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

The significant obstacles to revival on both sides arose from troop movements, weather, lack of Bibles, lack of chaplains, and weak organization. Troop movements and engagements prevented the camp meetings. The final two years of the war involved almost constant movement and engagement, but the revival persisted as each soldier personalized their faith. The revival obviously ended with the war, but the effects of personal faith in the returning soldiers influenced religion across America in the coming decades.

 

The Effects of the Revival

The obvious immediate effect of the Civil War revival appears in the salvation and comfort of hundreds of thousands of suffering soldiers facing death. Although estimates of conversions range from 200,000, the number of marginal Christians who found faith in the revivals remains undocumented. Bennett estimates that one third of the Confederate Army became “praying Christians” during the conflict.[40] Many of the converted soldiers died and entered eternity before the conflict ended. The revivals also influenced American society. Bledsoe points to the societal effects: “The Great Revivals represent a profound influence upon the spiritual and social experiences of Confederate soldiers during the war.”[41] The stratified social structure of America that led to the conflict changed through the egalitarian and ecumenical nature of the revivals. Common men who had submitted to social stratum discovered power to influence their world.

After the revivals of 1863 along the Rappahannock, the South seemed resigned to defeat and accepted defeat as part of a God ordained penance for societal sins. While most never admitted slavery as the sin, the concept of submission to God’s unknowable plan emerged. The observer might speculate that General Lee’s choice to surrender at Appomattox rather than enter a guerilla conflict stemmed from resignation to God’s chastisement of society as it arose in the revival. The sounds of prayer arising from opposite shores of the Rappahannock in 1863 certainly influenced southern ability to admit defeat to the North and the North’s later desire to reconstruct the nation rather than punish the defeated South.

Although the nation struggled for more than a hundred years to face the racism that both sides denied as the underlying cause of the war, the revivals prepared both sides to allow God to accomplish higher purposes in the nation than personal salvation or support of political interests. After the war, issues of national morality and equality rose to the surface. Women’s suffrage, prohibition, labor relations and unions, and national unity around larger purposes necessary for two subsequent world wars established their foundation in the underlying purposes of God in the revivals among opposing armies during the Civil War. Faust observes the effect on later American society:

And just as the Civil War brought a ‘moment of truth’—to borrow Genovese’s apt phrase—to master-slave interaction and to the evangelically based doctrines of paternalism, so too its social dislocations forced other groups to explore their social and spiritual identities, to look anew at their lives and experiences within the context of meaning that religious belief had always provided.[42]

Women in the South, for example, through the demands of war began “to see their identities and interests as distinct from those of their men.”[43]

Many men returning home from the war had faced horror and death and found strength in God. Prior to the war most saw religion as feminine, but after the war the masculine image of the warrior Christian prevailed. The returning men carried their newfound faith across America. The effects prove difficult to document as they arose from common and nameless persons, but the influence of 200,000 returning Christians would arguably affect American religion for decades. The South, for example, gave birth to the Bible Belt, an influential force today. The spiritualized church of the antebellum South transformed into a new center for American Christianity and social influence. Bledsoe observes the lasting effects of the struggle for faith in the Confederate revival: “At its heart, Confederate revivalism was a movement based upon the most fundamental issues touching the lives of individual soldiers; questions of providence, assurance, and redemption are as valid today as they were in the 1860s.”[44]

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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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