Religion and Reform

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Religion and Reform

During the Civil War, the nation's religious community was not immune from involvement in the political conflict between North and South. Clergymen associated their side's cause with divine providence and guidance. Proslavery and antislavery ministers alike infused their sermons with political sentiment. According to The Liberator,

[t]he religion of a country should be its most active and vigorous helper in the renunciation of evil-doing and the commencement of practical reform. As far as the vice of slaveholding is concerned, our readers are aware that the churches of our popular religion have been its main bulwark; not only doing nothing to overthrow it, but holding active complicity with it, and placing active obstruction in the way of those who not only doing nothing to overthrow it, but holding active complicity with it, and placing active obstruction in the way of those who would overthrow it. ("Present Relation of the Presbyterian Church to Slavery," November 1, 1861, p. 174).

Reverend Samuel Johnson of Lynn, Massachusetts, acknowledged such complacency on the church's part during an 1863 sermon:

[The] Christ of American civilization is the slave. Only through his emancipation can she [the country] be restored. The Church has proved apostate, shrinking from the duty of the hour. … Hatred of the negro in the North is more cruel than slavery in the South. It alone stands between us and the suppression of the rebellion to-day. We must be bruised more and more severely by the mill-stone of God's retributive justice, until this vice is eradicated. ("A Sermon for the Present Hour," The Liberator, May 1, 1863, p. 70)

Sermons that advocated slavery and secession provided support for the assertion that the church has been slavery's "main bulwark": "How eloquent and earnest men become—and the ministers of religion too—when pleading for 'slavery' in the name of 'liberty,' and braving all the miseries of war for its sake" (Stanton 1864, p. 158). For example, during a sermon the Reverend James H. Thornwell "urged the whole doctrine of secession on the ground of constitutional right, the alleged encroachment upon slavery being given as the justifying cause" (Stanton 1864, p. 156). Reverend Thornwell believed that the South had received the greatest of endorsements, but that for the sake of "the institution," it might have to "meet the horrors of war and carnage": "Even though our cause be just, and our course approved of Heaven," he declared, "our path to victory may be through a baptism of blood. Liberty has its martyrs and confessors, as well as religion" (Stanton 1864, p. 157).

Rather than advocating the abolition of slavery, Southern religious organizations urged followers to lobby for the transformation of the institution to make it more humane and "Christian." For example, a "Pastoral Letter from the Bishops of the Protestant Episcopal Church, to the Clergy and Laity of the Church of the Confederate States of America" expressed the belief that the Church had a duty to lobby lawmakers of the Confederacy to change the "system of labor" so as to preserve familial relationships. The Pastoral Letter stated in part:

It is likewise the duty of the Church to press upon the masters of the country their obligation, as Christian men, so to arrange this institution (slavery) as not to necessitate the violation of those sacred relations which God has created, and which man cannot, consistently with Christian duty, annul. The systems of labor which prevail in Europe, and which are, in many respects, more severe than ours, are so arranged as to prevent all necessity for the separation of parents and children, and of husbands and wives; and a very little care upon our part would rid the system, upon which we are about to plant our national life, of these unchristian features. (Stanton 1864, p. 181)

In the North, there were some churches that supported the more drastic measure of abolition. For instance, the Synod at Allegheny, Pennsylvania, selected a committee of six to travel to Washington "for the purpose of pressing upon the attention of the President and his Cabinet, as well as upon other officers of the Government, the duty and necessity of taking immediate steps to put away our national sins, that we may be restored to the favor of God" ("Present Relation of the Presbyterian Church to Slavery," The Liberator, November 1, 1861, p. 174).

After the Civil War began, Southern religious organizations were restructured to reflect geographical and political alliances. For example,

The leading ministers, and other influential men in the respective Churches of all denominations, at the earliest moment, brought all the religious bodies of the South to break their connection with those of the North—that is, with those religious organizations which hitherto were co-extensive with the Union—[and] changed their formularies of Church Polity, their Prayer-Books, and Directories for worship, so as to give in their adhesion to the Government set up by the rebels, and thus recognize it as a lawfully established Civil Power (Stanton 1864, p. 177)

In addition, "the words 'United States of America' were blotted out, and the words 'Confederate States of America' took their places, in the Liturgies, Prayers, and Standards of Faith, of every Church in the rebel dominions" (Stanton 1864, p. 177).

Southern churches also issued addresses and resolutions directed at members of their own organizations and the Christian world at large. These addresses outlined organizational changes and expressed the organizations' allegiance to the Confederate cause. For example, in one address, the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America "renounced the jurisdiction of [the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the Unites States of America,] and dissolved the ties which bound them ecclesiastically with their brethren of the North" (Stanton 1864, p. 179).

A pastoral letter from the Protestant Episcopal Church of the Confederate States of America stated that it had been "[f]orced by the Providence of God to separate … from the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States … at a moment when civil strife had dipped its foot in blood, and cruel war was desolating our homes and firesides" (Stanton 1864, p. 180). The Church believed "with a wonderful unanimity, that the providence of God had guided our footsteps, and for His own inscrutable purposes had forced us into a separate organization" (Stanton 1864, p. 181). It also expressed solidarity with its secular neighbors: "In our case, we go forward with the leading minds of our new Republic cheering us on by their communion with us, and with no prejudications to overcome, save those which arise from a lack of acquaintance with our doctrine and worship" (p. 181). The pastoral letter also informed followers that the prayer book was unaltered, except "where a change of our Civil Government and the formation of a new nation have made alteration essentially requisite" (p. 181).

Religious organizations also involved themselves more formally in social and political movements, such as the temperance movement.

The Temperance Movement

Temperance advocates encouraged their fellow Americans to reduce the amount of alcohol they consumed. Many favored the absolute prohibition of the sale and consumption of alcohol, because they believed that alcohol caused people to behave in immoral ways. Social reformer Margaret Chappellsmith stated an understanding of temperance that was embraced by most within the movement:

What is duty? It is a natural obligation to so rule our lives and actions, that we may contribute to the production of the greatest amount of happiness of the greatest number of human beings. This requires us to have a regard for what is good for ourselves, as well as for others; it includes regard for truth, justice, kindness, love, and that temperance in all our habits that experience proves to be necessary to mental and bodily health. ("Can Atheism Abrogate Duty?" Boston Investigator, May 15, 1861)

Churches and religious organizations were quite active in the temperance movement. In fact, according to the Vermont Chronicle:

The church as a body has done more to promote [the temperance movement] than all other organizations. While men out of the church have done nobly, the members of the church so far as we have known, and we have been careful observers for forty years, have been the main pillars of the movement. All our Congregational churches, (and we presume that the same is true of Methodist and Baptist churches,) are temperance organizations. … Neither temperance nor any other moral movement ever has or ever can succeed in this world without the aid of the church and its ministers. ("Forcing the Law," February 6, 1864, p. 4)

However, not all clergymen felt that churches should engage in social reform. In an article focusing on the Reverend Dr. Blagden, the Boston Daily Advertiser declared that

in endeavoring to reform men, we must adopt the doctrine of total depravity, and so begin at the origin of all evil, the human heart, instead of being satisfied with mere outward reform. The contrary course had been the great mistake of many churches, and one against which he [Blagden] had frequently warned his people. He spoke of the temperance and anti-slavery reforms as examples, saying that those who take it upon themselves to make any act a sin, which is not of necessity a crime, were wise beyond what is written. This practice tends to make men too censorious, and to do more harm than good. ("Sermon of Dr. Blagden," September 30, 1861)

Many churches established temperance societies, which hosted lectures on temperance and engaged in other activities to encourage temperance in society. For example, the Father Mathew Temperance Society was established in Massachusetts, while the Sons of Temperance Society was quite active in New York. The American Temperance Union met at churches, including ones in New York. Religious organizations, such as the United States Christian Commission (USCC), also distributed temperance pamphlets. By January of 1863, the USCC had distributed 300,000 temperance documents (North American and United States Gazette, January 30, 1863).

The proponents of temperance did more than meet among themselves and talk about the evils of alcohol. Their battle extended from churches and lecture halls to the halls of justice and lawmaking. In 1861 a meeting was scheduled in San Francisco's Mission Baptist Church regarding establishing a temperance party. Notice was published in the San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin, and an invitation was extended to "[a]ll persons, irrespective of sect in religion or party in politics, who are in favor of promoting to public office moral men, and such men as totally abstain from the manufacture, sale and use of all intoxicating liquors as a beverage" ("Movement toward a Temperance Party," May 6, 1861).

Members of the temperance movement were often successful in their missions, resulting in temperance laws throughout the country. Both Massachusetts and Vermont, for example, had temperance laws. "Where the liquor law has been thoroughly successful," declared Judge Marston, district attorney for Vermont's Cape District, "it has resulted in increase in order, in strengthening the law in the estimation of its friends and the friends of quiet, and making delinquents feel there was really a power in it" ("Massachusetts Temperance Law," Vermont Chronicle, February 25, 1865, p. 4).

The Vermont Chronicle likewise extolled the virtues of Vermont's temperance law:

[W]hile our excellent Temperance Law may not entirely prevent the sale of intoxicating drinks as a beverage, by wicked men, for the love of gain, yet we believe such sales are greatly circumscribed by its salutary terror over evil doers; and we have the fullest confidence in this legal agent, in the hands of a virtuous people, as fully equal when properly enforced, to the great work of reform. ("Local and State Matters: Addison County Temperance Society," March 18, 1865, p. 8).


"Can Atheism Abrogate Duty?" Boston Investigator, May 15, 1861.

"Forcing the Law." Vermont Chronicle, February 6, 1864, p. 4.

"Local and State Matters: Addison County Temperance Society." Vermont Chronicle, March 18, 1865, p. 8.

"Massachusetts Temperance Law." Vermont Chronicle, February 25, 1865, p. 4.

"Movement toward a Temperance Party." San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin, May 6, 1861.

North American and United States Gazette, Friday, January 30, 1863.

"Present Relation of the Presbyterian Church to Slavery." The Liberator, November 1, 1861, p. 174.

"A Sermon for the Present Hour." The Liberator, May 1, 1863, p. 70.

"Sermon of Dr. Blagden." Boston Daily Advertiser, September 30, 1861.

Stanton, Robert Livingston. The Church and the Rebellion: A Consideration of the Rebellion against the Government of the United States; and the Agency of the Church, North and South, in Relation Thereto. New York: Derby & Miller, 1864.

Jodi M. Savage

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