I didn’t read this very quickly, mostly because it ministered to my soul. At just the right time, God brought this book into my life. This book on the Religious World of Civil War Soldiers turned out to be an unlikely encouragement to me. To read about the faith of these men and women, 150 years ago, has been a balm to me. How sad, as the author states in the preface, The marginalized role to which religion has been relegated in modern America has made the vital faith of past generations almost invisible to students of history. How can we hope to understand these men and women if we don’t know about their faith; their faith was the foundation of what made them “tick.” Woodworth, who is becoming one of my favorite authors, divides the book into two parts: 1) The Religious Heritage and Beliefs of the Civil War Soldiers and 2) The Civil War Soldiers, Their Religion and the Conflict. The author does a good job of using letters and diary entries from soldiers to illustrate his points. The first section is so peppered with the writings of the soldiers that it would seem that Woodworth didn’t have to put forth much effort. But, nay, for Woodworth so crafts and knits together these writings that they flow with the ease of a good novel. Early on he addresses the paradox of both nations fighting under the same basic beliefs. He quotes Abraham Lincoln, who Woodworth boldly asserts (page 12) was “no Christian,” to illustrate this problem:
Each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party.
While discussing Christianity in America Before the Civil war, The Actions of a Sovereign God, The Life to Come, The Way of Salvation & The Christian Life (chapter titles in this section), Woodworth gives the reader a good background in religious life and history in the mid-nineteenth century. Imagine my surprise, as a member of the First Presbyterian Church in Rome, Georgia when I ran across this passage:
It was Sunday, May 26, 1861, and the large Presbyterian church in Rome, Georgia, was crowded. Taking up a large section of the pews near the front of the church were the newly minted soldiers of two of the four Floyd County companies then preparing for service…then Pastor John A. Jones rose to preach the farewell sermon to the troops who were scheduled to board the train for Richmond the next morning…he expounded what he considered to be the reasons for the beginning of hostilities, the rightness of the Southern position, and, finally, “the evidences of God’s favor to the South as manifested during the Revolution to the present.” (p. 117)
So, was this my church? Indeed it was! I went by the church and took a picture of Pastor Jones hanging in the entry From the church’s website:
…the present structure in which we are still worshiping, was taken over by the Union Army during the Civil War and used for food storage. The pews were removed and used for the construction of horse stalls and a pontoon bridge to cross the river. The congregation was scattered and disorganized and the congregation had dwindled to some forty or fifty members, but God saw the church through the trials of war and revived it two years after the war. Steady growth began again, and over the next twenty years, more than 300 members joined the church.
A few other quotes to give you a flavor of the book:
…Abraham Lincoln, himself no Christian, demonstrated the prevalence of the Christian abolitionist argument in applying the teaching Christ directly to the issue of slavery: “As I would not be a slave, Lincoln said, “so I would not be a master.” p. 12
I thought this was a rather bold statement for Woodworth to make—no one knows the state of another’s soul.
…Lincoln’s personal religious beliefs remained somewhat obscure to the end. He may have come to Christ late in his presidency, in late 1863 or 1864, but the evidence is unclear. p. 268
In the March/April 2006 issue of Sacred History, Ronald D. Rietveld does an excellent job of examining Lincoln’s faith. He allows the reader to draw his own conclusion, though he does state, near the end of the article:
President Lincoln’s final address of his life…is clearly marked by Christian statesmanship…”We meet this evening, not in sorrow, but in gladness of heart. The evacuation of Petersburg and Richmond, and the surrender of the principal insurgent army give hop of a righteous and speedy peace whose joyous expression can not be restrained. In the midst of this, however, He from whom all blessings flow, must not be forgotten”… In the last week of his life, President Lincoln proposed to his wife Mary that at the expiration of his second term they would travel together to Europe, and he “appeared to anticipate much pleasure from a visit to Palestine”—to Jerusalem, where he could walk in the place mentioned in the Bible, to walk in Jesus’ footsteps. p. 94
There are several places where I found that Woodworth’s personal view of Christianity came through in his writing—here in his assessment of Lincoln and elsewhere in his (my reading) bias against Calvinism. Perhaps, as a Calvinist I took too much of an affront to his comments. As the war progressed, religion and religious jargon crept in the language of the soldiers…
Beginning in the fall of 1862, large number of Union soldiers began referring to the North as “God’s country”… Southerns were no longer to be viewed as misguided fellow countrymen but as evil foes of all that was good in America. p. 115
… to say that a soldier was a “sacrifice upon the altar of his country” was to give that soldier a special place in a new theology in which country, not God, occupied the position of deity… some Northerners to create a form of civil religion, a twisted version of Christianity in which the nation was god and rewarded those who sacrificed themselves in its cause. p.106-107
Lest we judge the North too harshly, the some Southerners were also wading in shallow theological waters…
…taking another tack, Rev. W.M. Crumley, chaplain to the Georgia hospital in Richmond, Virginia, even claimed that the South was right because it was fighting to keep the black race in its proper place…”making the Caucasian the Lord of Creation, and the negro his inferior and servant”… simple assertions that God favored the South and that proof of this was to be seen in His previous miraculous interventions on behalf of Confederate arms. p.131
The drawing near the end of the war saw a shift in attitudes, North and South. In the North, the Confederates were increasingly seen as “wicked,” even given equality with Satan in this letter from a mother to her son in Union lines:
I was afraid you had been captured or killed by those heathenish wretches who are skulking about that and every other Secesh region, like the enemy of souls, seeking who he may devour.” p. 261
Double ouch… Some in the North also began to develop “the concept that God was using the war to punish the North as well—perhaps for tolerating slavery, perhaps for a wrongful national pride…” (p.262). This reasoning was given as the rationale behind why the war drug on and on. As the end was drawing near, Southerners had a difficult time reconciling the course of the war with their belief that they were right and God would give victory to those in the right. Some began to think that, even though they were right in God’s eyes, His grand plan might include their defeat—that somehow it was part of a larger plan that they could not see. This evolved into the “Lost Cause” myth.
The South’s drive to justify its actions in launching the great rebellion eventually took the form of what came to be called the myth of the “Lost Cause.” As the tongues, pens and soon enough, typewriters of myriad Lost Cause advocates told the story in the decades after the Civil War, the South had been right all along. God for His own mysterious reasons had chosen to allow it to go down fighting nobly for eternal truths, but then had not God’s own sinless and pure Son suffered and died at the hands of evil men in order to fulfill God’s plan? Now the South by it suffering had been transformed into an even more pure and noble society…this, of course was nonsense, but it still resonates in much writing on the Civil War and the Old South. p. 289-290.
An example of this type of writing can be found in Stonewall Jackson’s Verse by H. Rondel Rumburg published in 1993 by the Society for Biblical and Southern Studies. I won’t review that here, but suffice it say that in its pages the “Lost Cause” lives and breathes. In the he final chapter, subtitled, “The Soldier’s Religion and the Impact of the Civil War,” the author comes to an unusual conclusion, given all that has been written about how much the Civil War changed our society:
Indeed, one of the most remarkable aspects of the Civil War may be how little it changed, rather than how much… contrary to the musing of exuberant Northern liberals and the bitter fulminations of Southern agrarians, the conflict was no the beginning and triumph of a new age in which the American political landscape was swept clear of fixed values and eternal verities. Rather, it was the culmination of an old vital and vigorous worldview, the completion of the original American vision of a society ordered according to divine principles. It was more the working out of the thought of John Winthrop, Thomas Hooker, and Jonathan Edwards that it was the harbinger of the ideas of William James, Lester Frank Ward, or Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. … Culture and society in North and South changed relatively little—far less than ambitious Northern politicians thought the power of government could achieve during the Reconstruction period. Real change in culture and society comes only with the change of people’s most fundamental beliefs… in the religious world of the Civil War soldiers, and that of the families to which they returned when the war was done, nothing fundamental had changed. p.292-293
The author, keep in mind, is speaking of the “religious world of Civil War soldiers,” when he asserts that little changed. Certainly the Civil War changed us forever. Shelby Foote, noted author the three volume The Civil War: A Narrative, noted in a segment of the Ken Burn’s film that the before the Civil War the nation was referred to as “the United States are…” and after the war as “the United States is….” I like that.