The Religious Spirit of the Confederate Army

Bob Hurst

It is not without good cause that the South has long been known as the "Bible Belt". As true as this is today, it was even more so in the days leading up to and during the War for Southern Independence. During that period when the South was only recently removed from its frontier days, the churches assumed responsibility for not only the moral uplifting of the people but also for their formal education and the foundations of the Southern social order.

For this reason it has long seemed to me that religious differences between the Christian South and the humanist North constituted one of the primary reasons for the Great War of 1861 to 1865. While the Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians of the South held strongly to their belief in divine providence while placing their faith in God and their trust in the words of the Holy Bible, in the North the deists, theists, transcendentalists, Unitarians and the like were actively involved in a discussion of philosophical speculation as to the existence of the Holy Spirit and the deity of Jesus Christ. This northern attitude was best exemplified by the Unitarian Transcendentalist Julia Ward Howe who wrote the abominable "Battle Hymn of the Republic". She wrote in her autobiography that Christ was merely a great teacher with no higher claim for preeminence in wisdom, goodness and power than any other man. (I covered this topic at length in the August 2006 CONFEDERATE JOURNAL article entitled "A Song that should Never be sung".)

In the North the prevailing attitude was one of faith in the human will and intellect and a belief that man, through science and politics, could subdue nature (and obviously nature’s children) and reshape it into any form desired. (Sounds a bit like today, doesn’t it.) The difference prompted the great Confederate hero Admiral Raphael Semmes to opine that "no two peoples, speaking the same language and coming from the same country, could have been more dissimilar". Almost a century later Sir Winston Churchill also mentioned the great differences between the people of the North and the people of the South at this time in history but said it was to be expected since their ancestors in England had had different worldviews and belief systems and, in fact, had been fighting each other for centuries.

Another huge factor influencing the Southern mind was the belief that the North posed a serious threat to fundamentally change the type country that had been created by the Founding Fathers.This was attributed to the radical nature and spirit of the political party coming to power in the country and the lack of belief in a higher power by much of the Northern political leadership. To Admiral Semmes this radical spirit in its political form seemed to be like what it had been in the French Revolution, "… a sort of mad-dog virus" making rabid all who were touched by it. Historian Clement Eaton also made mention of the "mad fanaticism of the North".

Also disturbing to the South was the role taken by many northern ministers. For instance, Reverend Theodore Parker, one of the infamous "Secret Six" who funded the activities of the murderous John Brown, preached from the pulpit the philosophy of "each man as his own Christ" and declared that "true religion was independent of the Revelation of the Bible". To many in the North it was human works and progress that had become the new religion.

How did the ministers and religious leaders of the South react to this split in the belief systems of the North and South? Many developed a feeling of great fear toward what they sensed was a mortal danger threatening the very existence and way of life of the Southern people.  Reverend James Duncan, editor of the Richmond CHRISTIAN ADVOCATE, wrote that religious leaders of the North were "advocates of every semi-infidel notion that could be stated" and that they "confused politics with the Gospel of Christ".

From the very beginning of the rumblings of hostilities, almost all Southern churches and ministers supported the War. That support was especially strong in small towns and rural communities. Reverend George Lee of Conecuh County, Alabama, called upon the local unit of Confederate troops to perform "deeds that will bring glory to God, honor to Christ, happiness to man,confusion to devils and to all of old Abe’s fanatics, and eternal credit and honor to yourselves".

Baptist ministers throughout the South not only baptized volunteers but also recruited companies and gathered supplies and the Methodists were not about to be outdone. One Methodist, in a letter to his brother, wrote: "It is a righteous war. I feel a deep Christian and inextinguishable hatred toward the demons of the North who would desolate my country and destroy its liberties. It is doing God service to kill the diabolical wretches on the battlefield".

[Note: Before you begin to think badly of Southern clergy for these strong actions and statements, realize that the opening prayer of a New York Methodist conference during this period began: "We ask Thee to bring these men(Confederates) to destruction, and wipe them from the face of the country".]

One thing that emphasizes the unwavering support that Southern ministers gave to the Confederate Cause was the great number of the clergy who donned a uniform and went to war. Some even reached the rank of general in the Confederate Army. The best-known of these was Leonidas Polk, the first Episcopal Bishop of Louisiana, who reached the rank of lieutenant general and was one of only 26 Confederates to reach such a high rank.  Unfortunately, the "Fighting Bishop" was killed in action near Marietta, Georgia in 1864. Two other well-known Confederates, each reaching the rank of brigadier general, were the Episcopal minister William Nelson Pendleton and the  Baptist minister Mark Lowrey. Pendleton was an outstanding artillery officer who, after the War, became rector of the Episcopal church in Lexington, Virginia and, as such, was the personal
minister of Robert E. Lee. As I mentioned in the March 2011 CONFEDERATE JOURNAL article, Mark Lowrey founded a Baptist women’s college after the War and served as its president until his death in 1885.

One of the effects of having so many members of the clergy active with the Confederate Army was that the actions of the Southern men in war were far different than the norm. The great Southern historian, E. Merton Coulter, wrote that there were religious services almost every night when Confederate soldiers were not engaged in battle. He also wrote that it was extraordinary for fighting forces of such size as the Confederate units to be so "free of vice". Unlike their northern counterparts, the Southern army was not characterized by the theft, destruction, thuggery, rape and pillage of their northern contemporaries.

The religious spirit of the Confederate Army was also manifested in the numerous revivals that took place during the War. It is estimated that 150,000 of those wearing the sacred gray were converted and/or baptized during the War. Many of these personal events were the direct result of the revivals which were often organized by the soldiers themselves and conducted either by clergy who were serving in the army or by ministers who traveled to the encampment sites. With these clergy the great hope was that the young soldiers would not die outside the faith.

It was not only the young soldiers who were saved during these revivals.  A great many officers – including generals William Hardee, Joseph E. Johnston, Richard Ewell, Braxton Bragg and John Bell Hood, to name a few-made professions of faith during these revivals.

It was even joked that the army of General Stonewall Jackson, a profoundly pious man, was more like a continuous revival meeting than an army on the march. One of General Jackson’s favorite pastimes was the discussion of theological questions and he had just the man to engage in such a discussion as his field minister (as well as his personal minister) was the magnificent Robert L. Dabney. One can only wonder what excellent discussions must have ensued as these two marvelous Christian gentlemen engaged in their lively debates.

Incidentally, there was no comparable religious activity within the ranks of the northern army.

The strong religious convictions of the Confederate soldier are best described, I think, by an action on the part of those wondrous fighting men that is not often discussed in this day and time. I suppose everyone in our beloved South is familiar with the term "Rebel Yell". The Rebel Yell, of course, is that unique sound often made by Southern soldiers as they advanced upon the enemy. I’m certain that many are more familiar with the name of the yell than the sound itself and the sound is certainly NOT the familiar "yee-haw" that is so often heard. The actual yell was an eery, high-pitched chipping sound that, when done simultaneously with thousands of voices, could strike absolute terror into the hearts of yankee soldiers.

Anyway, the Rebel Yell was not always the battle cry of the Confederate soldier. On many occasions, and most notably at the first day of Shiloh, it was not the "yell" that emerged from the throats of the boys in gray but, rather, a hymn. It was Breckenridge’s troops who advanced toward the enemy at the end of a long and bloody day with the hymn "We Shall March Away to Battle" on their lips. Hymns were heard from the battlefields of Virginia to the hills of Arkansas. Our Confederate ancestors were devoutly religious people.

Friends and fellow Southrons, it has been the pattern over the last 50 years for those people who don’t like us, never have liked us and never will like us to constantly raise the mantra that the War was all about slavery – nothing else, just slavery. I’m sure that many of you know, as I know, that it was not and the reasons for the conflict are numerous.  In large measure our ancestors, being the religious people they were, believed the war they were waging was against powers and principalities – against evil. Don’t ever stain the memories of our ancestors by agreeing with the modern-day progressives  whose goal is to convince all Southerners that it was our ancestors who were evil and were fighting for an evil cause. Constant lies is the method of the progressives who wish to rule all our lives. Please make a pledge to your ancestor that you will stand firm and not accept the lies of those who would stain their memory and glory. They deserve no less.