Historians have struggled to define the evangelical consensus that dominated American life for most of the nineteenth century. Scholars of the antebellum church tend to emphasize how it exacerbated sectional tension and precipitated the Civil War, while scholars of the postbellum church emphasize how it bolstered sectional reunion. But how can both have been true?
I address this question by examining one denomination, the bulk of whose membership lived in the trans-Appalachian South and the lower Midwest. Focusing on one denomination averts the shortcomings of studying American evangelicalism as a homogenous whole when it was no such thing. Moreover, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, because it was arguably the largest denomination not to divide along sectional lines during the Civil War era, allows us to locate important continuities across time (before and after the war) and space (north and south of the Mason-Dixon line).
And what do I find? That the heart of the evangelical consensus was the project of the Christian nation—the belief that America had a special mission to purify the church and evangelize the globe. At least for the Cumberland Presbyterians, Christian nationalism was a useful tool in addressing the two great problems that a Protestant denomination faced in the nineteenth-century United States: namely, the religious marketplace and the institution of slavery. But at the same time, those two same forces actually undercut the Cumberland Presbyterian narrative of the Christian nation. This paradox helps explain how Christian nationalism, and by extension the evangelical consensus, could both reinforce and undermine the union of the republic.
Like many other denominations, Cumberland Presbyterians believed their church was uniquely destined to shape the future of the Christian nation. As evidence, they pointed to their republican form of church government, commonsense “medium theology” between Calvinism and Arminianism, origins and predominance in the trans-Appalachian West, Scotch-Irish heritage, and moderation on the great questions of slavery and Reconstruction. They spoke in this way to justify their continued presence in the denominational marketplace; after all, the church began somewhat in spite of itself, when a few Presbyterian preachers in Kentucky and Tennessee were suspended in 1805 for rejecting Calvinist predestination.
Meanwhile, the realities of slavery presented problems of their own. Was slavery an instrument of or a stain upon the Christian nation? Were black people destined to be co-agents of the Christian nation, or were they destined to leave America and evangelize Africa? Should slaveholders be barred from communion or, after the war, former slaveholders forced to repent? The church’s compromises on these questions bespoke both its material dependency on slave labor and its commitment to white supremacy. After all, though the church proudly claimed to have stayed united throughout the Civil War era, this claim ignored one-fifth of its membership—the formerly enslaved—who ultimately formed a separate church in 1874.
By 1906, when the Cumberland Presbyterians reunited with the northern Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. (PCUSA), different understandings of the denomination’s destiny had emerged. Proponents of union saw it as proof that they had moderated Presbyterianism and ushered in a new era in God, while opponents of union saw it as a dangerous muddying of what remained important theological differences. There was debate over whether the PCUSA would allow for racially segregated judicatories, and concern that the union was being hampered by lingering hostilities from the Civil War. Ironically, the union of 1906 divided Cumberland Presbyterians along roughly sectional lines, roughly one-third of them forming a southern rump church rather than unite with the PCUSA. The paradoxes of Christian nationalism were ultimately too great for the Cumberland Presbyterians to bear.