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Crisis of Faith

By George C. Rable
11/30/2017 • Civil War Times Magazine

Spiritual revivals gave soldiers a reason to keep on keeping on.

In his forthcoming book God’s Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War, Lincoln Prize–winning author George C. Rable looks at the role played by faith throughout the conflict. The following excerpt centers on the “harvest of souls” resulting from revival movements during the conflict’s second half, when discouraging war news led many at home and in the camps to focus on their own redemption.

Despite scattered reports of well- attended services and prayer meetings in the Army of Tennessee, it had not been until the spring of 1863 after General Braxton Bragg had withdrawn from Murfreesboro to Tullahoma, Tenn., that there appeared the first major signs of a spiritual stirring. Meetings were held in several brigades, and there were reports of nearly 500 converts.

As Bragg’s forces moved toward Chattanooga and into northern Georgia during the summer and early fall, revivals had grown larger and more enthusiastic. Three chaplains in one brigade held “brush arbor” meetings for five weeks with impressive results. Elsewhere army missionaries gathered the troops in local churches for evening services. There were promising signs even among the Trans-Mississippi forces, though the more widely scattered brigades there made the work more difficult.

After Robert E. Lee’s army returned to Virginia following the retreat from Gettysburg, chaplains began organizing sunrise prayer meetings followed by conversations with “inquirers” at 10 and preaching at 11. Interdenominational Christian associations conducted nighttime prayer services. Visiting ministers and lay leaders helped make the winter of 1863–64 a high point in army evangelism. Camp revivals reportedly reached the indifferent and prodded the faithful, but then discouraged Confederates had every reason to welcome the gospel message, and the end of the campaign season as usual proved an opportune time.

Near Orange Court House, the preaching continued for several weeks, with outdoor crowds of more than 1,000, and several hundred coming forward each evening for prayer. Finding a place to meet was a challenge, but a good hillside with log benches formed a rude amphitheater that made an excellent backdrop for the drama of conversion, scenes that veterans remembered years later.

When the armies settled into winter quarters and there was a chill in the air, worshipers needed warmer accommodations. Some 40 log chapels, typically seating around 300, were erected along the Rapidan River; in the Army of Tennessee, one makeshift structure could hold nearly 1,000 worshipers. A Baptist chaplain described an idealized scene: “The sea of upturned, earnest faces, and the songs swelling from hundreds of manly voices making the forests resound.”

Tent flies supplied by the Christian Commission covered log huts, and more than 60 of these chapels were built for the Army of the Potomac. In one camp along the Rapidan, a 30-by-18-foot structure with log benches sat 150 worshipers; no Solomon’s temple, a Connecticut soldier remarked, but a “temple of riven pine overlaid with Virginia mud.”

Just as with western Confederates, the revival spirit touched the Federals in winter quarters around Chattanooga. When the weather began warming up during the new year, “large congregations” gathered for evening services. Perhaps the anguish of Chickamauga and the miraculous victories at Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge led men to seek solace in the Lord and to sing his praises.

Most men remained outside the fold of religious faith, and the small groups of believers revealed much about the armies’ religious character. As with the Confederates, a couple of Union soldiers would start meeting for evening prayers, and soon others would join them. Pious fellows praying alone in the woods to avoid scoffing comrades discovered they were not alone. Regular churchgoers formed the heart of such groups, and this was certainly true of the small bodies of men gathered in the winter huts for evening devotions. To be sure, there was evidence of spiritual growth, especially when attendance improved at prayer meetings and revival services. Between early September and mid-November, 30 hardy souls grew into 150 worshipers in one Rhode Island regiment.

Much still depended on the chaplains, so a persistent shortage even in the Army of Northern Virginia no doubt hindered the work. The quality of chaplains had reportedly improved, and certainly missionaries along with laymen took up some of the preaching slack. Once the revivals were well underway, however, the quality of sermons seemed to matter much less, or at least that’s what Methodist Morgan Callaway told his wife: “I have never seen a time when men hear the Word with such gladness. Anybody’s preaching is acceptable— even mine.” A South Carolinian agreed that “the most ordinary preachers drew large congregations.”

For the first two years of the war, the soldiers might have been fortunate to hear a sermon every couple of weeks, though now in some brigades there were services nearly every day. The very success of revivals boosted Confederate morale but at the same time fostered either spiritual complacency or striking hubris. “The world has perhaps never seen a mighty army under the influence of one general revival,” a Georgia Baptist association crowed. “The camps, designed to train men to butcher their fellows, are the places where souls are prepared for heaven.”

Would these preachers and laymen concede the possibility of similar holiness in their enemy’s ranks? Although the revivals appeared less widespread among the Federals, they too enjoyed a season of spiritual renewal. An optimistic (and perhaps myopic) Maine chaplain even thought the temperance cause was “gaining ground,” though one abolitionist preacher was convinced that the armies on both sides were still composed of “profane men” charging into battle like “incarnate fiends.” The reality was much more complex. Men were being converted, and demoralization in the camps had no doubt been exaggerated, but when a Michigan doctor talked about a “spirit of prayer and earnestness among religious men in the army,” he was choosing his words carefully. The implication was that a good number were not “religious men,” so there remained much work to do.

Families back home longed to know how the battle against Satan was going, but neither the Christian Commission, the chaplains nor visiting ministers gathered information very systematically, so the reported numbers of converts and other statistics are both scattered and suspect. The Union revivals seldom extended beyond the regimental or brigade level and generally proceeded soul by soul. After a meeting, a chaplain might receive only two or three converts but still feel the Lord’s presence among them; likewise a handful of baptisms was certainly noteworthy. On the other hand, a mass baptism or the occasional 100 or more soldiers won over during a weeklong protracted meeting—one of the more traditional means of evangelism—seemed to prove how the Holy Spirit was moving through the ranks.

Confederates made even more expansive claims of success. One soldier simply reported revivals throughout the Army of Tennessee, and vaguely worded statements about hundreds of penitents cropped up in letters home and the religious press; indeed, an Alabama private later concluded that “thousands of Confederate soldiers owe their salvation to the influences brought to bear upon them during service in the army.” Good evangelicals that they were, chaplains along with sympathetic officers and enlisted men sometimes reported more exact figures: 94 men in one regiment “returned” to the faith or 146 men who had “found peace in Christ.” Some accounts defied belief: Had there really been 200 men converted during a single meeting? Some figures—1,000 professors of faith, 2,000 inquirers, 2,000 converts—seemed suspiciously round, raising more doubts about reports from army missionaries.

Lee tried to encourage the chaplains, and Southern soldiers were always impressed when Marse Robert unobtrusively showed up for worship. When 14 generals dutifully marched into church one Sunday, however, South Carolinian Mary Chesnut sardonically commented that “less piety and more drilling of commands would suit the times better.” This bit of sarcasm ignored the connection between faith and morale. In both Union and Confederate armies, officers had important roles to play, sometimes leading prayers, reading scripture or even delivering a sermon.

From mass conversions to pious officers, all of this added to the standard narrative of Confederates as Christian soldiers. But despite voluminous evidence of piety, questions lingered. “All our boys were not good boys,” a Confederate artillerist confessed, stating the obvious. Even when there was preaching in a nearby church, another Virginian wryly commented that “the boys are slow about going to the altar” because there “are too many vegetables here for them to steal.” In the midst of revivals, a substantial number of men remained coldly indifferent, and even those who were baptized might quickly fall back into their old ways—a fact noticed by the devout and skeptical alike.

Then there was the practical question of whether religion made men better soldiers. In a season of defeat and despair, hope that faith could sustain Confederate morale survived, though the preaching remained heavily evangelistic in the traditional style. The emphasis as always was on conviction and conversion, on baptism and the church. Soldiers longed for guidance and comfort as they faced hardship, suffering and death. Whether the Confederacy remained a sacred cause was another matter, but there was far more talk of personal than national salvation.

As the Army of the Potomac prepared to leave the winter camps, a Presbyterian kept preaching “the great Bible doctrine of instantaneous regeneration—of God’s immediate claim on the heart, and his precious promise to pardon and accept at once every returning prodigal.” Time was shorter than ever, and some soldiers appeared more receptive to the gospel than ever, or as a Christian Commission delegate put it, “listening as if they were anticipating the baptism of blood which awaits them.” A goodly number even signed a temperance pledge just to be on the safe side.

Agreeing for once with their enemies, many Federals hoped that camp conversions had strengthened the armies. To believers, it appeared self-evident that the better a man was prepared to meet his maker, the better soldier he became. More fearless perhaps, and certainly more devoted to duty, but in any case even veterans who felt they had already done more than their share must still answer the call of duty—a summons from their God. Perhaps the fast-day preachers and chaplains were right; they all truly fought in the armies of the Lord. Meanwhile families prayed hard for their boys in the army, and one Iowa woman remained confident that “the Lord will surely take care of the soldiers and soon give us victory and peace.”

 

From God’s Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War, by George C. Rable. Copyright 2010 by The University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.unc.edu.

Originally published in the December 2010 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.  

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