Religion in the Ranks Chapter I of II

  • By Philip Gerard
  • Photography courtesy of 19th Century American Sheet Music Collection, University of North Carolina Music Library at Chapel Hill

Many Christians living in the Confederacy Believe there is little doubt that God is on their side. (Volume 3, Part 1)

God-Save-the-South-sheet-music

For most North Carolinians in 1860, the world is a place governed by the will of Providence. Good fortune is the result of an upright life, and calamity comes as a judgment from the hand of God. The war itself is a special trial in which the Almighty will test the honor and purity of those who fight, and the faith of those who are left behind.

Many of the aristocratic class are Episcopalians, a minority faith with influence far beyond its 3,000 members.

By contrast, the Baptists comprise 65,000 members in nearly 800 congregations.

The Methodists, an aggressively evangelical sect that relies more on boisterous camp meetings than on staid ritual, rival the Baptists with more than 60,000 members.

The Presbyterian Church claims more than 15,000 members, solidly rooted in the rising middle class and the Scots tradition of the Cape Fear River Valley and areas of the Piedmont.

The antislavery Quakers are clustered in Guilford, Chatham, and Randolph counties, fewer than 5,000 strong. In Salem are settled the Moravians, a German sect that owns slaves communally — that is, the church is the slaveholder, and the slaves are used to perform the work of the settlement. There are pockets of Lutherans in the Piedmont, Disciples of Christ in the east, and a few Roman Catholics and Jews, mainly in the cities.

Slaves are preached to by itinerant ministers hired by owners, or by ministers among their own ranks. Some attend services at their masters’ churches, and many are denied any religious instruction at all for fear it will lead to discontent and an urge to run away or rebel.

Before the war the churches mostly steer clear of politics, wary of the consequences of secession. And it is difficult to reconcile the forced bondage of fellow human beings with Christian charity.

The solution is to cast slavery in Old Testament terms. The classic argument comes from Genesis. As one minister writes: “God did not make all men free and equal. He has enslaved some by placing them in bondage to others. Ham manifested the wicked traits which afterward developed themselves in his descendents, and on this account Heaven forged the chains of slavery and placed them upon him.”

Thus many evangelical churches become staunch defenders of slavery as part of the divine plan.

Not all North Carolina preachers are convinced that God sanctions slavery. Dr. Robert Hall Morrison, a Presbyterian minister, wrestles with his conscience over the contradiction between man as the image of Christ and the practice of holding some men and women as property: “I have long looked upon Slavery as a traffic in itself detestable and justified by no principle either of nations or nature.” Yet, more than 60 slaves work his 200-acre Cottage Home Plantation in Lincoln County.

None of this sea change in religious sentiment happens overnight. It evolves over years of debate, reflection, prayer, and social pressure.

When North Carolina at last secedes and troops begin mustering in large camps in Raleigh, Goldsboro, and elsewhere, at first the only chaplains to attend them are recruited by the individual commanders. The Confederate government considers chaplains an unnecessary expense. Late in the war, bowing to popular demand, it grudgingly enlists chaplains at the rank and pay of private.

The churches band together to form a “religious military press.” It prints thousands of religious tracts — newspapers, pamphlets, pocket devotionals — and distributes them to the army in the field. The various denominations agree not to pursue their own doctrinal agendas. The editor of the Army and Navy Messenger proclaims: “Remember, we are not laboring to promote the interests of any party or sect, but simply to lead men to Christ, to make them disciples of the Saviour.”

Another purpose becomes quite clear, expressed by a writer for The Soldier’s Friend: “… to prepare them, if possible, for the greatest of emergencies, death.”

The Soldier’s Visitor preaches that there is no contradiction between killing the enemy and serving the gospel. “The old time idea that a good Christian cannot make a good soldier, has been thoroughly exploded,” it says. “It has been proved, that other things being equal — the better Christian, the better soldier.”

There are prayers for the hour before battle to calm the nerves and steady the heart for battle: “Stir up thy strength, O Lord, and come and help us; for Thou givest not always the battle to the strong, but canst save by many or by few.”

There are prayers to recite after a defeat, to rally the men once more to the sacred cause and search their hearts for any weakness of spirit or faltering of courage that might have caused them to be vanquished.

There are especially prayers to be rendered enthusiastically on the heels of great victory, giving thanks and assuring the Almighty of the humility of His servants: “O Almighty God, the Sovereign Commander of all the world, in whose hand is power and might, which none is able to withstand; we bless and magnify thy great and glorious name for this happy victory, the whole glory whereof we do ascribe to thee, who art the only giver of victory.”

There is also a prayer for a sick or wounded soldier, and plenty of funeral invocations.

The prayers and revival meetings serve two main purposes. First, they reinforce the sense of a soldier’s duty to his country as a sacred duty to the Almighty himself. “The true Christian is always a true patriot,” sermonizes John Paris, Methodist chaplain to the 54th North Carolina Regiment.

Second, they prepare a soldier to face death, steadied by his belief in a better afterlife in which he will be united with loved ones and free of suffering. Thus, a tract titled “Prepare To Meet thy God” exhorts the soldier-reader, “This meeting may take place soon — it cannot be very far distant. … You may never see old age; you may never see another year; nay, another day, another hour may usher your soul into the presence of your Judge.”

Thus are reinforced obedience to commanders and valor in the face of slaughter.

One North Carolina soldier writes that the tracts are “gladly received and closely read.” He goes on, “Candor leads me to say that a Chaplain, as a general thing, is of but little benefit to the soldiers. … Often I have seen the Chaplain of a regiment preaching to a squad of fifteen or twenty, while others were lolling about their tents, yet others at a game of cards.” But the tracts lead to private reflection, and reflection “leads to resolves of reformation.”

The fight against the Union takes on the character of a crusade, a holy war in which honor — cast in Old Testament allegiance to tribe, culture, and God — is sacred, to be defended to the death. The Confederacy has defined itself as a Christian nation, its fight as a Christian war.

Man of high stature

North Carolina fields perhaps the most famous Christian soldier of all.

Leonidas Polk, a Raleigh native and University of North Carolina alumnus, graduates from West Point and then, after just six months, abandons his military career for a clerical one. He rises to become the Episcopal Bishop of Louisiana, presiding from a plantation worked by several hundred slaves. When war comes, he stuns his fellow clerics by — in the words of his ecclesiastical critics — “buckling the sword over the gown.”

He goes to the fight bearing a battle flag presented to him by a wealthy Louisiana neighbor, Sarah Dorsey, emblazoned with the cross of Constantine. She writes, “We are fighting the Battle of the Cross against the Modern Barbarians who would rob a Christian people of Country, Liberty, and Life.”

Polk is a tall, stately man with a full beard befitting his station, hounded by critics but lauded by Gen. Robert E. Lee “as a model for all that was soldierly, gentlemanly, and honorable.”

His old friend Jefferson Davis soon promotes him to lieutenant general. Throughout the war, he retains his evangelical fervor. He habitually dons his clerical robes over his uniform to perform religious services.

Polk’s aide recalls with admiration: “In battle he was a daring old man, with his heart in the fray, and his best faith on the result; riding through shot and shell from point to point, unconscious of danger.”

But Polk’s zeal does not protect him. In the summer of 1864, at Pine Mountain, Georgia, he is cut nearly in half by a cannonball and dies on the field. In the right pocket of his coat, his aides find four copies of Chaplain C.T. Quintard’s Balm for the Weary and Wounded. Now stained with his blood, they were intended as gifts to Gen. Joseph E. Johnston and Gen. John Bell Hood, both recently baptized by Polk.

God on both sides

The ministers who serve as chaplains energetically support the prosecution of the war — urging soldiers to fight bravely, to die willingly, to kill without remorse an enemy they cast as the infidel, the minion of Satan. They baptize and bury, and sometimes they perform both rituals in the span of a single day.

Thus in February 1864 at Kinston, John Paris — reputed to be the oldest serving chaplain in the Confederate Army — baptizes many of the 22 condemned North Carolinians-turned-Union soldiers convicted by a secret court of deserting their Confederate regiments. He urges them to confess their sins, and upon learning who recruited them to the Union cause, he has those men arrested, and they too are condemned to death.

Following their mass execution, Paris delivers to the assembled troops a long, fiery sermon founded on the Gospel of St. Matthew, specifically the passage that recounts Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Christ: “And I now lay down the Proposition, that every man who has taken up arms in defence of his country, and basely deserts or abandons that service, belongs in principle and practice to the family of Judas. … I hold, gentlemen, that there are few crimes in the sight of either God or man, that are more wicked and detestable than desertion.”

As the war progresses, many denominations call for state-sanctioned religion, especially Baptists. President Jefferson Davis decrees numerous days of national fasting and prayer. At the outset of the war, many evangelical Christian churches in the state were morally certain that the South would prevail, that God was indeed on their side. The string of early victories against such great odds excited an almost ecstatic tenor to their claim that God had ordained victory.

Now as Confederate armies are slaughtered at Sharpsburg, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Winchester — all over the map — bafflement sets in. The North Carolina Baptists’ Biblical Recorder raises a question: “Some white Christians of the Confederacy, in seeking to determine why God has not yet given victory to his chosen nation and instead is allowing the war to continue, have determined that the primary sin of the South is that of extortion.”

Merchants are price-gouging customers for scarce commodities.

It occurs to no religious leader that the sin causing all the trouble might be slavery.

In his second inaugural address, delivered from the steps of the Capitol on March 4, 1865, amid a crowd of spectators that includes an actor named John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln expresses the contradiction that religious fervor in both armies has brought to the conflict: “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. … The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”

A few weeks later, Lincoln is struck down by Booth — a man who is later shot to death by a religious zealot who explains, “Providence directed my hand.” He wears his hair long in imitation of Jesus and calls himself Boston Corbett, after the city where he was saved.

Selected Sources

The author is grateful to the following published sources: Hugh Talmadge Lefler and Albert Ray Newsome’s North Carolina: The History of a Southern State (University of North Carolina Press, 1954); John Wesley Brinfield Jr.’s The Spirit Divided: Memoirs of Civil War Chaplains (Mercer University Press, 2006); John Patrick Daly’s When Slavery Was Called Freedom: Evangelicalism, Proslavery, and the Causes of the Civil War (University Press of Kentucky, 2002); Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout, and Charles Reagan Wilson’s Religion and the American Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1998); George C. Rable’s God’s Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War (UNC Press, 2010); “A Sermon: Preached Before Brig. Gen. Hoke’s Brigade, at Kinston, N.C., on the 28th of February, 1864, by Rev. John Paris, Chaplain, Fifty-Fourth Regiment N. C. Troops, Upon the Death of Twenty-Two Men, Who Had Been Executed in the Presence of the Brigade for the Crime of Desertion” (Greensborough [sic], N.C., A.W. Ingold & co., 1864); Ken H. Fortenberry’s “Slavery, Religion and the Churches of East Lincoln County, N.C.” (news@norman.com); “This Day In History” series of civilwarbaptists.com; the author consulted the following sources from the rare book collection, The University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, available electronically through Documenting the American South: Recollections of My Slavery Days by William Henry Singleton; “Prayers and Other Devotions for the Use of the Soldiers of the Army of the Confederate States” (Charleston, S. C.. Evans & Cogswell, Printers, 186?,); “Nellie Norton: or, Southern Slavery and the Bible. A Scriptural Refutation of the Principal Arguments upon which the Abolitionists Rely. A Vindication of Southern Slavery from the Old and New Testaments” by Ebenezer W. Warren (1864); “Pastoral Letter from Alamance Church, To the Members of the Congregation Now in the Army of the Confederate States of America,” by Calvin Henderson Wiley; “Prepare to Meet Thy God” [no author]; special thanks to Jill Gerard for invaluable assistance in locating research materials.

Philip Gerard is an author and chairman of the department of creative writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. His latest book, The Patron Saint of Dreams, was recently published by Hub City Press.

To view all stories from Our State’s Civil War Series, visit http://www.ourstate.com/topics/history/civil-war-series

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