God in the War: Commemorating a Bicentennial Heritage of Faith

In the midst of life’s trials, we often approach God with the wrong questions: Why did you let this happen? When will deliverance come? Rarely do we seek the Lord’s purpose in tribulation by asking, “Lord, what are you teaching through this trial?” However, during one of America’s greatest trials, believers across the nation dared to ask this question, and wrought eternal consequences. The War Between the States is undoubtedly a unique epoch in human history, but perhaps no element of the conflict is so strange or significant as the spiritual revival which broke out in both camps. While much revisionist history has sought to erode this fascinating story, by examining causal spiritual dispositions, tracing the effects of evangelism and revival, and evaluating contributions from leading presbytery, once can ascertain a clear picture of the metaphysical motives that governed the temporal.

When investigating the causal spiritual dispositions that lead to chasm that mandated the War for Southern Independence, one must first understand that the individual people of America were largely bound by two great shared, national sins: greed and hubris. In seeking to justify these sins, individuals upon both sides would claim to be the victim of the other’s sins, and in a fit of self-righteousness, demand to be vested with all authority. During the earliest days of our nation, some feared that the seeds of these sins, if not stamped out and surrendered to God, would destroy our fledgling nation. Perhaps most notably, Washington warned in his Farewell Address,

The spirit of encroachment tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one, and thus to create, whatever the form of government, a real despotism;…Let there be no change by usurpation; for though this, in one instance, may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed. The precedent must always greatly overbalance in permanent evil any partial or transient benefit, which the use can at any time yield.

Virginia Statesman George Mason furthered the point, explaining, “As nations cannot be rewarded or punished in the next world, they must be in this…Providence punishes national sins by national calamities.” While our Founders understood the Biblical roots of Christian liberty and the relationship between enjoying them under voluntary submission to God’s perfect law, and took measures to temper man’s greed through eventual abolition, the generation that followed largely lacked such moral clarity. The advent of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin led to nearly thirty years of hedonistic prosperity as some became increasingly dependent on slave labor to cultivate cotton, but the advent of the Second Great Awakening began curbing such greed and recalling Southerners to Biblical faith. “The Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century had sewn a fabric of Protestant Evangelicalism throughout the region. Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist evangelists rode the Southern backcountry preaching to, converting, and baptizing thousands. Prior to the American Revolution, New England had been the “Bible Belt” of America, while church attendance in the South was scant. The Second Great Awakening shifted the culture of Dixie, and America as a whole. The revivals took hold in the “backcountry” amongst the yeoman. Southern evangelism reflected the charismatic and independent character of the Appalachian farmers” dominating everything from politics to Sunday School. Meanwhile, in the Puritan North, Transcendentalism and Unitarianism grew stronger and caused the North to begin to value progressive, social gospel above the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The first anti-slavery convention, which met in 1834, produced a resolution that literally testified to this and was signed largely by clergy who paved the way for the Beechers and Browns.[1] Lust for power and a love of financial prosperity from their industrialized cotton mills drove the north to lawless deceit and despotism, in both the church and the political arena. Ultimately, these sins drove the North to realize the Founder’s worst fears by seeking to amass all power unto themselves, when executives Buchannan and Lincoln broke treaties, long standing agreements, and laws by initiating acts of war against the State of South Carolina. With the deeply embedded philosophy of Christian self-government from statesmen philosophers like Locke, Jefferson, and Calhoun, it is no wonder that one historian, commenting on the spiritual balance of the nation at the outset of the war, observed, “it would be inaccurate to think that North was more godly or Christian than the south. In reality, the South had become the center of true revival and the bastion of Calvinism and Christian charter, while the North had drifted in Unitarianism and dead formalism. “

In evaluating wartime revival, then, it must be understood that both sides were ripe for receiving a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit. While the South as a whole may arguably have been in better spiritual condition at the outset of the war, many of the recruits, while from a common heritage, could be identified as “backslidden” young men, more prone to vice than Biblical virtue. The North, while arguably more diverse in social-religious background, was equally as guilty of lacking spiritual devotion. Perhaps because of the challenges of this diversity and the purpose of divine Providence, revival swept Confederate camps first, both in a “bottom up” fashion, as the result of church missions and literature,[2] and in the “Lost Cause” fashion, where the tremendous testimony and Gospel dedication of Generals like Lee, Jackson, and Beauregard, who wholly relied on God and were said to be more concerned with “winning souls than battles,” inspired men to receive the work of the Holy Spirit. From early interviews with Lee, to Davis’s Inaugural Address, to sermons from H.H. Tucker, it is clear that the leadership of the South, as much as they wanted independence, wanted God’s will more, and committed themselves to being His instruments. As Lee said, “At present I am not concerned with results. God’s will ought to be out aim, and I am contented that his designs should be accomplished and not mine.”  Historians estimate that by the end of 1862, as many as 150,000 Confederates had been converted. While revivalism did not end there for the Confederates, it is at this point, in the spring of 1863, that the North reached a spiritual turning point. As leadership began to enquire as to why God could favor the slave-holding South with victory after victory, they began at last to examine their own sin, and a national Day of Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer was called for on April 30th, 1863. In the issuance, Lincoln wrote, “We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven…preserved these many years in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth, and power as no other nation has ever grown; but we have forgotten God. We have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of out hearts, that all these blessings were   produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own,…[and thought ourselves] too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace.” It was two days later that the South’s undefeated General Jackson suffered a mortal wound in a freak accident, that the Union won its first meaningful victory at Gettysburg, and that the President of the United States committed his life to Christ. [3] Roughly 18 months later when Lee surrendered, the war that started with covetous sin literally ended with humble prayer, as the Union Cabinet, upon hearing the news, dropped to their knees to offer thanksgiving to the Almighty who had purified and preserved the Union.

From president to privates, North to South, Puritan to Protestant, the revival that swept both camps was mighty, and the way that the Lord united leading presbytery to accomplish His purpose is powerful. Catholics like Pope Pious IX, who condemned the arrogance of government seeking to exult itself over God’s law while at the same time extolling its leaders to rest in Christ, and Father Abram J. Ryan, who as Chaplin and poet-priest repeated the plea, “Let Your will be done,” partnered with the Protestant clergy to serve a flock devastated by war. One such Protestant, with ties from Washington to Atlanta, was the Georgian Baptist minister H.H. Tucker. Henry Holcombe Tucker was a southern theologian who, while initially opposed secession, ultimately threw himself wholly into the Cause by ministering to the needs of his people as he lead Confederate relief efforts, spoke to various Southern legislative assemblies, and filled his pulpit and leadership positions. His vast influence in the religious, legislative, business, philanthropic, and academic realms lead his considerable and articulate thought to significantly shape southern sentiment during the war. While his wider writings on doctrine and theology reflect a strict, rational adherence to basic gospel tenants, a sermon delivered in 1861 before the legislature of his native state gives valuable insight to the South’s dedication to humble repentance before a Sovereign God. Using Psalms 46:9 as his key text, Tucker reminded listeners that as awful as their longsuffering of Northern animosity had been, and as horrific as war waged on one’s own land was, it was God who remained sovereign, God who caused desolation, and only God who caused wars to cease. It was, then, for the man of God to discern the cause, as opposed to the occasion, for which he was enduring such trails. With humility, one ought remember that God disciplines those He loves, that He uses the wicked to chastise each other, and rises up nation to judge nation, but it is ultimately for one’s own good, and for the purification of one’s soul, that one would submit to His will, that God allows such fiery trials. He reminds his audience that “wherever evil comes, we may know that there is good at hand,” because God is still on the throne, and His plan is for our good, that we would be conformed to His Son. Success will come, but it will be God’s alone:

My countrymen, we are certain of success in this war if we but use the right means. But those means which are the last that men think of, and the last that they adopt, are the first in order and the first in importance in the Divine estimation. The first and last and only thing that men are apt to do, is to gather together the implements of war and prepare for battle. God forbids not the use of these things; nay, to lay them aside would be but to tempt His Providence. But paramount to this is the purifying of the heart. Let us “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” and trust that all other things will be added. Mat. vi. 33. Let our people forsake their sins and practice goodness, so that it call be said of our land, “thy people shall all be righteous,” and the sweet prophecy will be fulfilled in us, which declares, “Violence shall no more be heard in thy land, wasting nor destruction within thy borders; but thou shall call thy walls Salvation and thy gates Praise. A little one shall become a thousand and a small one a strong nation. I the Lord will hasten it in his time.” Is. xvi. 18. Yes! when this happy day comes it will be of God, for “He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth; He breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in sunder; He burneth the chariot in the fire.” Suppose every nation were thus to turn to the Lord. Then every nation would secure his blessing. Nation would rise up against nation no more, nor would men longer learn the arts of war. The spears would be beaten into pruning hooks and the swords into ploughshares; the days of Millennial glory would come, and the whole world would be subject to the gentle reign of the Prince of Peace!

Knowing and acting based on the fact that God did not just exist, or only had a plan to save your soul, but that He was after the purification of your heart and the heart of all men, meant acknowledging that God was not just sovereign over the war; He was in it. He was the ultimate wager of war, the desolator. He was also the only broker of peace, and demanded nothing less than complete surrender. It is this central focus on repenting and seeking first God’s sovereign will that unified the Southern clergy in their theological approach to shepherding a flock in the midst of America’s deadliest war; whether Jewish, Catholic, Baptist, Methodist or protestant, eternal citizenship came before all else.

The Eternal King, it seems, had a twofold end in waging this war; “to judge us and yet deliver us at the same time.” As one periodical recorded,

It became the general [consensus] that we were passing through an order of purification rather than destruction. A profound moral feeling began to pervade the sorrow-stricken mind of the country. Good men took themselves to importunate prater. Public fasts were observed, religious assembles were held…[and] millions of devout men and women mourned in their closets of devotion over the national sins and perils…The religious sprit of the nation, instead of decaying, is daily making men’s hearts more reverent, more humble, more courageous, and more worthy of our first national heritage of liberty, which God is now a second time purifying by fire!

As we remember the bicentennial anniversary of the end of the American Civil War, let us also recall how God used ecumenical leadership and lay evangelism to fan a revival that ignited hundreds of thousand of hearts, purifying a nation, and restoring the broken to a measure of wholeness that would bring glory to Him alone. Then men who surrendered to Christ in this war were changed forever, and those who survived the war often returned home to become active in gospel work for the rest of their life. Arguably, the revival that began in the encampments during the war launched what some have called the Third Great Awakening, and indeed heralded “a new birth of freedom“ as the nation returned to God, deeply scared, but whole.  It is time again that we seek God’s purpose in both our triumphs and victories, and surrender our will to His. It is the only way His healing power will grace our land.

 “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” 2nd Chronicles 7:14


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Footnotes:

[1] Beliles 228; “Beecher’s Bibles,” crates of Sharpe’s rifles, shipped as crates stamped “books” from Henry Ward Beecher’s congregation to men who openly intended to murder residents of slave-holding states, directly sponsoring the Bleeding Kansas affair and ultimately, the Harper’s Ferry attack of John Brown and Sons.

[2] Summers; “The first fruits of revival came from the religious tract societies. The General Association of Baptist churches spent $24,000 to publish 40 tracts, 6,000 testimonials, and 14,000 camp hymns in 1861 alone. In 1862, the Methodist Episcopal Church circulated 800,000 pages of tracts. By 1865, the Evangelical Tract Society of Petersburg, Virginia, had printed over 50,000,000 pages from 100 different tracts. Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia had their own ecumenical tract societies which further printed thousands and thousands of testimonials. The Presbyterian Board of Publication even created a journal called the “Soldier’s Visitor,” which was especially adapted to the army. The Federal blockade had inadvertently aided the work of the Confederate missionaries, as religious materials were often the only reading materials available to the soldiers in large quantities.

The first denomination to establish organized units of missionaries was the Baptist church. They began with 60 missionaries in 1861 and expanded throughout the war. In 1863 the Methodist Episcopal Church voted to establish a separate branch of its missionary society to the Confederate Army, and soon other denominations followed suit, … The Protestant sects even worked closely together, Baptist ministers refrained from emphasizing immersion baptism, while Presbyterian evangelists deemphasized some of their own Calvinist beliefs. According to Rev. Bennett, the “aim of the laborers seemed to be to lead the soldiers to Christ, not to make them sectarians.”

[3] Beliles, 236-241,’ “Shortly before his death….[Lincoln was asked], “Do you love Jesus?” Mr. Lincoln solemnly replied: Wen I left Springfield I asked that people pray for me. I was not a Christian. When I buried my son, the severest trial of my life, I was not a Christian. But when I went to Gettysburg and saw the graves of thousands of our soldiers, I then and there consecrated myself to Christ. Yes, I do love Jesus.”