Religious Liberty Emphasis
Revivals depended chiefly on evangelical sermons delivered by chaplains or local clergy. In a revival sermon preached frequently to Confederate regiments in February and March 1864, Chaplain William Baker pointed to the dreaded coming season of war: “We are now approaching a crisis in public suffering. We are looking forward to a campaign which will probably be stirring and decisive. . . . Has not the church a work of preparation to do as well as Congress and the army?” . . .
For the South, the dark side of revivalism was Puritanism. Many writers justified the righteousness of their cause by contrasting the evangelical Christianity of the revivals with the “Puritan” spirituality of the North. In a column titled “Does God Favor the North,” a writer for the Richmond Religious Herald replied that the North had sacrificed its faith for a Puritan-based abolitionism: “Federal infamy will not be veiled by triumph…. They have bartered the true principles of Christianity for sectional conquest—and the prize they have coveted will elude them.” As for slavery: “Our enemies make slavery the central question of the war. But no one at the South doubts the Divine Sanction of slavery.”
Revival sermons were augmented among the soldiers by spontaneous prayer meetings. One letter, written by a chaplain to the Religious Herald, predicted the future impact of Confederate army revivals:
I know young men to whom this war has been a real blessing in this respect; and if they live to see it close, their churches at home will mark what I say. Sometimes in thinking over this matter, and seeing such striking examples of Christians improved by being soldiers, I have almost come to the conclusion that the war is not such an unmitigated evil, after all…. Men who have come out of this war Christian soldiers will not be apt to desert the standard of Christ afterward.
The chaplain was right. These were the very men who, with the war’s end, would lead mighty evangelical revivals that would transform the postwar South from Episcopalian and “Spartan” to “converted” evangelicals.
No one in 1861 could have predicted that minsters would claim war—and defeat—as a moral and religious good that made men Christians. Yet, by 1864, that was indeed their claim. Just as white Christian apologists in the antebellum South had praised slavery as a converting institution for the slaves from paganism to Christ, so these Civil War apologists now praised war as converting institution for white soldiers and, in turn, white society.
In this madness, we see the seed of what would become the postwar “Religion of the Lost Cause” and the triumph of evangelical Protestantism. Where the antebellum evangelical was tarred with the label of “dissenter” and, worse, “effeminate” postwar evangelicals and itinerants would be reared in the armies and hardened in the battles. In the new South, to be evangelical and “born again” would come to signify the Confederate army as well as the Southern pulpit. It would mean pride and manliness, humility and submission. The “Lost Cause” of the white Christian South would constitute self-contained region—and religion—isolated from the international community of believers that preserved the sacred memories of the war and the revivals its army produced.
Tragically, America’s civil religion would not include the very freedmen and women so many thousands died to liberate. And here we come to the ultimate moral failure of the war. The historian David Blight marks this as this central “tragedy” of the Civil War: “The sectional reunion after so horrible a civil war was a political triumph by the late nineteenth century, but it could not have been achieved without the resubjugation of many of those people whom the war had freed from centuries of bondage. This is the tragedy lingering on the margins and infesting the heart of American history.”
Excerpted from Harry S. Stout, Upon the Altar of the Nation (New York: Penguin Group, 2006,) pp. 290-292.