The Great Harvest: Revival in the Confederate Army during the Civil War
by Mark Summers
"Oh for a revival throughout the Confederacy!" exclaimed the editor of the Macon (GA) Daily Telegraph in 1862. The paper was commenting on an outpouring of the Gospel throughout the town, while reporting on food shortages, ordinances, and the latest news from the front lines of the American Civil War. The war’s second season was a reality check for many Southerners as the Federal blockade, inefficiencies of the Confederate government, and devastating casualties of Shiloh and Antietam dimmed the glow of many sunshine secessionists. Austerity fell upon Dixie, and fell hard, and in such times as in other places and in other conflicts, people turned to faith. Indeed revival would soon spread throughout the region; not in the plantations, parlors, or the pews but in the ranks of the Confederate Army. The great revival of 1863 would be a homespun harvest.
The American South was no stranger to religious upheaval. 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. Southern yeomen declared their independence from the staid faith of the plantation gentry. While planters dominated politics and business, humbler folk shaped the culture of Southern Sundays.
The South’s evangelical turn led to a homogenization of white yeomen. The North went the opposite direction. The 19th century saw Puritanism secularize into transcendentalism and abolitionist politics, while millions of Catholic immigrants changed the face and form of faith in the North’s urban centers. Northern society became a melting pot (if sometimes boiling) while the South became more unified and "peculiar" in its culture. While Union soldiers also turned to God during the Civil War, they did so in a much more hodgepodge fashion; each regiment, each social class, each ethnicity in its own way. The Confederate Army, meanwhile, contained rank upon rank of men of the same ethnic, social, and religious stock. It was a ready-made congregation of kindling in need of a religious spark.
Yet Southern evangelists did not see the mass conversion of the army as an easy task. While it was true that the vast majority of the Confederate Army came from a nominal Protestant Christian background, or at least were familiar with the language and themes of the Bible, the typical Southern soldier at the beginning of the war could be stereotyped as a "backslider". These were mostly young, single men, who averaged 18 years of age. Following the victory at Fort Sumter, a wave of patriotism, often eclipsed by a sense of adventure and a thirst for glory, swelled the ranks of volunteers. There were thousands of "90 day" men waiting for the chance to kill 20 Yankees quickly before the war was soon won. The harsh reality of life in the army soon set in. A soldier’s life was one of marching, drilling, and fatigue duty. Yeomen accustomed to a life of independence were quickly feeling the lash of the officer’s tongue and the sergeant’s whip, a punishment prior to the war that was known only for slaves. Furthermore, thousands of men were dying of disease and not combat. Life in camp was dull and depressing. Adventure was to be found, and it was found in cards, dice, whiskey, and women of ill repute. Southern military camps had a negative connotation, and yet no worse than any gathering of young single men today, whether at college, the army, or a work site.
There were further challenges to wouldbe Confederate evangelists. The Federal blockade of the Confederate coastline cut off the region from supplies, including Bibles, which like many other Southern goods had been imported from Europe prior to the war. The region’s lack of rail and road infrastructure also made delivery of religious materials problematic. Furthermore, while Southerners were almost exclusively of Protestant stock, there were still significant denominational differences and rivalries amongst Southern Christians. Southern evangelists also had the disadvantage of government indifference. While the Confederate government openly evoked God, it did little to aid His work amongst the army. Confederate chaplains were paid a pittance and a private’s rations, and did not have the official rank and status of their Union counterparts. If there was to be a great harvest of soldierly souls, whom would lead it—and how?
According to Confederate chaplain William W. Bennett, who was also a superintendent of a religious tract association, the proselytizing was organized by an ecumenical effort amongst denominations and religious publishers. Churches raised funds for ministers to aid the Confederate chaplainry, and also supplemented the meager income of the army preachers. Religious societies worked to distribute thousands of Psalm books and New Testaments, which could be cheaply printed in lieu of proper bibles and hymnals. Although the men in the Confederate army were not strangers to Christian doctrine, churches organized their efforts along the lines of foreign missionary work rather than peace time "tent meetings".
Christian volunteers attending the wounded on the battlefield during the American Civil War.
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, making army missions more official. Missionary societies were used to working in hostile conditions, and in a primitive infrastructure with limited resources, and thus were well-equipped to handle the challenges of ministering in the Confederate service. 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." By 1863, the Christian associations were also working closely with the official army chaplains, pooling their resources and power. The Southern Evangelists seemed the most efficient and organized entity in the entire Confederacy.
The record of this "bottom-up" approach to evangelism which occurred by 1863 is a sharp contrast from the traditional "Lost Cause" view of the Confederate revival. In the decades following the war, a narrative emerged that the Confederate revival was led from the top down, as the men followed the examples of their pious officers. While Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson certainly encouraged and were enthusiastic about religious revival in the army, they were exceptions amongst the officer corps. We must remember that the Confederate army reflected the class structure of the civilian society of the South. While the rank and file of the men in gray was predominantly of evangelical yeoman stock, the officer class of the South were pulled from the ranks of the gentry. The Southern gentry had opposed and scoffed at the revivals of the Great Awakening earlier in the century. While there were certainly pious upper class Southerners (Lee being a prominent example), many members of the Southern gentry used church as a social gathering rather than a place of fervor. Indeed the idea of public "fervor" of any kind was contrary to the mores of the upper class. Southern officers also tended to be fond of cards and drink, and as members of the gentry were above reproach for their "vices" in a way that poorer men could never be. According to Confederate chaplain John William Jones, colonels often discouraged the efforts of the chaplains as too much religion might create a crisis of conscience amongst the men in battle.
The revival of the Confederate Army took on a democratic air. Like the Southern slaves, yeoman soldiers took the same Gospel preached by the planter class and adapted it to their own needs and cultural attitudes. Several accounts by Confederate chaplains and civilian missionaries relate that the men in the ranks took to lay preaching. John William Jones related how he arrived to a Mississippi brigade in the rain to the sound "of psalms and singing." The men of the brigade asked Jones for a sermon, and when the reverend protested due to the weather, reminded him: "We do all other military duty in any weather that comes, and we cannot see why we should allow the weather to interrupt our religious privileges."
The soldiers did indeed see religious revival as a "privilege." It gave the men the opportunity to bond and relieved boredom and stress. Revivals contained Gospel stories adapted to the army, singing and playing musical instruments, and lively and intellectual sermons during an era when public oratory was a form of popular entertainment. Chaplains related how the soldiers waited patiently for services to begin and did not engage in "idle chatter" nor interrupt the sermons in any way. Perhaps these same men who had scoffed at church as a "woman’s place" found the camp revival a free expression of male bonding.
Throughout the fall and winter of 1863, newspapers, letters, and testimonials spread throughout the south about the effects of revival in the army. This revival was not contained to the Army in Virginia, but had also spread to the soldiers fighting in Tennessee and across the Mississippi River. Chaplains wrote in amazement about the lack of dice and card-playing in the camps, and how swearing, which had once been common, was seldom heard in the ranks. Report after report in the papers indicates that thousands of soldiers had committed to Christ by 1863, and their conversion was genuine.
The most curious facet of the revivals of 1863 is that they did not carry over into civilian society. Indeed the same letters and newspapers that reported the religious fervor of the army condemned the vices of the civilian population. Confederate civilians were accused of price gouging, selfishness, and backsliding in their faith. Perhaps the civilians were acting in a "survival" mode, responding to food shortages, occupation, and the breakdown of society, by looking toward themselves. Ironically, it was the young, card-playing, whisky-drinking, "backsliding" soldiers who responded to the upheaval of the war by turning to God.
The great harvest of 1863 came at a time of great trial for the Confederate soldier. The hope for quick victory, indeed victory of any sort, was dashed with the defeats of Gettysburg and Vicksburg. The Confederate soldiers dealt with the atrocities of a modern war fought with Napoleonic tactics. Friends and messmates were torn to bits right next to each other. Soldiers faced down cannon, rifled muskets, and bayonets across open field charges. Men could be killed by gunfire or by disease. In an era before "combat fatigue" and "post traumatic stress disorder," 19th century men turned to the best coping mechanism at hand, their faith. The Confederate revivals would not only sustain thousands of men in the horrors of battle, but prepare those men for "God’s will," to cope with the defeat and destruction of the South during the Civil War. For while the Civil War was a great harvest of death and destruction, it also brought a harvest of souls to the church. Many of the men who survived the war continued to lead churches and revivals themselves after the guns were finally silenced.
Copyright 2011 Acton Institute