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North and South

North and South


Heading Toward Disunion. Prior to the Civil War, no American faith took a stand on the question of what, if anything, justified secession from the Union. When the war started in 1861, some denominations escaped its divisiveness by virtue of their structure. The Disciples of Christ, for example, were organized around individual congregations with no central authority; thus different congregations could take individual stands without creating denominational dissent. For other faiths, the process was more wrenching.

Presbyterianism. The Presbyterians had begun dividing as early as 1800. Old School Presbyterians, who emphasized a trained clergy called by elders to specific congregations and gathered into synods for discussion of doctrinal matters, predominated in the South. The New School, which permitted a less educated ministry and a more congregational polity, predominated in New England and the Northwest frontier. Both Old and New Schools had General Assemblies, at which delegates from congregations and synods discussed and set doctrine for the denomination. When pressed to rule on the morality of slavery, the Old School General Assembly in 1845 pointed out that slavery was found in the Bible, and was not categorically condemned there. By 1849 it had developed a more complex position. Although slavery was found in the Bible, in the United States it was the secular authorities whose laws defined and regulated slavery, and thus the General Assembly would take no stand on it. The next year, the New School General Assembly ruled in the opposite way, saying that even though slavery could be found described in Scripture, this historical account was not meant as divine sanction. In 1857 the New School Presbyterians divided over slavery, creating Southern and Northern New Schools. In 1860 the Old School General Assembly met after the November elections had raised Abraham Lincoln to the presidency and after South Carolina had begun the process of secession. In conformity with its position of respecting established civil authority, some assemblymen professed loyalty to the Union, which created a split between Northern and Southern Old School Presbyterians.

Methodism. The Methodists also felt the divisive effects of slavery. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, had discouraged slaveholding, but American missionaries, eager for converts, did not enforce this as an absolute requirement for membership in good standing. However, two other characteristics of Methodism guaranteed that, sooner or later, slavery would be an issue. First, Methodism emphasized the individuals efforts to be a truly good Christian and to abstain from sinful activities. Second, Methodism had bishops that met in annual General Conferences and discussed doctrines that were later binding on the whole denomination, so there had to be some kind of general agreement or a schism. The schisms started with the formation of the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Michigan in 1841 and the Methodist Wesleyan Connection in New York in 1842. (Wesleyan was a way of claiming that these Methodists held more closely to John Wesleys teachings than did other Methodists.) Then, in 1844, the Methodist General Conference voted that one of its own members, Bishop James O. Andrew, would have to cease acting in his episcopal capacity so long as he held slaves. Southern delegates made it clear this was unacceptable to them. At first, the overriding concern was to maintain the Christian values of peace and amity, if not unity and opposition to slavery. The General Conference agreed on a Plan of Separation for the two geographic wings of Methodism. In May 1845 delegates from Southern Methodist congregations met at Louisville, Kentucky, to establish their own General Conference. Northern Methodists were unable to maintain their equanimity. Those who took abolition seriously were upset that the Southern Methodists had been allowed to leave and that more had not been made of the sinfulness of slaveholding. There was also controversy over how to divide up the Methodists book-publishing enterprise. The result was that in 1848 the Northern Methodists voted to consider the 1844 Plan of Separation null and void. However, it was too late. The Methodist Episcopal Church, South, was already a reality.

Baptists. When the Methodists gathered to vote on Bishop Andrews slaveholding, the Baptists were also considering their stance on slavery. The Baptists had no central authority, such as the Methodist General Conference, that set standards for all members of the faith. They did, however, have a Board of Foreign Missions and a Board of Home Missions. In 1844 the Home Mission Board rejected James E. Reeves as a missionary on the grounds that he was a slaveholder. The Alabama Baptist Convention then requested the Foreign Mission Board to state its policy regarding the appointment of slaveholders, and the board replied that it, too, would not appoint them. The Southern Baptists reaction turned the slavery issue from a congregational to a denominational matter. Delegates from nine southern states met at a convention held in Augusta, Georgia, on 8 May 1845. They made recommendations for incorporating an organization to provide leadership for all Southern Baptists. On 27 December Georgia granted a corporate charter to the Southern Baptist Convention. The charter contained a provision that a meeting of delegates be held every three years starting the next year, and, accordingly, delegates met in Richmond in 1846.

Faith and Warfare. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, the quarrel over slavery receded temporarily into the background. War itself was a terrible thing, and, for some, such as the historic peace churches of the Amish, Mennonites, Moravians, and Quakers, bearing arms for the government was forbidden. Many Christians viewed war as divine judgment and punishment for national sins. War also contained within itself one way to expiate those sins and to return to the proper ways, through obedience to divinely sanctioned authority as expressed by military service. For Northerners, Congregationalist minister Edward Beecher formulated the doctrine of organic sin, explaining that sin was more than personal failing; it was systemic, it could be found in a nation and its institutions, and, in the case of slavery, it could now be eradicated. All denominations accepted the importance of obedience to civil authorities, and none seemed to have used the start of the war to question the precise nature of that loyalty. For those in Union states, the authorities included the federal government, while for those in the Confederacy, the authorities included its government. In her Battle Hymn of the Republic Julia Ward Howe put forth a different thesis: rather than simply obeying authority, soldiers were fighting for a grand moral cause. She was not the only one who thought so. Gen. O. O. Howard, who was in charge of the Freedmens Bureau starting in 1865, saw his wartime assignment as an opportunity to do the truly divine work of emancipation, evangelization, and education. One interesting shift that took place as the war went on was a tendency to measure goodness not by the previous standards of religious orthodoxy, but by new standards of commitment to a national cause. A case in point was the relation between Gen. William S. Rosecrans and his chief of staff, James Abram Garfield, later president of the United States. Rosecrans was a Catholic who carried a rosary in his pocket, while Garfield was a member of the Disciples of Christ and had taught in a denominational college prior to entering the army. Regardless of their religious convictions, both men developed a deep abiding respect for each other, based as it was on common service to their nation.


Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;

He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;

He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:

His truth is marching on.

I have seen Him in the watchfires of a hundred circling camps;

They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;

I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps.

His day is marching on.

I have read His fiery gospel, writ in burnished rows of steel:

As ye deal with my contemners, so with you My grace shall deal;

Let the hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,

Since God is marching on.

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never sound retreat;

He is sifting out the hearts of men before the judgment seat;

O! be swift my soul, to answer Him! be jubiliant, my feet! Our God is marching on.

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was borne across the sea, With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me; As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free;

While God is marching on.

Source: Deborah Pickman Clifford, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Biography of Julia Ward Howe (Boston: Little, Brown, 1979), pp. 144-148.

Moral Support for Soldiers. Common themes cut across denominational and geographic lines to reach most of the soldiers caught up in the war. First, most denominations preached the importance of divine providence.

God was a personal God, that is, a God with compassion and sympathy to individual trials and efforts. God had a plan for every human being, and thus every soldier could rest assured that what happened in the course of battle was Gods will. There were no tragic, unnecessary, or accidental deaths; each death fulfilled some purpose as God had planned it. Second, deaths in wartime seemed very close to martyrdom. Julia Ward Howe even equated battlefield deaths with the Crucifixion: As He died to make men holy / Let us die to make men free. Third, the soldiers sacrifices would not be without reward. Even though some denominations still believed in double predestination and in the necessity of conversion in order to achieve a heavenly reward, no one made much of these doctrines to the soldiers. Union and Confederate soldiers themselves spoke of death as going home, to something comforting rather than to judgment with its potential for damnation.

Nationalism. The Union and the Confederacy used a common religious vocabulary to assert their claims of national identity. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other, Lincoln observed. One Confederate tract quoted John Winthrop, the Puritan founder of Massachusetts, in explaining that the South was like a city set upon a hill, pursuing a God-given mission in the history of the world. The Confederate Constitution expressly mentioned God, and President Jefferson Davis declared days of fasting and prayer on nine occasions during the war. Clergymen took the lead in a campaign to reform the cornerstone of the southern biblical commonwealth, the institution of slavery, especially by calling for legal recognition of slave marriages. One preacher warned that God will not be mocked by us. If we take His word to defend slavery, we must submit the institution to His government. Northerners similarly emphasized the religious basis of the federal government. Lincoln proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving holiday in 1863, and the motto In God We Trust began to appear on coins. But in his second inaugural address in 1865, the president emphasized that The Almighty has His own purposes. Rather than celebrating a Northern crusade to end slavery, he described the war as a grim atonement and declared: If God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-mans two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.

Chaplain Service. The Union and Confederacy both sought to provide religious services for their military forces. Each had rules authorizing one denominationally certified chaplain per regiment. The Union had African American chaplains for its black troops. Although they had been competitive before the war, each trying to win as many souls as possible and to support its claims for being the true church, the denominations were relatively cooperative during the conflict. Even Catholic bishops, who had to answer to canon laws requiring the Catholic laity to hear mass, not just to attend some religious service on Sunday, refused to press for special privileges and urged Catholic soldiers to work with the chaplains in their regiments. Many regiments were organized locally, had soldiers who were of the same faith, and thus were able to provide a chaplain acceptable for all of them. Between 1862 and 1863 John Ireland (later the archbishop of Saint Paul, Minnesota) was a chaplain for a largely Irish American Catholic regiment from Minnesota. For him, it was an experience of camaraderie strengthened and deepened by facing dangers and fighting for a common cause. He retained the friendships he made in the Army all his life.

Institutional Support. Denominations supplied more than chaplains. They also became the foundations for whole new organizations devoted to meeting the needs of soldiers. The more heavily populated North, which had far more resources and a well-established government structure, formed two important organizations. Founded in the summer of 1861, the United States Sanitary Commission had close ties to Unitarianism. Its president was Henry Whitney Bellows, pastor of All Souls Church in New York City, who argued that Protestantism had overemphasized the self-directing, self-asserting, self-developing, self-culturing faculties. He saw the coordination of civilians volunteer efforts as an opportunity to create an institution that would instill national discipline. The United States Christian Commission was inspired by Vincent Colyer, a New Yorker associated with the Young Mens Christian Association, but was managed by a wealthy and devout Philadelphia banker, George H. Stuart. Starting in November 1861 it raised money and collected reading materials and entrusted both to chaplains. The chaplains and their assistants then went among the troops, holding services, distributing books, instructing those who showed an interest in catechism, and visiting the sick. Relations between the two charitable organizations were not friendly. The Sanitary Commission regarded the Christian Commission as a proselytizing campaign that distracted from the Union effort rather than contributing to it. The evangelical Christian Commission complained that its liberal rival lacked genuine religious motivation and particularly criticized the Sanitary Commission for paying its agents.

Postwar Organization. One organization that predated the conflict became important in the postwar era. In 1846 the American Missionary Association (AMA) had been created in Albany, New York, by Congrega-tionalists who wanted their missionary endeavors to more fully reflect their abolitionist principles. The AMA was both a home mission society, sending Congregationalists to the frontier and the Upper South, and a foreign missionary society, dispatching members to the Caribbean. During the 1850s it was also active in assisting fugitive slaves. Thus, it was in a good position to expand its work to former slaves after the Civil War. In its mission to former slaves, the AMA shifted its focus away from traditional missionary work. Former slaves, after all, already had their own Christian religious traditions; what they did not have was a tradition of educational opportunities. The AMA sent men and women, black and white, south to teach school, where they encountered suspicion and even hostility from many white citizens.


Drew Gilpin Faust, The Creation of Confederate Nationalism: Ideology and Identity in the Civil War South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988);

C. C. Goen, Broken Churches, Broken Nation: Denominational Schism and the Coming of the American Civil War (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1985);

Reid Mitchell, The Vacant Chair: The Northern Soldier Leaves Home (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993);

Anne C. Rose, Victorian America and the Civil War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

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