Daily Archives: October 17, 2014

The Confederate Religious War and How it Helps Us Understand other Religious Wars

Too often we in the United States and Western Europe puzzle at the religious fanaticism of groups such as the Islamic State, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram or the Taliban. We in the west do not understand just how powerful the motivation religion and fanatical fundamentalist religious faith can be to a people, nation or culture. But if we only take a look at our own “Christian” history we can find example after example. As long term readers know I am both a theologian, chaplain and historian and that I have served for 33 years in the Army and Navy. My current duties have me teaching ethics and leading the Gettysburg Staff Ride at a senior military staff college. As such I am immersed in the academic world that I love, and because of that I am always researching and writing, as well as making historic connections between past and present events, not trying at all to superimpose current thought or knowledge on those who lived before, but rather drawing on them to help understand the basic, common, eternal, human nature and character; the beliefs, passions and prejudices that motivate people to not just go to war, but to justify war in the name of God. If we hope to understand our current enemies, we also have to understand ourselves, our history, and in doing so not shy away from uncomfortable subjects that cast a bad light on our own culture, religion or people.

This is an excerpt of a chapter of my Gettysburg text which I continue to revise seemingly without end. But then, the search and quest for truth cannot end.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 lee-jackson-in-prayer

Perhaps more than anything the denominational splits of the 1840s and in 1860-61 helped prepare the Southern people as well as clergy for secession and war. They set precedent by which educated Southerners left established national organizations. When secession came, “the majority of young Protestant preachers were already primed by their respective church traditions to regard the possibilities of political separation from the United States without undue anxiety.” [1]

Religion and the churches “supplied the overarching framework for southern nationalism. As Confederates cast themselves as God’s chosen people” [2] and the defense of slavery was a major part of this mission of the chosen people. A group of 154 clergymen “The Clergy of the South” “warned the world’s Christians that the North was perpetuating a plot of “interference with the plans of Divine Providence.” [3] A Tennessee pastor bluntly stated in 1861 that “In all contests between nations God espouses the cause of the Righteous and makes it his own….The institution of slavery according to the Bible is right. Therefore in the contest between the North and the South, He will espouse the cause of the South and make it his own.” [4]

The effect of such discourse on leaders as well as individuals was to unify the struggle as something that linked the nation to God, and God’s purposes to the nation identifying both as being the instruments of God’s will and Divine Providence. It also motivated men like Stonewall Jackson of the battlefield, who’s brutal, Old Testament understanding of the war caused him to murmur: “No quarter to the violators of our homes and firesides,” and when someone deplored the necessity of destroying so many brave men, he exclaimed: “No, shoot them all, I do not wish them to be brave.” [5]

In effect: “Slavery became in secular and religious discourse, the central component of the mission God had designed for the South….The Confederates were fighting a just war not only because they were, in the traditional framework of just war theory, defending themselves against invasion, they were struggling to carry out God’s designs for a heathen race.” [6]

From “the beginning of the war southern churches of all sorts with few exceptions promoted the cause militant” [7] and supported war efforts, the early military victories of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and the victories of Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley were celebrated as “providential validations of the cause that could not fail…” Texas Mehtodist minister William Seat wrote: “Never surely since the Wars of God’s ancient people has there been such a remarkable and uniform success against tremendous odds. The explanation is found in the fact that the Lord goes forth to fight against the coercion by foes of his particular people. Thus it has been and thus it will be to the end of the War.” [8]

This brought about a intertwining of church and state authority, a veritable understanding of theocracy as “The need for the southern people to acknowledge God’s authority was bound up with a legitimation of the authority of clerical and civil rulers. Christian humility became identified with social and political deference to both God and Jefferson Davis.” [9]

Jefferson Davis and other leaders helped bolster this belief:

“In his repeated calls for God’s aid and in his declaration of national days of fasting, humiliation, and prayer on nine occasions throughout the war, Jefferson Davis similarly acknowledged the need for a larger scope of legitimization. Nationhood had to be tied to higher ends. The South, it seemed, could not just be politically independent; it wanted to believe it was divinely chosen.” [10]

Davis’s actions likewise bolster his support and the support for the war among the clergy. A clergyman urged his congregation that the people of the South needed to relearn “the virtue of reverence- and the lesson of respecting, obeying, and honoring authority, for authority’s sake.” [11]

Confederate clergymen not only were spokesmen and supporters of slavery, secession and independence, but many also shed their clerical robes and put on Confederate Gray as soldiers, officers and even generals fighting for the Confederacy. Bishop Leonidas Polk, the Episcopal Bishop of Louisiana, who had been a classmate of Jefferson Davis at West Point was commissioned as a Major General and appointed to command the troops in the Mississippi Valley. Polk did not resign his ecclesiastical office, and “Northerners expressed horror at such sacrilege, but Southerners were delighted with this transfer from the Army of the Lord.” [12] Lee’s chief of Artillery Brigadier General Nelson Pendleton was also an academy graduate and an Episcopal Priest. By its donations of “everything from pew cushions to brass bells, Southern churches gave direct material aid to the cause. Among all the institutions in Southern life, perhaps the church most faithfully served the Confederate Army and nation.” [13] Southern ministers “not only proclaimed the glory of their role in creating the war but also but also went off to battle with the military in an attempt to add to their glory.” [14]

Sadly, the denominational rifts persisted until well into the twentieth century. The Presbyterians and Methodists both eventually reunited but the Baptists did not, and eventually “regional isolation, war bitterness, and differing emphasis in theology created chasms by the end of the century which leaders of an earlier generation could not have contemplated.” [15] The Southern Baptist Convention is now the largest Protestant denomination in the United States and many of its preachers are active in often divisive conservative social and political causes. The denomination that it split from, the American Baptist Convention, though much smaller remains a diverse collection of conservative and progressive local churches. Some of these are still in the forefront of the modern civil rights movement, including voting rights, women’s rights and LGBT issues, all of which find some degree of opposition in the Southern Baptist Convention.

Confederate_Seal

But the religious dimensions were far bigger than denominational disagreements about slavery; religion became one of the bedrocks of Confederate nationalism. The Great Seal of the Confederacy had as its motto the Latin words Deo Vindice which can be translated “With God as our Champion” or “Under God [Our] Vindicator.” The issue was bigger than independence itself, it was intensely theological and secession “became an act of purification, a separation from the pollutions of decaying northern society, that “monstrous mass of moral disease,” as the Mobile Evening News so vividly described it.” [16]

The arguments found their way into the textbooks used in schools throughout the Confederacy. “The First Reader, For Southern Schools assured its young pupils that “God wills that some men should be slaves, and some masters.” For older children, Mrs. Miranda Moore’s best-selling Geographic Reader included a detailed proslavery history of the United States that explained how northerners had gone “mad” on the subject of abolitionism.” [17] The seeds of future ideological battles were being planted in the hearts of white southern children by radically religious ideologues, just as they are today in the Madrassas of the Middle East.

Notes

[1] Brinsfield, John W. et. al. Editor, Faith in the Fight: Civil War Chaplains Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg PA 2003 p.67

[2] Gallagher, Gary W. The Confederate War: How Popular Will, Nationalism and Military Strategy Could not Stave Off Defeat Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA and London 1999

[3] Daly, John Patrick When Slavery Was Called Freedom: Evangelicalism, Proslavery, and the Causes of the Civil War The University Press of Kentucky, Lexington 2002 p.145

[4] Ibid. Daly When Slavery Was Called Freedom p.138

[5] Fuller, J.F.C. Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship, Indiana University Press, Bloomington IN 1957

[6] Faust, Drew Gilpin The Creation of Confederate Nationalism: Ideology and Identity in the Civil War South Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge and London p.60

[7] Thomas, Emory The Confederate Nation 1861-1865 Harper Perennial, New York and London 1979 pp.245-246

[8] Ibid. Daly When Slavery Was Called Freedom pp.145 and 147

[9] Ibid. Faust The Creation of Confederate Nationalism p.26

[10] Ibid. Faust The Creation of Confederate Nationalism p.33

[11] Ibid. Faust The Creation of Confederate Nationalism p.32

[12] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume One: Fort Sumter to Perryville Random House, New York 1963 1958 p.87

[13] Ibid. Thomas The Confederate Nation p.246

[14] Ibid. Daly When Slavery Was Called Freedom p.142

[15] Ibid. McBeth The Baptist Heritage pp.392-393

[16] Ibid. Faust The Creation of Confederate Nationalism p.30

[17] Ibid. Faust The Creation of Confederate Nationalism p.62

Leave a comment

Filed under civil rights, civil war, faith, History, philosophy, Political Commentary, Religion