On July 26, 1865, Horace Bushnell delivered a speech that secured his position in American history as the prophet of the Civil War.
The war recently had come to an end, but the blood of soldiers on both sides of the conflict was still bright in the memories of all in the country. On that July day Bushnell welcomed the chance to honor the memories of alumni of Yale College who had died in the war. He also took the opportunity to reflect theologically upon the shedding of blood in the contexts of political struggles.
Bushnell refused to see the tens of thousands dead from the North and the South as wasted lives. Instead, he claimed: “It is the ammunition spent that gains the battle, not the ammunition brought off from the field. These dead are the spent ammunition of the war, and theirs above all is the victory.”
Beyond the battlefield Bushnell also offered a glimpse of the results of the manifold deaths. Looking forward, Bushnell hoped, “here it is that the dead of our war have done a work for us so precious, which is all their own–they have bled for us; and by this simple sacrifice of blood they have opened for us a new great chapter of life.”
Perhaps better than any of his contemporaries, Horace Bushnell was able to articulate the conclusion to President Lincoln’s second inaugural address, delivered on March 4, 1865–less than six weeks before Lincoln’s own death and less than two months before the war would end with the signing of the treaty at Appomattox. The second inaugural ended with a hopeful plea: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
When Bushnell addressed the Yale College graduating class of 1865 he already was in retirement. Ill health forced him in 1861 to resign his pastorate at Hartford’s North Congregational Church, a position he had held since 1833. “Our Obligations to the Dead” is the crowning work of a man who had lived his life as a theologian-pastor who always grappled with his context and heritage.
Bushnell entered Yale as a student in 1821 and stayed for 10 years, completing four degrees. His student years at Yale gave Bushnell a foundation from which he challenged New England’s prevalent Reformed tradition. He came to reject the notion of “original sin,” choosing instead to explore the importance of the nurture of children toward moral integrity. His work On Christian Nurture extolled the idea of human freedom and the responsibility of parents and teachers to instill in children Christian values.
In the 1840s Bushnell spent some time in Europe and came under the influence of the work of Friederich Schleiermacher. From Schleiermacher Bushnell developed an appreciation for a moral center for theology. Bushnell also developed an appreciation for the Romantic traditions of philosophy and poetry, allowing him to catch glimpses of God’s sovereignty in the world of nature. Putting the moral and the natural together, Bushnell began to confess a theology that was deeply ingrained in the natural and political worlds in which he lived.
The moral and Romantic perspectives of Bushnell inform his speech “Our Obligations to the Dead.” On the one hand he was not willing to ascribe the battlefield deaths to God’s providence (how could have God planned such horror?); on the other hand Bushnell was willing to see that the God of creation was present in the horror of the Civil War. A sovereign God could–and would–take the horror of war upon himself, but a just God would not–and could not–plan such a horror.
Horace Bushnell was the prophet of the Civil War. He interpreted the presence of God in the midst of the conflagration. He saw the work of redemption in the midst of the horrors of war.
Richard Wilson is professor of theology and chair of the Roberts Department of Christianity at Mercer University in Macon, Ga.
Columbus Roberts professor of theology and chair of the Columbus Roberts Department of Religion in the college of liberal arts at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia.