“Union and War”: William G.T. Shedd on Divine Sanction for War and Nationalism, Pt 1.

In the third week of November, 1862, William G.T. Shedd mounted the ornate pulpit of New York City’s Brick Presbyterian Church. Historian Mark Noll calls Shedd a high Calvinist comfortable with relying on Christian history to correct substandard teaching. His commitment to the Westminster Confession of Faith defined his opus, the three volume Dogmatic Theology published in the late 1880s. Noll notes that the latter disposition was unusual in an era where biblicism was dominant among Calvinist theologians. Shedd’s widespread interest became particularly useful at the end of 1862, when a series of Confederate offensives bruised the Union War effort in the American Civil War. Civilian morale sent congregants and parishioners to churches looking for answers to what God’s workings might be, and Shedd happily provided an answer in a sermon from Psalm 118: “The Lord is on my side; I will not fear: what can man do unto me? The Lord taketh my part with them that help me: therefore shall I see my desire upon them that hate me.” [i]

Shedd pointed to King David’s authorship and noted the psalm was to be sung upon a day of thanksgiving by the people of Israel, “as they moved in solemn and jubilant procession to the temple of the Most High, to offer praise for a great national deliverance.” The psalm, he told his listeners, expressed “clearly and strongly the jubilance of the people of God, when his arm has wrought deliverance for them; and in every age it has been an anthem through which they have uttered their praises when the right hand of the Lord was exalted, and when the right hand of the Lord did valiantly for his church.” Interestingly, however, Shedd felt no compunctions about tying Israel’s deliverance to successive dispensations, Jewish and Christian.

“It is a thanksgiving psalm for a nation, and for an individual. Those heroes of the Christian church, those confessors, martyrs, and reformers, who have been called to great sorrows and to great triumphs in their own individual experiences, have betaken themselves to this one hundred and eighteenth psalm as the trumpet through which they sounded out their glorying in the God that had helped them and had given them the victory. Martin Luther, we are told, appropriated this psalm for his peculiar comfort, and wrote the seventeenth verse of it (‘I shall not die, but live and declare the works of the Lord’) upon the walls of his study…”

The psalm was for nations and individuals, indicating Shedd conceived on some level of modern Protestant nations having license to appropriate divine blessing for their efforts in war and in political controversies.[ii]

The Jewish theocracy of the Ancient World, saints and martyrs of the Christian history, and the Reformers all participated in divine approbation and sustenance for their efforts, including their military efforts. In the case of the United States’ Civil War, Shedd argued that war might have been caused by national sin, but that did not mean God was not using war, or that he maintained some sort of divine neutrality. Although he was “fully alive to the evils of the war and that God denounced war as a woe,” Shedd thought that “there are some features and results of it, for which it becomes all the loyal people of the land to be thankful.” There were some characteristics in this contest, Shedd proposed, “that warrant every loyal American in saying: ‘The Lord is on my side; I will not fear: what can man do unto me? The Lord taketh my part with them that help me therefore shall I see my desire upon them that hate me.’” Northerners could claim the sanction of the God of battles in their war with Southern slaveholders, because, interestingly, the foremost temporal benefit Shedd saw in the divinely blessed US Civil War was the strengthening of American nationalism. “In the first place,” he extolled, “we should give thanks to God, because this war has been the occasion of deepening and strengthening the feeling of nationality.” [iii]


[i] Mark A. Noll, “Shedd, William Greenough Thayer,” in Walter A. Elwell ed., Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 1098

[ii] William GT Shedd, The Union and the War: A Sermon, Preached November 27, 1862 (New York: Charles Scribner, 1862), 4-5.

[iii] Shedd, The Union and the War, 9.

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