Saint Paul's Episcopal Church, Richmond

Religion in the Civil War

As many as two-thirds of all Virginians attended a Protestant church before the American Civil War (1861–1865). These men and women witnessed intense conflict within their congregations and denominational councils before, during, and after the war. All Virginia churchgoers saw their congregations torn asunder at least once during the sectional conflict, whether in the process of dividing from Northern churches before the war, when they sent their sons to fight, or upon the secession of black members from biracial communities. On a more ideological level, even many Virginians who were not connected with a particular church interpreted the Civil War in religious terms. All Virginians who faced death in the field or on forced labor projects—or who experienced the deaths of loved ones—wondered why God permitted such extraordinary suffering. In addition, white Virginians found Union victory a disturbing challenge to their belief that God had favored both slavery and the Confederacy. Black Virginians, on the other hand, found Union victory a resounding affirmation that God had heard their prayers. MORE...

 

Religion and the Sectional Conflict

By late in the antebellum period, most white Virginians adhered to an "evangelical" Protestant church, one in which members stressed the importance of being born again and experiencing God directly in worship. Roughly one-half of black Virginians attended an evangelical Protestant church as well, typically a Baptist one. A persistent minority of Virginians, including roughly 2,000 Jews, remained outside the evangelical tradition, but—based on the number of accommodations recorded for each denomination in the census—five of six churchgoers in 1860 attended an evangelical Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, or Episcopal church. In some states, Presbyterians and Episcopalians resisted identification as evangelicals, but in Virginia they embraced the label. Baptists and Methodists were by far the two largest denominations in the state. Baptists were strongest in the Tidewater and Piedmont regions, while Methodists dominated the trans-Allegheny west and enjoyed some support throughout the state.

White and black Virginians within these evangelical denominations, with the exception of Episcopalians, experienced disunion in their churches long before the secession winter of 1860–1861. Presbyterians divided their church into Old and New School factions in 1837 over roughly sectional lines. Most Virginians adhered to the Old School, the branch more accommodating of slavery, even though not all acknowledged slavery as the cause of the rupture. When Baptists and Methodists divided their respective denominations into Northern and Southern branches between 1844 and 1845, they were unequivocal that the main object of contention was slaveholding.

Prominent Virginia Methodist William A. Smith was one of the most aggressive advocates for slavery in the councils of the Methodist Episcopal Church. He and other white Southern Methodists counseled division when their Northern coreligionists refused to recognize the authority of a slaveholding bishop at the 1844 General Conference. Similarly, Virginian Jeremiah Bell Jeter was one of the first Baptists to cry for dissolution of the Baptist Triennial Convention late in 1844, when the American Baptist Home Mission Society declared that it would not hire slaveholding missionaries. In 1845, white Virginians joined with other Baptists in Augusta, Georgia, to help found the Southern Baptist Convention and with Methodists in Louisville, Kentucky, to help organize the Methodist Episcopal Church, South (MECS).

The denominational schisms were important for several reasons. On a most basic level, white Virginians interpreted the divisions as evidence that Northern Christians had strayed from the faith and were pursuing a secular agenda antagonistic to that of believing white Southerners. Members of the Christian Church clearly articulated the fear of Northern heterodoxy in 1854, two years before they also divided over slavery and organized the Southern Christian Convention. They complained that Northerners had "departed from the teachings of the Bible, our only rule of faith and practice, which neither makes the ownership of slave property a test of fellowship, religious character, or church membership." The divisions also offered a blueprint for how to respond to arguments over slavery. Some white Virginians came to see separation as a workable alternative to continued debate.

Finally, the denominational schisms upset relationships within many Virginia congregations. Methodists in the northern and western portions of the commonwealth battled with one another over whether to align with the Northern or Southern jurisdictions of the church, foreshadowing both the bitter battles between unionists and secessionists during the secession crisis and the fragmentation of the state into eastern and western parts during the war. The Richmond Christian Advocate recorded hard-fought arguments in Leesburg, Warrenton, and Fredericksburg, for example, in the opening months of 1846. These disputes, sometimes called "border wars," never entirely ceased before the Civil War. There was also a new round of divisions during and after the secession crisis, when Lutherans and Episcopalians split for the first time and Methodists and Presbyterians further divided. In sum, many Virginians experienced the Civil War as a religious battle before a single shot was fired.

Secession

White Virginia churchmen believed that God ordained slavery, and many regarded white Northern clerics as apostate by the autumn of 1860. Most of this group, however, did not translate their support for slavery into support for immediate secession after the election of Abraham Lincoln as U.S. president. Instead, they determined to honor the scriptural command to "be subject unto the higher powers" (Romans 13:1–2) as long as Northerners did not resort to an overt attack on slavery, which would have been unconstitutional. In this way, white Virginia Protestants closely followed the counsels of white Virginia statesmen, most of whom were conditional Unionists. In January 1861 a number of Virginia clergymen published an open letter in the state's denominational newspapers counseling against disunion but warning that "if the Southern States of the Union are persistently refused their full rights in the confederation and its common territories, and the protection granted by the Constitution to their peculiar property," then the U.S. Constitution would be broken and secession therefore morally viable.

Ultimately, many white Virginians found in Lincoln's call for troops sufficient evidence that the Constitution was broken. Once white Virginians witnessed what they regarded as Lincoln's perfidy, in the words of Virginia Presbyterian minister Richard McIlwaine, "the people of Virginia generally flopped over to the other side, became rabid Secessionists and were ready for a fight." Over time, many white Virginians came to consider the Civil War a holy war against Northern extremists who failed to recognize the authority of the Bible or the Constitution.

Churches on the Home Front

White churchmen of all denominational backgrounds within Confederate Virginia—not just the dominant evangelical Protestants—supported the Southern cause both materially and ideologically, even as black Virginians prayed and worked steadfastly for the defeat of the Confederacy. John McGill, Roman Catholic Bishop of Richmond, showed the breadth of religious support for the Confederacy. He recruited chaplains for Catholic soldiers and, when the "Montgomery Guards" of the 1st Virginia Infantry marched to his cathedral, blessed their weapons and their service. Indeed, Confederate president Jefferson Davis directly encouraged ministers to support the cause by declaring ten different fast days during the course of the war. On these days, he expected Confederate citizens to attend their respective houses of worship and pray for their fledgling nation (in comparison, Lincoln declared three such days). Judith McGuire, a refugee from occupied Alexandria, attended St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Richmond on the March 27, 1863, fast day. "The churches were all crowded with worshippers," she reported, "who, I trust, felt their dependence on God in this great struggle."

McGuire's comments begin to show the extent to which Virginia's and the Confederacy's leaders succeeded in framing the Civil War as a religious struggle. Mildred Lynch, in Augusta County, drew encouragement from her minister in January 1861, when he "likened us in his sermon to the Israelites & earnestly sought deliverance for us." Often the support that men and women on the home front derived from their faith was even more personal. Jane Buck, of Front Royal, tried to use her faith to encourage her son, Richard Bayly Buck, while he was in the field with the 17th Virginia Infantry Regiment. "Do dear Dickie never suffer yourself to lie down at night without acknowledging your heartfelt gratitude to a Supreme Being for the many blessings that are bestowed upon you, and beg that He may enable you to conduct yourself so as to be able to beg for a continuation of them," she wrote.

White churchmen who believed that they were engaged in a holy war sometimes feared that Virginians might not be righteous enough to succeed. By July 1864, Southampton County resident Daniel W. Cobb had become convinced that God was using Northern armies to punish white Southerners for their accumulation of "a vast amount of worldly Good[s]" without rendering sufficient thanks to God. Clerics tried to address this fatalistic turn of white Southern religiosity by arguing that God chastened his chosen people—and that suffering was thereby a sign of white Southerners' special relationship with God, not of their pending defeat. In a widely published sermon in January 1865, Episcopalian Charles Minnigerode preached that "[t]he might and power which our enemies bring against us, are not the might and power of God's spirit, we may be sure—except so far as they are permitted to chasten us for our sins and train us for the hardships of a godly warfare."

Historian Stephen V. Ash has argued that, on an institutional level, the fate of Southern churches during the Civil War depended in large part upon their proximity to the battlefield. In occupied cities and towns where the Union Army was able to provide some measure of security, white clergymen were typically able to keep their churches open during the war as long as they acknowledged the authority of the United States Government. When they refused to do so, however, Union officials were quick to shut down their congregations. In February 1862, Kensey Stewart, an Episcopal minister in Alexandria, refused to pray for Lincoln. According to Stewart, "Two sergeants then seized me in the Chancel, and with great violence, holding a revolver at my breast, they forced me out of the Church, and through the streets, with the surplice on, each of them grasping it upon the shoulder so tightly as to leave upon it the marks of their hands." Few clerics resisted as stubbornly as did Kensey, with the result that churches in occupied towns and cities tended to remain open.

In what Ash termed "no-man's land," territory that changed hands between Union and Confederate armies, churchmen had more difficulty keeping their churches open. No security, it turned out, was worse than occupation, and this was true for the rural hinterland around occupied towns as much as it was for areas literally between the armies. In these increasingly lawless areas, the women, children, and older men who comprised the bulk of white congregants dared not risk travel to distant churches. The secretary of Ebenezer Baptist Church in northern Virginia revealingly noted after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox that "the Church has not met together for up[w]ards of three years and the cause thereof was the ware in thes United States."

Whites within the reach of the Union Army faced additional ecclesiastical challenges after December 9, 1863. On that date, U.S. secretary of war Edwin H. Stanton ordered that clerics from the Northern branch of the Methodist Church could occupy "all houses of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, in which a loyal minister, who has been appointed by a loyal Bishop of said Church does not officiate." He expanded his orders to cover Baptists and Presbyterians in the first months of 1864 and opened considerable competition for control of "vacant" or openly pro-Confederate churches in no-man's land. Missionaries from the American Baptist Home Mission Society occupied pulpits in the Tidewater region, prompting delegates to the Portsmouth Baptist Association to resolve when they assembled in November 1865, "That we should be recreant to our sacred duty as guardians of the truth, if we did not, as Baptists, and as an Association, enter out solemn protest against such action as thoroughly unbaptistic and subversive of the doctrine of church independence." Only in the Confederate interior, free from Union raids, did churches continue to operate with anything approaching normality. Even in these locations, however, churches faced massive disruptions caused by the absence of white male members and the increasing resistance of black members.

Emancipation and Ecclesiastical Separation

African Americans in biracial or white-controlled congregations saw the arrival of Union troops as an opportunity. They also welcomed the Northern missionaries whom white Virginians despised, usually as teachers but sometimes as spiritual leaders. In one of the more poignant incidents, Bishop Alexander Wayman of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church traveled south to occupied Norfolk in the autumn of 1863. When he took the pulpit of Bute Street Methodist Church, a community of more than eight hundred African American members technically under the control of whites from the MECS, Wayman took as his text Genesis 37:16, "I seek my brethren." The congregation voted overwhelmingly to align with the AME denomination and, with the help of Union authorities, took their church property with them. The AME also enjoyed success at recruiting new churches in Portsmouth, but their good fortune was rare. The overwhelming majority of black Virginia churchgoers were Baptist, and they typically steered clear of Northern organizers, started their own congregations, and accepted from Northern missionaries only scholastic instruction and material assistance.

Black Baptists in the churches that had been semiautonomous before the war, with a black membership and white pastor, were among the first to gain their independence. In some cases, members of the Union Army helped these congregations acquire title to their property, which was held in trust by white Virginians. Black Virginians also formed numerous new congregations during the war. In 1863, for example, George Corprew, a free black living near Portsmouth who had accumulated some money and property before the war, donated the land for what became Divine Baptist Church. By 1864, Tidewater Baptists had formed what was probably the first African American association in the South, the Norfolk, Virginia, Union Baptist Association. Whites ultimately accepted separation as desirable, but they initially expressed uncertainty about how to respond to black churches. A statewide committee of white Baptists pledged in June 1865 to investigate how emancipation would affect ecclesiastical relations. They frankly acknowledged the following year: "The sudden and radical changes which have taken place in the relations which existed between the white and colored people, politically and socially, have so changed the aspect of things, so as to make it difficult, with the little experience which has followed, to determine what course is best to be pursued."

For most black Virginians, the thrill of personal freedom outweighed even the headiness of ecclesiastical independence. Most enslaved people had prayed for emancipation and for the success of Union armies. When that moment finally came, Annie Harris, of Petersburg, remembered that "ev'ybody fo' miles around was singin' freedom songs." The lyrics to these songs testify to the sense of spiritual expectation that black Virginians cultivated during the war: "I fasted and I prayed 'till I came through, / Thank God Almighty, I's free at last." An Ashland man leapt into a nearby creek, exclaiming "I's free! Yes, my Jesus, I'se free!" According to his daughter, Louise Rose, he found baptism the only suitable metaphor for the new beginning that he felt and "was so happy he just kept on scooping up handfuls of water and dumping it on his head." Just as it sustained black Virginians in their long wait for freedom, though, faith also sustained white Virginians in their struggle against Union armies.

Christ in the Camp

White Virginia evangelicals devoted an extraordinary amount of energy to the spiritual health of their armies. Scores of clerics left their pulpits either for the ranks or for the chaplaincy, and denominational leaders launched ambitious efforts to proselytize soldiers. The Confederate States of America offered chaplains relatively little pay and did not even provide them with a uniform, but men from every major denomination still served. Some ordained clergy declined to sign up as chaplains, perhaps because the inducements to do so were so meager, but nonetheless traveled to the camps as missionaries from their respective denominations. These missionaries and Confederate chaplains pursued a markedly ecumenical ministry, one marked by cooperation rather than competition.

Aiding these chaplains and missionaries was a phalanx of colporteurs, men armed with tracts and Bibles for sale to the troops. Early in the war, the Albemarle Baptist Association recognized the opportunity that colporteurs had to win souls for Christ: "A new field of enterprise is now open to us—though thousands of our citizens have been removed from the influence of religious teaching at home, and subjected to all the demoralizing tendencies incident to army life, yet, they have not passed beyond the reach of the Colporteur, and the army presents one of the most inviting fields for the work of Colportage." The colporteurs were not alone in their ambition to inundate Confederate troops with godly reading. By 1863, Virginia hosted three new religious newspapers: The Army and Navy Messenger (Petersburg), The Soldiers' Visitor (Richmond), and The Soldiers' Paper (Richmond).

Chaplains, colporteurs, editors, and concerned loved ones intensified their ministry to the troops as casualties mounted. Soldiers demonstrated an apparent receptiveness to the message, and revivals broke out periodically during the second half of the war. The Army of Northern Virginia enjoyed its greatest revivals in the spring and summer of 1863. Even secular newspaper editors relayed news of mass conversion. According to the August 10, 1863, edition of the Richmond Daily Dispatch, "A revival of religion is now progressing in the 46th Va., under the ministration of Rev. W. Gaines Miller, the Chaplain, and also in other regiments of Wise's brigade. There have been over 50 professions of conversion in that regiment, 170 in the 26th Va., and a number in the 4th Va. heavy artillery, at Chaffin's Bluff." One witness estimated that there were as many as 15,000 conversions in the Army of Northern Virginia alone during the war.

Legacies

The Civil War marked a decisive break in Virginia religious history because of the formation of new black denominations. Black men and women struggled against prejudice and economic hardship to raise funds for church buildings, permanent schools, and national denominational organizations. Once African Americans had acquired land and built sanctuaries, their hard-won churches became central meeting places. African Americans who had refused to attend racially mixed churches before the war flooded into the newly independent churches, raising the number of churched black Virginians to almost 80 percent.

Whites also struggled in the postwar period, and they embraced religion in their way forward. They faced extraordinary social change, economic hardship, and the loss of loved ones. In the face of this pain, whites searched desperately for a new narrative of Virginia religious history. White Virginians' wartime expectation (inscribed on the Great Seal of the Confederacy) that God would vindicate their cause on the battlefield had been unfulfilled. Presbyterian Robert L. Dabney helped white Southerners to recapture their self-identification as favored sons and daughters of God with the publication in 1867 of A Defence of Virginia, (and through her, of the South) in Recent and Pending Contests against the Sectional Party. He developed in it a vigorous defense of slavery, insisting that Northern military success did not disprove white Southerners' righteousness during the sectional conflict and war. As other clerics had begun to argue in the closing months of the war, Dabney asserted that God had only chastised Confederates because of his preferential love for them—and that God would ultimately vindicate their cause without arms but "in the pages of impartial history, and in the Day of Judgment." Disappointed white Virginians such as Dabney thus helped guarantee that religion would be a part of the Lost Cause view of the war, just as it had been a key component of sectionalism and Confederate nationalism.

Further Reading
Brinsfield, John W., et al. Faith in the Fight: Civil War Chaplains. Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania: Stackpole Books, 2003.
Genovese, Eugene D. A Consuming Fire: The Fall of the Confederacy in the Mind of the White Christian South. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998.
Miller, Randall M., Harry S. Stout, and Charles Reagan Wilson, eds. Religion and the American Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press-USA, 1998.
Noll, Mark A. The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.
Snay, Mitchell. Gospel of Disunion: Religion and Separatism in the Antebellum South. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Stowell, Daniel. Rebuilding Zion: The Religious Reconstruction of the South, 1863–1877. New York: Oxford University Press-USA, 1998.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Irons, C. F. Religion in the Civil War. (2012, May 10). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Religion_During_the_Civil_War.

  • MLA Citation:

    Irons, Charles F. "Religion in the Civil War." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 10 May. 2012. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: March 24, 2009 | Last modified: May 10, 2012


Contributed by Charles F. Irons, an associate professor of history at Elon University in Elon, North Carolina. He is the author of The Origins of Proslavery Christianity: White and Black Evangelicals in Colonial and Antebellum Virginia (2008).