The American Civil War was a failure of Christianity as much as anything else.
Over the past few years much attention has been drawn to the “culture wars” over issues such as abortion, Christian symbols in public places, and homosexual marriage. Millions of Americans see their nation in a moral and political decline, and many Christians see themselves as the true custodians of American History, having the key to restoring its greatness. According to many “born again” or “Evangelical” Christians, America’s true foundation is religious, but secular philosophies, widespread irreligion, and immorality have all but eroded it.
But was there ever an American “Golden Age” as they claim? Was there ever a time when the children were obedient, the cities safe, and Americans mostly “saved”? Well not exactly, but there was a time when a fervent Protestant faith dominated the American public life. But far from producing a “Golden Age” it fired the fierce passions released in the Civil War, inspiring hundreds of thousands of young American men to kill their fellow citizens by the hundreds of thousands. The fact that they could fight so passionately on opposing sides, both calling on the same God, speaks volumes of the true nature of that Christianity.
Even before the American Revolution, the English Colonies of America experienced massive outpourings of religious feelings, where thousands of ordinary citizens had strongly emotional “born again” experiences. These outpourings of emotion and conviction took place in public gatherings called Revivals. Baptism and a morally changed life usually followed.
After the founding of the US republic under the Constitution, continual waves of such enthusiasm swept over the American cultural landscape, shaping the American soul even until today. They believed they would see the end of this age in their lifetime, and that their society should prepare for it. However, although the message both North and South was characterized by the same impassioned preaching and emotional responses, it produced vastly different effects. Far from uniting American Christians, it accelerated their growing divisions.
In the North, the revivals produced a desire for personal change, which in turn produced a desire to organize change in the larger society. The modern missionary movement, the temperance movement, and the moral reform crusade (a movement to end prostitution, obscenity, and lewdness) began through groups of determined Christians becoming organized in order to secure their goal of a reformed society, even working to change society by law. All these efforts stemmed from the traditional Christian belief that the truth of the Gospel of Christ should be brought to all. And if they were unwilling to receive it, it should be imposed on them.
In the South, the revivals had an equal or greater emotional intensity, which often produced deep personal convictions to live as better individuals and family members. The fierce individualism of southern culture would hear nothing about organizing into groups to effect larger social changes. They drew strength from the simple elements of their society: family, church, and local community. The Jeffersonian tradition of strictly limited government was practically sacred writ to them. The governmentally mandated social changes of the North seemed dangerously subversive to that concept.
The institution of slavery, above all other issues, brought to the surface the great division growing amongst American born-again believers. As the North and South in general took differing views of owning slaves, the Christians of those regions typically took the extreme positions.
The great evangelical churches of the day — Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian, all born in the fires of revival to become great national institutions — could not overcome this growing divide. Their annual conferences, the visible expression of the Christian bonds tying together the sections of the new nation, broke up one by one with bitterness and mutual condemnation. In 1837, the Presbyterians split north and south, with the passions greatly inflamed over the rightness or wrongness of slavery. In 1844, the Methodists divided north and south explicitly over slavery, followed in 1845 by the Baptists. They all claimed the same Christ as Savior, by grace through faith. As Abraham Lincoln would put it, “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.”
Christians of the North began to talk of slavery being the obstacle to God’s purpose for America, that its existence was preventing the earth being made ready for Christ’s return. Southern Christians defended slavery as being the essential element of upholding their civilization, stating that they promoted the Christian faith among their slaves. Furthermore, they cared for those people in their charge, while the North trapped them in wage slavery. The war, they declared, was God’s judgment on America for the Northern toleration of ungodly social practices such as labor unions, women’s rights, and abolition of slavery.
The politicians found no way around these aroused passions. When the three-way 1860 election gave Abraham Lincoln a majority of electoral votes and a plurality of the popular vote, South Carolina seceded. A flurry of last-minute maneuvers got nowhere. While a number of voices looked for some compromise, Northern and Southern moral outrage, inflamed by Christian zeal, would not be pacified.
“When the cannons roared in Charleston harbor,” American religious scholar Sydney Ahlstrom wrote, “two divinely authorized crusades were set in motion, each of them absolutizing a given social and political order. The pulpits resounded with a vehemence and absence of restraint never equaled in American history.” 1
“To judge by the many hundreds of sermons and specially-composed church prayers which have survived,” historian Paul Johnson wrote, “ministers were among the most fanatical on both sides. The churches played a major role in the dividing of the nation, and it is probably true that it was the splits in the churches which made a final split in the nation inevitable. In the North, such a charge was often willingly accepted. The Northern Methodist Granville Moddy said in 1861: ’We are charged with having brought about the present contest. I believe it is true we did bring it about, and I glory in it, for it is a wreath of glory about our brow.’” 2
Both sides understood, or thought they understood, God’s purpose for their side of the struggle. They saw themselves engaged in a struggle that was paving the way for the return of the Son of God. The Northern Christians were fired by the faith expressed in the lines of the “Battle Hymn of The Republic,” by Julia Ward Howe:
In the beauty of the lilies Christ
was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that
transfigures you and me;
As He died to make men holy,
let us die to make men free.
When the armies marched, both sides took thought for their eternal souls and moral strength. Both sides had well-known generals who would not fight on Sunday if they could at all help it, out of respect for the Christian Sabbath. Veterans of both sides wrote later of victories or deliverances that came about because of such acts of military faith.
The war’s atmosphere of extreme tension and loneliness in a cause promoted as the very cause of God resulted in revival after revival on both sides, particularly on the eve of the great battles. In 1864, in both Virginia and Tennessee, Southern armies were swept by great waves of revivals. According to J. William Jones, Confederate Chaplain and author of one of the best documentaries of the Great Revival, virtually every Confederate brigade was affected.
USCC records show that similar events were happening in the North’s principal eastern army, the Army of the Potomac, at the same time. Brigade chapels were so full that many men were frequently turned away. One Union general wrote that he had never seen “a better state of feeling in religious matters” as in the Army of Potomac.
In the Fall and Winter of 1863, the Union army in Chattanooga, Tennessee, had been besieged by a strong Confederate force, strongly entrenched in the mountains around the city. The Union soldiers were deeply affected by the revival, and many attributed their surprising victory over the Confederates as “a visible interposition of God.” Soon after their victory at Chattanooga, the Union troops were pursuing their enemy as they retreated towards Atlanta. The fires of revival continued for them in Ringgold, Georgia, where hundreds were baptized in Chickamauga Creek.
The Confederate’s Army of the Tennessee, retreating towards Atlanta, had also experienced the fires of the great revival. During their retreat from Dalton, Georgia, Rev. C. W. Miller tells of a Confederate brigade called together for worship in a field. They read the Bible aloud, sang a song of praise, and began to pray. While one of the soldiers was praying aloud, and his comrades were kneeling in silence, they all heard the distant report of artillery and were soon greeted with the burst of a 32-pound cannon shell overhead. More shells shrieked towards them, and shrapnel fell nearby, but the men continued their prayers as if there was no danger. Finally, the chaplain pronounced the benediction and everyone calmly sought cover.
Ironically, the revivals continued with Sherman’s troops as they marched across Georgia and through the Carolinas. When the soldiers stopped for the night, they frequently assembled in local churches and worshipped. Yet Sherman’s troops were infamous for their unbridled destruction of civilian property as part of a campaign to “make Georgia howl.” Somehow these men found it possible to “find Christ” while laying waste to unarmed civilians’ homes and businesses.
It is estimated that over 100,000 Confederate and somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 Union troops accepted Christ during the Civil War — roughly ten percent of the men engaged. There are many accounts of the change that took place in the men, both during the war and afterwards, as a result of the many revivals. This may warm the heart of the sincere Christian, but surely someone has to ask, “Would Christ empower His followers to wage war against each other?”
The issues of the war were clear and the faith of the born-again believers on both sides played a major role in strengthening the resolve of each government. Only with such wholehearted support could they continue to pay the high cost of blood and destruction that each day of fighting exacted. The reality is that the evangelical or born-again Christians of that day could not see the contrast between the words of the Son of God and the terrible demands of war.
In his unpublished story, The War Prayer , Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) tried to express the horrible incongruity of such a religion. In that story a typical war-time church service was described with mention of the heartfelt prayer of the pastor for the safety of one side’s troops and victory in their battles:
Then came the “long” prayer. None could remember the like of it for passionate pleading and moving and beautiful language. The burden of its supplication was that an ever-merciful and benignant Father of us all would watch over our noble young soldiers and aid, comfort, and encourage them in their patriotic work; bless them, shield them in His mighty hand, make them strong and confident, invincible in the bloody onset; help them to crush the foe, grant to them and to their flag and country imperishable honor and glory.
In the midst of the prayer, Twain imagines a heavenly messenger appearing to the congregation and trying to help them see what they were really praying for.
“...O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it — for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet!”3
No one who saw the awful reality of the Civil War up close would deny the truth of those words. Go to a Civil War battlefield cemetery; note carefully the acres of neatly arranged markers where the thousands of battlefield dead were laid. They went to battle thinking they were obeying Jesus Christ, and so did those who put them in their graves. Was Christ really calling them to slaughter each other?
“Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword,” 4 was the Savior’s word to Peter in the moment of His arrest in Gethsemane. Who of the North or South heard this word?
There was a time when a Samaritan village scornfully rejected a visit by the Messiah. His disciples asked if they should call down fire from heaven on them. His response was a stinging rebuke: “You do not know what spirit you are of. The Son of Man came not to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.” 5 There is a profound lesson here.