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

The revivals slowed due to renewed troop activity and the impossibility of large scale camp meetings, but the sense that God worked in the background to accomplish some unknown purpose through the horror of war prevailed on both sides.[27] Woodworth observes the mentality: “Sometimes the faith of the soldiers was simply that God was using the war to accomplish his purposes but that those purposes—not necessarily the emancipation or punishment of anybody—were probably unknowable at the present time.”[28] The war continued for two years after 1863, and the revivals allowed men on both sides to face death while increasingly helping the South to cope with mounting losses and destruction.


The Revival in General

Some observers today see the revival as a product of Lost Cause rhetoric in the South, but the effects of the revival and its impact on post-war life suggest that God moved among the common soldiers. Woodworth describes the revivals on both sides of the conflict:

The revivals in the armies, beginning in the summer of 1862 and continuing more or less through the end of the war, had been an amazing phenomenon. Such a thing never occurred in any other American war. Although it is customary to refer to what happened in the armies as a series of revivals, it is really more accurate to think of it as a single large revival, approximately two and a half years long, occasionally interrupted by military operations.[29]

Unusual: Two armies faced each other while both felt the effects of revival.

Lacy calls the revivals in the southern armies “among the most unusual in history.”[30] He observes the revival alongside the immoral tendency of armies at war: “Therefore, to find a great revival maintained over a period of years in a body of troops spread throughout a large territory is an interesting and instructive phenomenon.”[31] Lost Cause supporters used the revivals to cope with southern defeat, but Bledsoe observes,

Unlike some elements of Confederate nationalism, revivalism was not a product of the elite or a tool for manipulation of the masses. It was, by most estimates, entirely sincere…the chaplains and the soldiers were mainly concerned with simple issues of personal salvation and repentance, and the message of the revivals remained sharply focused on these issues.[32]

In the history of American revivals, the Civil War revivals mark a continuation of the Second Great Awakening. Gene Brooks places the revivals historically within the Prayer Meeting Revivals of the 1850s and calls the revival the last of the nationwide revival movements.[33] Shattuck likewise places the revivals within the Prayer Meeting revivals of the 1850s: “The Army revivals of 1861-1865 did not arise in isolation from other religious trends in America. They were in fact, part of a greater revivalistic movement at work in the nineteenth century. The revivals in the Civil War armies were linked most closely to the so-called ‘businessman’s’ revival of 1857.”[34] The revivals arose as sincere men sought God amidst the prolonged horror of war. Most modern observers agree that 100,000 to 200,000 individuals found salvation on each side and that 5 to 10 percent of participants in the war found salvation.

A genuine move of God never occurs for the promotion of political agitators.

Modern revisionist historians who paint the southern soldier as a racist defender of slavery obscure the revival in the southern armies. The common soldier fought for other principles. Bennett observes, “Whatever may be the judgment of the world as to the principles on which the southern people entered into strife, it must be admitted that they brought with them into it, and carried with them through it, a deep and strong religious element.”[35] A genuine move of God never occurs for the promotion of political agitators. The salvation of the common soldier facing death and horror forms the primary effect of the revival. Bennett observes, “Christianity visits and reforms every grade of human society; and some of its greatest miracles of grace are wrought upon the most wicked subjects, and in the worst localities.”[36] Thousands found salvation and entered eternity during the conflict.

The Civil War revivals provide an example of God’s grace to common men under distress. Bledsoe observes the nature of the revival as it arose from common men without prominent revival leaders: “Confederate revivalism was profoundly influenced by the personal nature of southern Christianity, and as a result its origins and momentum lay primarily with the common soldiers.”[37] Chaplains, evangelists, and colporteurs on both sides certainly aided the revival, but the revival itself sprung from the common participant. Lost Cause rhetoric focuses on religious influence from Confederate leaders, but the truth remains that most prominent leaders found religion in the war rather than bringing religion to the soldier during the war. General Lee, General Jackson, and J. E. B. Stuart expressed faith before the war, but most prominent leaders including Generals Ewell, Anderson, Bragg, Pender, Paxton, Hood, Hardee, and Joseph Johnston along with Confederate President Jefferson Davis expressed religious conversion during the revival. The revivals on both sides arose from common soldiers who influenced leaders and eventually the nation as the converted soldiers returned home. Woodworth observes the spontaneous move of God:

The Great Revival, as it came to be called, grew and flourished in nearly all the armies, North and South, East and West. It had no particular birthplace, and though religious awakening might spread from one regiment to another, it is impossible to trace any particular geographic flow or progression in a movement that seemed as spontaneous as the blooming of prairie wildflowers in the spring.[38]

He continues, “The revivals in the various armies were the sum total of a great many personal revivals in individual soldiers.”[39]

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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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