The American Civil War
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Recent Historiography on Religion and the Civil War by Bruce
Southern Religion and the Civil War
Civil War historians have long pointed to pro-slavery views as central to southern religion of the Civil War era. In recent works, David Chesebrough (Clergy Dissent in the Old South, 1996) points to the Nat Turner rebellion and William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator in 1831 as cementing the nexus of pro-slavery sentiment among southern Christians. Goen identifies slavery as the principle issue which led Presbyterians, Methodists and Baptists to split North and South by 1845. Genovese (The Slaveholders’ Dilemma: Freedom and Progress in Southern Conservative Thought, 1820-1860, 1992) provides irony, demonstrating that religious conservatives North and South were in agreement over most significant issues, other than slavery.
Slavery was rooted in a religiously-oriented, sectionalist southern culture. In Southern Evangelicals and the Coming of the Civil War (2000), Edward R. Crowther examines the intellectual and cultural history of the white, antebellum South and weaves together the themes of religion molding culture and culture shaping religion. Religion and culture were mutually reinforcing, with religious sentiments paralleling states’ rights ideology, collectively resulting in separation, secession and Civil War.
Modern historians differ somewhat on the relationship between religion and southern sectionalism, however. Some historians focus on sectionalism defining religion. Christine Leigh Heyrman, in Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt (1997), utilizing journals of late 18th and early 19th century Baptist and Methodist ministers, concludes that religious leaders accommodated slavery in order to gain ground in the South.
In Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause (1980), Charles Reagan Wilson concludes that by the antebellum era, southern religion had embraced the South and its customs as holy. Defeat in the Civil War led to the creation of a civil religion (the Lost Cause) based on antebellum culture and incorporated into southern evangelical churches. Mark Noll, in “The Bible and Slavery” (Religion and the American Civil War) meanwhile argues that inherent southern racism provided the framework within which southern Christians were immersed. The pro-slavery biblical exegesis that emerged served to accommodate and legitimize culture.
On the other hand, Mitchell Snay, in Gospel of Disunion: Religion and Separatism in the Antebellum South (1993), argues that southern religion helped shape antebellum southern separatism by transferring the caretaking of southern evangelical ideals onto the culture, in the process creating a moral consensus for slavery. The denominational schisms legitimized the emergence of southern nationalism. From that point onward into the war years, the churches reinforced and sustained nationalistic fervor.
Drew Gilpin Faust, in The Creation of Confederate Nationalism: Ideology and Identity in the Civil War South (1988), argues that religion played a central role in the shaping of a southern nationalism which both defended and criticized the South. Faust identifies the southern ruling class as planters, clergy, politicians and intellectuals, noting that “the authority of the clergy at least rivaled that of the new Confederate state,” while Christianity was the “most fundamental source of legitimation” and the “central foundation” of the Confederacy. Southerners were certain God was on their side; they were His chosen people.
In “Civil War, Religion, and Communications: The Case of Richmond” (Religion and the American Civil War), Harry S. Stout and Christopher Grasso, in an examination of religious jeremiads emitting from Richmond, point to religion as “the most powerful cultural system in the Old South,” concluding that secession and war would never have happened without the “clergy’s active endorsement.”
Yet, not all southern clergy automatically embraced secession and war. Some historians have examined southern religious dissent and dissenters of the Civil War era. David B. Chesebrough, in Clergy Dissent in the Old South, 1830-1865 (1996), concludes that most non-conformist clergy left the South between 1830 and 1861. Those who remained were oftentimes persecuted and sometimes killed. On the other hand, in “Church, Honor and Secession” (Religion and the American Civil War), Bertram Wyatt-Brown determines that most southern clergy reluctantly embraced secession, a situation attributed to long-standing ties to northern conservatives, a tradition of speaking softly on controversial public issues, and a hesitation to embrace southern manliness and honor. Not until early 1861 did most clergy whole-heartedly rally to the secession cause out of a sense of honor.
Preston D. Graham, in A Kingdom Not of This World: Stuart Robinsons’ Struggle to Distinguish the Sacred from the Secular During the Civil War (2002), examines dissent in the border states, where some clergy maintained a confessional theology and an apolitical church, reflecting the sentiments of Baptists in Revolutionary-era Virginia. On the other hand, John B. Boles, in The Irony of Southern Religion (1994), argues that the South as a whole disavowed its religious dissenter heritage in embracing the Confederate State during the Civil War.
Championing the southern institution of slavery did not necessarily imply unquestioned acceptance of the practice of slavery. Eugene D. Genovese explores the theme of doubt in A Consuming Fire: The Fall of the Confederacy in the Mind of the White Christian South (1999), noting that some southern clergy long struggled, in the face of abolitionist onslaughts, to justify the trust of slavery which God had placed upon them. By the 1850s, the South’s defense of slavery as Biblical and God-ordained rested upon the success of fulfilling certain Christian obligations to slaves (i.e., humane treatment and religious instruction). Yet, clerical calls for slave reforms via moral suasion failed, and legislatures and most southerners showed little interest in the matter through the 1850s and into the Civil War, expressing public guilt only when military defeat was visited upon the South.
As early Confederate victories on the battlefield gave way to a pattern of defeats, southerners were forced to ask why God was punishing them. Perhaps the essence of southern religion’s fears in relation to the institution of slavery is summed up by Daniel Stowell in, “‘We Have Sinned and God Has Smitten Us!’: John H. Caldwell and the Religious Meaning of Confederate Defeat,” Georgia Historical Quarterly, 78 (Spring 1994). Stowell sees Caldwell, a southern Methodist minister who had a change of heart about slavery in 1865, as the object of both derision and fear among southerners who were grappling with the concept of God’s judgment.  Genovese (Consuming Fire) turns to Civil War era Baptist theologian John L. Dagg, who compared Israel’s violation of God’s covenant in the Old Testament with that of the South’s violation of God’s entrusted institution of slavery. Faust (Confederate Nationalism) portrays the envisioning of God’s plan as transcending defeat in calling for corporate repentance and return to morality and purity, at which time God’s chastisement would cease.
Daniel Stowell, in “Stonewall Jackson and the Providence of God” (Religion and the American Civil War), makes the important distinction between judgment and chastisement. Jackson’s sudden and surprising death was attributed to the providence of God and served notice that a displeased God was chastising His people for their unrighteouness. In turn this lesson prepared the South for the judgment of wholesale defeat in 1865, and the ensuing task of defining the painful loss.
Even when the war ended in defeat, signifying the failure of southerners to meet God’s test of slavery, admitting that slavery was wrong was unthinkable; both Faust and Genovese see southerners perceiving northern economic interests as the unholy rationale for Emancipation, with Faust expounding on the theme of extortion.
Genovese argues that southerners viewed their slave system as a valid system of bond-labor which created conditions favorable to Christian behavior and advancement, whereas demands of the northern capitalistic market forced people to choose between Christian ethics and materialism. In response to charges of racism from northerners, southerners replied that northerners were “scientific racists” (i.e., unbiblical evolutionists).
Kenneth Moore Startup, in The Root of all Evil: The Protestant Clergy and the Economic Mind of the Old South (1997), further develops the economic theme. Moore surveys the economic mind of the Civil War era South solely through the writings and sermons of southern preachers, presenting the divines, who frequently preached anti-materialistic sermons from a rigid biblicist perspective, as defining sin and evil in terms of greed. Slavery was championed but materialism was railed against as a national sin, putting clergy at odds with gentry initially, but later establishing an acceptable rationale for southern defeat in the Civil War.
Finally, David E. Harrell, in “The Evolution of Plain-Folk Religion in the South: 1835-1920,” Varieties of Southern Religious Experience (1988), examines southern religion as social history, arguing that the Civil War “blurred” developing class divisions and delayed further fragmentation by bringing temporary equalitarianism to southern white churches.
Continue to Religion Among the Soldiers
 David Chesebrough, Clergy Dissent in the Old South, 1830-1865 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999), 8.
 Goen, Broken Churches, Broken Nation, chapter 3.
 Eugene D. Genovese, The Slaveholders’ Dilemma: Freedom and Progress in Southern Conservative Thought, 1820-1860 (Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1992), 36-38.
 Edward R. Crowther, Southern Evangelicals and the Coming of the Civil War (Lewiston, New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 2000). Also see Genovese, Slaveholders’ Dilemma.
 Christine Leigh Heyrman, Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997). Although Heyrman’s focus predates the actual Civil War era, her work, based on journals of Methodist and Baptist preachers from the South, is significant in terms of understanding how Southern Christians came to embrace slavery. Heyrman shows how anti-slavery Baptist and Methodist unmarried itinerants met with resistance from married white males, who were the dominant force in the late 18th and early 19th century South. In order to gain acceptance in the rural, largely unchurched South, Baptists and Methodists preachers sought to identify with the white, married, Southern male by compromising on slavery.
 Charles Reagan Wilson, Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980). Wilson examines the far-reaching effects of the religion of the Lost Cause, a cultural faith dependent upon memories of the antebellum South. In Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South , Gaines M. Foster rejects “civil religion” as a descriptor of the Lost Cause, arguing that the cultural aspect of the Lost Cause served to ease the transition to the New South by giving southerners a means of venting despair and anger after the Civil War.
 Noll, The Bible and Slavery.
 Mitchell Snay, Gospel of Disunion: Religion and Separatism in the Antebellum South (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
 Drew Gilpin Faust, Creation of Confederate Nationalism: Ideology and Identity in the Civil War South (Baton Rogue: Louisiana State University Press, 1988), 22,23.
 Faust, Confederate Nationalism, 26.
 Harry S. Stout and Christopher Grasso, “Civil War, Religion, and Communications: The Case for Richmond,” in Religion and the American Civil War, ed. Randall M. Miller (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 318-319.
 David B. Chesebrough, Clergy Dissent in the Old South, 1830-1865 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996), 72-79, 114-115.
 Bertram Wyatt-Brown, “Church, Honor and Secession,” in Religion and the American Civil War, ed. Randall M. Miller (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 89-109.
 Preston D. Graham, A Kingdom Not of This World: Stuart Robinson’s Struggle to Distinguish the Sacred from the Secular During the Civil War (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2002).
 John B. Boles, The Irony of Southern Religion (New York: P. Lang, 1994).
 Eugene D. Genovese, A Consuming Fire: The Fall of the Confederacy in the Mind of the White Christian South (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1999), 14-47. The slave reforms some Southern clergy called for included the recognition of slave marriages, respecting the intactness of slave families, and the repeal of literacy laws which forbid slaves to read.
 Daniel W. Stowell. “’We Have Sinned and God Has Smitten Us!’: John H. Caldwell and the Religious Meaning of Confederate Defeat.” Georgia Historical Quarterly 78, no. 1 (Spring 1994): 1-38.
 Genovese, Consuming Fire, 67-68.
 Faust, Confederate Nationalism, 26-33.
 Daniel W. Stowell, “Stonewall Jackson and the Providence of God,” in Religion and the American Civil War, ed. Randall M. Miller (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 187-207. Also see Richard E. Beringer, The Elements of Confederate Defeat: Nationalism, War Aims and Religion (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989). For a discussion of the spiritual significance of Robert E. Lee, see Robert R. Brown, And One Was a Soldier: The Spiritual Pilgrimage of Robert E. Lee (Shippensburg: White Mane Books, 1998).
 Genovese, Consuming Fire, 98; Faust, Confederate Nationalism, 41-57.
 Genovese, Consuming Fire, 81-88, 117-118. The Old South’s resistance to industrial capitalism has long been a central theme of Genovese’ writings.
 Kenneth Moore Startup, The Root of All Evil: The Protestant Clergy and the Economic Mind of the Old South (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997). Also see John Patrick Daly, When Slavery Was Called Freedom: Evangelicalism, Proslavery, and the Causes of the Civil War. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2002.
 David E. Harrell, Jr., “The Evolution of Plain-Folk Religion in the South, 1835-1900,” in Varieties of Southern Religious Experience, ed. Samuel S. Hill (Baton Rogue: Louisiana State University Press, 1988), 24-51. Also see Daniel W. Stowell, Rebuilding Zion: The Religious Reconstruction of the South, 1863-1877 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).