believed was attested to throughout all history. Congress had no right to place Northern customs of non-slaveholding “upon the common soil of the Union.”36 Thornwell joined his countrymen in believing that the federal government was following an inevitable trajectory of Southern strangulation when it came to the national practice of slavery, making it obvious “that nothing more nor less is at stake in this controversy than the very life of the South.”37
Although Hodge saw no biblical mandate against slavery, he had no interest in seeing the institution spread. His position had long been one of gradual emancipation, due to his believing that slavery was nothing more than a transitional institution in the United States that could be used as a means of uplifting the mental and moral qualities of African Americans so that they might be equipped to take their place in a more highly civilized Western society. Once slavery had done its work, African Americans and whites could more easily stand on an equal footing.
In looking at Thornwell and other aggressive pro-slavery Southern ministers, Hodge saw a distinctly troubling move toward slavery becoming “a good and desirable (p.316) institution, which should be cherished, perpetuated, and extended.”38 Such a view found one of its most vocal proponents in Thornwell’s protégé, Benjamin Morgan Palmer, a Presbyterian pastor so distinguished for his oratorical gifts that the General Assembly had offered him the chair of Pastoral Theology and Sacred Rhetoric at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1860.39 Palmer turned down the position only to become Thornwell’s successor at Columbia Seminary a few years later.
Palmer became a hero throughout the South when, in late November 1860, he preached what quickly became known as his “Thanksgiving Sermon,” an eloquent diatribe that elaborated upon Thornwell’s natural-law argument for slavery by boldly proclaiming that the “providential trust” of the Southern people was “to conserve and to perpetuate the institution of domestic slavery as now existing.”40 Palmer’s “Thanksgiving Sermon” was immediately issued in pamphlet form, and soon, over thirty thousand copies were in circulation throughout the South. Newspapers also reprinted the sermon in its entirety, and the governor of Mississippi asked Palmer to visit his state, declaring that he was worth more than a thousand troops.41
Hodge found Palmer’s sermon repugnant. He could not fathom why God might have ordained the South to “preserve and transmit our system of domestic servitude” in perpetuity.42 It was a view totally antithetical to the teachings of scripture, and therefore he believed the Presbyterian Church could never sanction it. In the coming months, Hodge became such an implacable and vocal foe of Palmer’s stance that he offhandedly commented to his brother that it “was a great mistake that the Southern Christians had not prayed for my death.”43 While alive, he would do all in his power to fight against any move to make slavery in the United States a permanent institution.
Hodge sought to dismantle Palmer’s providential pro-slavery argument by directly attacking Thornwell’s natural-law argument for slavery. Hodge made this attack by showing how the Constitution had never considered slavery as a manifestation of natural law. Citing a view accepted even by Alexander H. Stephens, the future vice president of the Confederacy, Hodge showed that the Founding Fathers had viewed slavery “in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically.”44 The Founders had hoped that the institution of slavery “would be evanescent and pass away.”45 In this manner, and against the view purported by Thornwell and popularized by Palmer, slavery had no constitutional mandate. Slavery was a local issue, governed by local laws. There was nothing universal or natural about it.
Because Hodge was convinced that the Founders had never favored the institution of slavery when writing the Constitution, he reached back in “The Church and the Country” to decry the evil done by the 1857 Supreme Court decision in the Dred Scott case. In Hodge’s mind, the Supreme Court had ignored the will of the Constitution’s original framers when it decided that Scott, a slave who had lived for an extended period in free states and territories and therefore wished to be considered a freeman, (p.317) had no legal right to be heard in the nation’s federal court system when he sued for his freedom. What was at stake in the Dred Scott case was clear to all. If the Supreme Court decided in Scott’s favor, Southerners placed their ownership of slaves at risk each time their slaves entered a Northern state. Hodge’s anger against the Supreme Court’s decision burned for two reasons. He hated the fact that slaves might never be accorded the same standing before the law enjoyed by other Americans, and he saw the decision as an invitation to open “all the territories now possessed, or hereafter to be acquired, to the introduction of slavery.”46
Ultimately, Hodge was to be disappointed in his attempts to convince his Presbyterian brethren to hold fast to the “divinely appointed terms” of Christian and ministerial communion.47 Just one month after publishing “The Church and the Country,” Old School Presbyterians from both the North and the South gathered in Philadelphia for the annual General Assembly. Sectional tensions were present, but muted, until Dr. Gardiner Spring, a minister from New York, put forth a resolution obligating all Presbyterians “to promote and perpetuate, so far as in us lies, the integrity of the United States, and to strengthen and uphold the Federal government in the exercises of all its functions.”48 It was a blatantly Northern and divisive resolution, which everyone knew would be unpalatable to the Southerners in the Assembly. Hoping to preserve his precious notion of denominational unity, Hodge led a group in protest of the resolution. He argued that the General Assembly had no right to require its members to hold certain political allegiances. Hodge’s protest went unheeded, however, and when Gardiner’s resolution reached the floor of the Assembly, it was adopted 156 to 64, effectively killing any hope of keeping Old School Presbyterian unity intact.49 Within the year, Thornwell and other leading Southern Presbyterians split from their northern brethren as they established the Presbyterian Church of the Confederate States of America. The war that was tearing apart the nation had now rent asunder American Presbyterianism as well.
(1) . Charles Hodge to Hugh Hodge, Princeton, Nov. 22, 1860, CHP, Box 12, Folder 2.
(2) . MFH, 103.
(3) . Charles Hodge to Hugh Hodge, Princeton, Dec. 13, 1860, CHP, Box 12, Folder 2.
(4) . Charles Hodge to Hugh Hodge, Princeton, Dec. 13, 1860, CHP, Box 12, Folder 2.
(5) . Charles Hodge to Hugh Hodge, Princeton, Dec. 13, 1860, CHP, Box 12, Folder 2.
(6) . Charles Hodge, “The State of the Country,” BRPR 33:1 (Jan. 1861): 1.
(7) . Hodge, “State of the Country,” 1. Hodge would repeat this sentiment in a later article on the war, as well as devote an entire essay to the topic of the proper relations between religious activity and politics. Of interest in the latter article is how Hodge shows that he does believe that religion and politics should, as a rule, be confined to separate spheres. The boundaries between the two are most often by necessity permeable. Charles Hodge, “The War,” BRPR 35:1 (Jan. 1863): 140. Charles Hodge, “Relation of the Church and State,” BRPR 35:4 (Oct. 1863): 679–693.
(8) . Hodge, “State of the Country,” 1.
(9) . Shelton Smith, “The Church and the Social Order in the Old South as Interpreted by James H. Thornwell,” CH 7:2 (June 1938): 116–118.
(10) . Benjamin Morgan Palmer, The Life and Letters of James Henley Thornwell (Richmond, Va.: Whittet & Shepperson, 1875), 291.
(11) . Palmer, Life and Letters, 303.
(12) . Palmer, Life and Letters, 286.
(13) . Palmer, Life and Letters, 303. James Oscar Farmer Jr., The Metaphysical Confederacy: James Henley Thornwell and the Synthesis of Southern Values (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1986), 189.
(14) . Hodge, “State of the Country,” 6.
(15) . Hodge, “State of the Country,” 15.
(16) . Irving Stoddard Kull, “Presbyterian Attitudes Toward Slavery,” CH 7:2 (June 1938): 104.
(17) . Hodge, “State of the Country,” 6.
(18) . Hodge, “State of the Country,” 12.
(19) . Hodge, “State of the Country,” 36.
(20) . Charles Hodge to Hugh Hodge, Princeton, Apr. 28, 1861, CHP, Box 12, Folder 2.
(21) . Charles Hodge, “England and America,” BRPR 34:1 (Jan. 1862): 165.
(22) . Hodge, “State of the Country,” 22; 27.
(23) . Hodge, “State of the Country,” 20.
(24) . Hodge, “State of the Country,” 20.
(25) . Hodge, “State of the Country,” 29.
(26) . Hodge, “The Princeton Review on the State of the Country and of the Church,” BRPR 37:4 (Oct. 1865): 629.
(27) . Smith, “The Church and the Social Order in the Old South,” 124. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese, The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders’ Worldview, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005): 615.
(28) . James H. Thornwell, “The State of the Country,” SPR 13:4 (Jan. 1861): 860–889. Farmer, Metaphysical Confederacy, 266.
(29) . Thornwell, “State of the Country,” 863; 883.
(30) . Hodge, “Church and the Country,” 323.
(p.436) (31) . Hodge, “Church and the Country,” 323; 324
(32) . Hodge “Church and the Country,” 326.
(33) . Thornwell, “State of the Country,” 870–871.
(34) . Thornwell, “State of the Country,” 871.
(35) . Thornwell, “State of the Country,” 871.
(36) . Thornwell, “State of the Country,” 871.
(37) . Thornwell, “State of the Country,” 883.
(38) . Hodge, “Church and the Country,” 346.
(39) . Thomas Cary Johnson, The Life and Letters of Benjamin Morgan Palmer (Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 1906), 235.
(40) . Johnson, Life and Letters of Benjamin Morgan Palmer, 211.
(41) . Fox-Genovese, Mind of the Master Class, 616–618.
(42) . Johnson, Life and Letters of Benjamin Morgan Palmer, 213. Hodge, “Church and the Country,” 347.
(43) . Charles Hodge to Hugh Hodge, Princeton, Sept. 6, 1861, CHP, Box 12, Folder 2.
(44) . Hodge, “Church and the Country,” 359.
(45) . Hodge, “Church and the Country,” 359.
(46) . Hodge, “Church and the Country,” 373.
(47) . Hodge, “Church and the Country,” 375.
(48) . Charles Hodge, “The General Assembly of 1861,” BRPR 33:3 (July 1861): 546.
(49) . Hodge, “General Assembly,” 551.