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The Great Civil War Revival: God at Work in Unlikely Places

The common soldier, however, fought for different reasons. Charles Reagan Wilson observes the motive of the common person in 1861:

For the mass of southerners, the war was about freedom, the freedom of whites to control local institutions, to resist government interference, and to pursue economic opportunity. For northerners, the war was about preservation of the Union as the protection of self-government that enabled Americans to pursue economic opportunity and self-rule.[10]

The common soldier in the South justified the war as an honorable defense against northern aggression. The average northern soldier justified the war as a means of preserving a God-ordained union. Both sides felt as if God sanctioned their cause.

When two sides feel ordained by God little room exists for compromise, and America in 1861 quickly moved toward war.

Religious impasse frequently leads to violence. When two sides feel ordained by God little room exists for compromise, and America in 1861 quickly moved toward war. Noll describes the impasse as it arose from American hermeneutics: “The obvious crisis that bore directly on the fate of the nation was that ‘simple’ reading of the Bible yielded violently incommensurate understandings of Scripture with no means, short of warfare, to adjudicate the differences.”[11] Noll continues, “Constructive orthodox theology was the major loser when American believers allowed bullets instead of hermeneutical self-consciousness to determine what the Bible said about slavery.”[12] In the underlying religious split, power elites from each region drove wedges between two similar views of religion. The nature of the split, however, remained elusive to the average soldier who fought for defense of his home in the South and preservation of the Union in the North. Common soldiers on both sides saw their cause as righteous, and the soldier soon began looking to God to support his cause. Summers describes the environment surrounding the common soldier in1861 as “a ready made congregation of kindling in need of a religious spark.”[13]

 

The Revival

Soldiers on both sides remembered the Second Great Awakenings, and the common people who made up both armies came from simple religious groups that gained influence in the previous decades. Woodworth observes the relationship between the Second Great Awakening and the Civil War Revivals: “The forms, methods, assumptions, and terminology of the Second Great Awakening provided the framework and trappings for the religious beliefs and practices of the Civil War soldiers.”[14] Camp meetings and experiential religion remained key to the soldiers’ religious expectation.

Immorality quickly arose during the start of the conflict as men assembled together in an environment without the restraining forces of mixed company and social expectations. Summers observes the state of the southern soldier: “While it was true that the vast majority of the Confederate Army came from a nominal Protestant Christian background, or at least were familiar with the language and themes of the Bible, the typical southern soldier at the beginning of the war could be stereotyped as a ‘backslider.’”[15] Soldiers during the first years of the war engaged in drunkenness, gambling, cursing, and other immoral practice. Religion remained in the minds of the soldiers, but the temptations and challenges of morality during war prevailed. Woodworth observes the limited effect of religion in the early years of the war: “The Americans, an overwhelming religious people, were at war with each other, but the religion they shared in common was still with them—still vital to them—a discordant note in the midst of civil strife.”[16] Both sides felt the war would end quickly. Two years into the war with no end in sight and the costs mounting thoughts turned from celebrating victory to coping with the effects of war.

 

1863

The major conflicts of 1863 demonstrated carnage and horror past imagination, and the soldier found himself in a surreal world where faith would reenter his thinking. Both sides began taking chaplaincy seriously and the early chaplains who had joined the armies for an easy assignment had returned home. The few remaining chaplains exhibited genuine faith and zeal. Bible societies and colporteurs finally began producing materials related to the daily plight of the soldier. The protracted conflict also led both sides to proclaim national days of prayer and fasting to seek answers and God’s favor.

Victory at Chancellorsville for the South marked a decided turning point in the religious environment of the common soldier. General Jackson, the icon of religious piety and southern might, died in an accidental friendly fire, and the minds of the soldiers turned toward faith. Sidney Romero observes the religious fervor:

The revival tide flowed forcefully and rapidly throughout the armies of the Confederacy. Chaplain J. M. Stokes, Third Georgia Volunteers, expressed the belief that there never before had existed a greater revival spirit than the one that pervaded the Army of Northern Virginia in the spring of 1863. It was said that protracted meetings were in progress in every regiment.[17]

W. W. Bennett quotes chaplain A. D. McVoy in the spring of 1863: “I have never found men listen with more profound attention to the word of God. We seem to be upon the eve of a gracious revival and outpouring of the Holy Spirit, for which we are praying, watching, and struggling.”[18] Revival had begun in the southern army along the banks of the Rappahannock, but the victorious celebration of Hooker’s retreat from Chancellorsville would soon turn to deep questions surrounding the loss of General Jackson, the fall of Vicksburg, and the horrors of Gettysburg.

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Category: Church History, Winter 2017

About the Author: F. Wesley Shortridge, D.Min. (Evangel University, 2016), M.A. (Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, 2010), B.A. (Central Bible College, 2009), is the founding pastor of Liberty Community Church in Bealeton, Virginia. Facebook LinkedIn

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