Religion and the Sectional Conflict
White and black Virginians within these evangelical denominations, with the exception of Episcopalians, experienced disunion in their churches long before the secession winter of 1860–1861. Presbyterians divided their church into Old and New School factions in 1837 over roughly sectional lines. Most Virginians adhered to the Old School, the branch more accommodating of slavery, even though not all acknowledged slavery as the cause of the rupture. When Baptists and Methodists divided their respective denominations into Northern and Southern branches between 1844 and 1845, they were unequivocal that the main object of contention was slaveholding.
The denominational schisms were important for several reasons. On a most basic level, white Virginians interpreted the divisions as evidence that Northern Christians had strayed from the faith and were pursuing a secular agenda antagonistic to that of believing white Southerners. Members of the Christian Church clearly articulated the fear of Northern heterodoxy in 1854, two years before they also divided over slavery and organized the Southern Christian Convention. They complained that Northerners had "departed from the teachings of the Bible, our only rule of faith and practice, which neither makes the ownership of slave property a test of fellowship, religious character, or church membership." The divisions also offered a blueprint for how to respond to arguments over slavery. Some white Virginians came to see separation as a workable alternative to continued debate.
Finally, the denominational schisms upset relationships within many Virginia congregations. Methodists in the northern and western portions of the commonwealth battled with one another over whether to align with the Northern or Southern jurisdictions of the church, foreshadowing both the bitter battles between unionists and secessionists during the secession crisis and the fragmentation of the state into eastern and western parts during the war. The Richmond Christian Advocate recorded hard-fought arguments in Leesburg, Warrenton, and Fredericksburg, for example, in the opening months of 1846. These disputes, sometimes called "border wars," never entirely ceased before the Civil War. There was also a new round of divisions during and after the secession crisis, when Lutherans and Episcopalians split for the first time and Methodists and Presbyterians further divided. In sum, many Virginians experienced the Civil War as a religious battle before a single shot was fired.
Ultimately, many white Virginians found in Lincoln's call for troops sufficient evidence that the Constitution was broken. Once white Virginians witnessed what they regarded as Lincoln's perfidy, in the words of Virginia Presbyterian minister Richard McIlwaine, "the people of Virginia generally flopped over to the other side, became rabid Secessionists and were ready for a fight." Over time, many white Virginians came to consider the Civil War a holy war against Northern extremists who failed to recognize the authority of the Bible or the Constitution.
Churches on the Home Front
McGuire's comments begin to show the extent to which Virginia's and the Confederacy's leaders succeeded in framing the Civil War as a religious struggle. Mildred Lynch, in Augusta County, drew encouragement from her minister in January 1861, when he "likened us in his sermon to the Israelites & earnestly sought deliverance for us." Often the support that men and women on the home front derived from their faith was even more personal. Jane Buck, of Front Royal, tried to use her faith to encourage her son, Richard Bayly Buck, while he was in the field with the 17th Virginia Infantry Regiment. "Do dear Dickie never suffer yourself to lie down at night without acknowledging your heartfelt gratitude to a Supreme Being for the many blessings that are bestowed upon you, and beg that He may enable you to conduct yourself so as to be able to beg for a continuation of them," she wrote.
Historian Stephen V. Ash has argued that, on an institutional level, the fate of Southern churches during the Civil War depended in large part upon their proximity to the battlefield. In occupied cities and towns where the Union Army was able to provide some measure of security, white clergymen were typically able to keep their churches open during the war as long as they acknowledged the authority of the United States Government. When they refused to do so, however, Union officials were quick to shut down their congregations. In February 1862, Kensey Stewart, an Episcopal minister in Alexandria, refused to pray for Lincoln. According to Stewart, "Two sergeants then seized me in the Chancel, and with great violence, holding a revolver at my breast, they forced me out of the Church, and through the streets, with the surplice on, each of them grasping it upon the shoulder so tightly as to leave upon it the marks of their hands." Few clerics resisted as stubbornly as did Kensey, with the result that churches in occupied towns and cities tended to remain open.
In what Ash termed "no-man's land," territory that changed hands between Union and Confederate armies, churchmen had more difficulty keeping their churches open. No security, it turned out, was worse than occupation, and this was true for the rural hinterland around occupied towns as much as it was for areas literally between the armies. In these increasingly lawless areas, the women, children, and older men who comprised the bulk of white congregants dared not risk travel to distant churches. The secretary of Ebenezer Baptist Church in northern Virginia revealingly noted after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox that "the Church has not met together for up[w]ards of three years and the cause thereof was the ware in thes United States."
Whites within the reach of the Union Army faced additional ecclesiastical challenges after December 9, 1863. On that date, U.S. secretary of war Edwin H. Stanton ordered that clerics from the Northern branch of the Methodist Church could occupy "all houses of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, in which a loyal minister, who has been appointed by a loyal Bishop of said Church does not officiate." He expanded his orders to cover Baptists and Presbyterians in the first months of 1864 and opened considerable competition for control of "vacant" or openly pro-Confederate churches in no-man's land. Missionaries from the American Baptist Home Mission Society occupied pulpits in the Tidewater region, prompting delegates to the Portsmouth Baptist Association to resolve when they assembled in November 1865, "That we should be recreant to our sacred duty as guardians of the truth, if we did not, as Baptists, and as an Association, enter out solemn protest against such action as thoroughly unbaptistic and subversive of the doctrine of church independence." Only in the Confederate interior, free from Union raids, did churches continue to operate with anything approaching normality. Even in these locations, however, churches faced massive disruptions caused by the absence of white male members and the increasing resistance of black members.
Emancipation and Ecclesiastical Separation
Black Baptists in the churches that had been semiautonomous before the war, with a black membership and white pastor, were among the first to gain their independence. In some cases, members of the Union Army helped these congregations acquire title to their property, which was held in trust by white Virginians. Black Virginians also formed numerous new congregations during the war. In 1863, for example, George Corprew, a free black living near Portsmouth who had accumulated some money and property before the war, donated the land for what became Divine Baptist Church. By 1864, Tidewater Baptists had formed what was probably the first African American association in the South, the Norfolk, Virginia, Union Baptist Association. Whites ultimately accepted separation as desirable, but they initially expressed uncertainty about how to respond to black churches. A statewide committee of white Baptists pledged in June 1865 to investigate how emancipation would affect ecclesiastical relations. They frankly acknowledged the following year: "The sudden and radical changes which have taken place in the relations which existed between the white and colored people, politically and socially, have so changed the aspect of things, so as to make it difficult, with the little experience which has followed, to determine what course is best to be pursued."
For most black Virginians, the thrill of personal freedom outweighed even the headiness of ecclesiastical independence. Most enslaved people had prayed for emancipation and for the success of Union armies. When that moment finally came, Annie Harris, of Petersburg, remembered that "ev'ybody fo' miles around was singin' freedom songs." The lyrics to these songs testify to the sense of spiritual expectation that black Virginians cultivated during the war: "I fasted and I prayed 'till I came through, / Thank God Almighty, I's free at last." An Ashland man leapt into a nearby creek, exclaiming "I's free! Yes, my Jesus, I'se free!" According to his daughter, Louise Rose, he found baptism the only suitable metaphor for the new beginning that he felt and "was so happy he just kept on scooping up handfuls of water and dumping it on his head." Just as it sustained black Virginians in their long wait for freedom, though, faith also sustained white Virginians in their struggle against Union armies.
Christ in the Camp
Aiding these chaplains and missionaries was a phalanx of colporteurs, men armed with tracts and Bibles for sale to the troops. Early in the war, the Albemarle Baptist Association recognized the opportunity that colporteurs had to win souls for Christ: "A new field of enterprise is now open to us—though thousands of our citizens have been removed from the influence of religious teaching at home, and subjected to all the demoralizing tendencies incident to army life, yet, they have not passed beyond the reach of the Colporteur, and the army presents one of the most inviting fields for the work of Colportage." The colporteurs were not alone in their ambition to inundate Confederate troops with godly reading. By 1863, Virginia hosted three new religious newspapers: The Army and Navy Messenger (Petersburg), The Soldiers' Visitor (Richmond), and The Soldiers' Paper (Richmond).
The Civil War marked a decisive break in Virginia religious history because of the formation of new black denominations. Black men and women struggled against prejudice and economic hardship to raise funds for church buildings, permanent schools, and national denominational organizations. Once African Americans had acquired land and built sanctuaries, their hard-won churches became central meeting places. African Americans who had refused to attend racially mixed churches before the war flooded into the newly independent churches, raising the number of churched black Virginians to almost 80 percent.
Whites also struggled in the postwar period, and they embraced religion in their way forward. They faced extraordinary social change, economic hardship, and the loss of loved ones. In the face of this pain, whites searched desperately for a new narrative of Virginia religious history. White Virginians' wartime expectation (inscribed on the Great Seal of the Confederacy) that God would vindicate their cause on the battlefield had been unfulfilled. Presbyterian Robert L. Dabney helped white Southerners to recapture their self-identification as favored sons and daughters of God with the publication in 1867 of A Defence of Virginia, (and through her, of the South) in Recent and Pending Contests against the Sectional Party. He developed in it a vigorous defense of slavery, insisting that Northern military success did not disprove white Southerners' righteousness during the sectional conflict and war. As other clerics had begun to argue in the closing months of the war, Dabney asserted that God had only chastised Confederates because of his preferential love for them—and that God would ultimately vindicate their cause without arms but "in the pages of impartial history, and in the Day of Judgment." Disappointed white Virginians such as Dabney thus helped guarantee that religion would be a part of the Lost Cause view of the war, just as it had been a key component of sectionalism and Confederate nationalism.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Irons, C. F. Religion during the Civil War. (2015, October 27). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Religion_During_the_Civil_War.
- MLA Citation:
Irons, Charles F. "Religion during the Civil War." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 27 Oct. 2015. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: March 24, 2009 | Last modified: October 27, 2015
Contributed by Charles F. Irons, an associate professor of history at Elon University in Elon, North Carolina. He is the author of The Origins of Proslavery Christianity: White and Black Evangelicals in Colonial and Antebellum Virginia (2008).