God’s Not Quite Chosen People: The Confederate Union of Church and State

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Unlike many areas of study, history never goes out of date. While I do not think that history necessarily repeats itself, I do believe that essentially humans never real change. Yes we sometimes do get better, but we often instead of rising to our best, we repeat the errors of those who have gone before us. 

This is especially true in he arenas of politics and religion, especially when societies decide to merge the two. I have written about this good number of times citing contemporary and historical examples, but today I am pulling out yet another section of the chapter of my Civil War and Gettysburg Staff Ride text dealing with how the Southern Confederacy for all practical purposes merged church and state during the Civil War. Now it did not become a full fledged theocracy, but I have no doubt that it would have had the Confederacy succeeded in its quest to become independent. The philosophical and religious thought that undergirded so much of what the Confederacy stood for almost demanded this.

And so today when we look at the fracturing of religion along political and ideological lines political resurgence of the Christian Right in the Republican Party we see many of the themes of the Confederacy being recast and broadcast as what it is to be authentically American and even more dangerously, that only Christians can be real Americans. That it what almost all the current field of Republican candidates cow-tow to the most extreme leaders and spokesmen of the Christian Right, some of whom are openly neo-Confederate in their beliefs and have ties to neo-Confederate and White Supremacist organizations.  

Since those supposedly Christian leaders seek to use their influence to force their religion on others, this subject remains very important. 

Have a great day.


Padre Steve+


Perhaps more than anything, the denominational splits helped prepare the Southern people as well as clergy for secession and war. They set precedent by which 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]

One of the most powerful ideological tools since the days of the ancients has been the linkage of religion to the state. While religion has always been a driving force in American life since the days of the Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, especially in the belief about the destiny of the nation as God’s “Chosen People,” it was in the South where the old Puritan beliefs took firm root in culture, society, politics and the ideology which justified slavery and became indelibly linked to Southern nationalism. “Confederate independence, explained a Methodist tract quoting Puritan John Winthrop, was intended to enable the South, “like a city set on a hill’ [to] fulfill her God given mission to exalt in civilization and Christianity the nations of the earth.” [2]

Religion and the churches “supplied the overarching framework for southern nationalism. As Confederates cast themselves as God’s chosen people.” [3] the defense of slavery was a major part of their mission. A group of 154 clergymen calling themselves “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.” [4] 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.” [5]

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:

“Sacred and secular history, like religion and politics, had become all but indistinguishable… The analogy between the Confederacy and the chosen Hebrew nation was invoked so often as to be transformed into a figure of everyday speech. Like the United States before it, the Confederacy became a redeemer nation, the new Israel.” [6]

This theology also motivated men like the convinced hard line Calvinist-Presbyterian, General Stonewall Jackson on the battlefield. Jackson’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.” [7]

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.” [8]

From “the beginning of the war southern churches of all sorts with few exceptions promoted the cause militant” [9] 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 Methodist 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.” [10]

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.” [11]

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.” [12]

Davis’s actions likewise bolstered 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.” [13]

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.” [14] 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.” [15] 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.” [16]

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.” [17] 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.

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. 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.” [18]

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.” [19] 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.

While the various theological and ideological debates played out and fueled the fires of passion that brought about the war, they also provided great motivation to their advocates. This was true especially to Confederates during the war, that their cause was righteous. While this fueled the passion of the true believers, other very real world decisions and events in terms of politics, law and lawlessness, further inflamed passions.


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

[2] Ibid. Faust The Creation of Confederate Nationalism p.27

[3] Ibid. Gallagher The Confederate War pp.66-67

[4] Ibid. Daly When Slavery Was Called Freedom p.145

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

[6] Ibid. Faust The Creation of Confederate Nationalism p.29

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

[8] Ibid. Faust, The Creation of Confederate Nationalism: Ideology and Identity in the Civil War South p.60

[9] Ibid. Thomas The Confederate Nation 1861-1865 pp.245-246

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

9 responses to “God’s Not Quite Chosen People: The Confederate Union of Church and State

  1. David Budka

    It would be interesting to read your perspective about Protestantism and abolition. Many Northern abolishionists felt as strongly for there cause as any Southerner. As a mainline Evangelical, while I have lost a lot of my zeal, I feel slavery was wrong. Always have.

    Interesting post. Thank you.

  2. mrmoteeye

    My dad had a very old book titled CHRIST IN THE CAMP about religion around the campfires of Stonewall Jackson. Although it may have been quite the bibliophile’s collectible, I gave it to a friend who does reenactment. Most of my ancestry was quite Yankee, so I do not know how he came to possess the book. He was a history scholar and a military chaplain (Army Air Force / Captain).

    • padresteve

      That was a very popular book at one time especially among military men and chaplains. It did not matter if you were pro-Union or Confederate, it was in fact one if the ways the promoters of the Lost Cause make their heroes national heroes rather than traitors. It is one of the books that helped give the aura of sainthood to Jackson, Lee and other Confederate heroes. Thanks for the comment!

  3. Steve, not a very fair treatment, and very poor sources (Brinsfield is good as a chaplain history but not as a theological source), especially McBeth in terms of Baptist sources (I had Leon and his crony at SWBTS- he was bitter that the conservatives had won the war). I would recommend updating your library by adding The Civil War as a Theological Crisis by Mark A. Noll from Notre Dame- you will enjoy it! By far the fairest and most honest treatment of the theological underpinnings of both the Union and Confederate clergy, that covers Protestant, Jewish, and Catholic perspectives. He also covers the opinions of Protestant clergy from Europe during the same time period. I think you will be surprised at how many of your Union “heroes” were preaching slavery as a divinely ordained institution- it was the reasoning of Thomas Paine, not Scripture that prominent abolitionist, e.g. William Lloyd Garrison used to reason and argue from, “To discard a portion of scripture is not necessarily to reject the truth, but may be the highest evidence one can give for his love of truth.” (p.32) This is the beginning of modern theological liberalism. One does not simply pick and choose which verses to accept or reject. (Darn liberals- I know, that’s where you are, and I love you anyways, but I’m not there 🙂 But that’s not the point here. The point is that the clergy in the North that opposed slavery did so using extra-biblical reasoning. The majority of the Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Jewish, Baptist, and Catholic clergy in the North were pro-slavery. Archbishop John Purcell of Cincinnati was the first “senior” Catholic cleric to publicly call for the release of slaves in 1862 (p.126).

    By the way, did you see how the whole “Black Lives Matter” lunatics are now going after the Christopher Columbus statue in Boston? Knights of Columbus in Boston will not be happy. Thank you revisionist historians; nothing or no one will now be sacred or safe. Thomas Jefferson or Andrew Jackson memorials will be next, heck maybe even the Washington Monument.

    • padresteve

      Come on, you know better than that my friend, and you have not read all I have written on this subject. This is just a small except. It is about 5 pages of a chapter of over 100 pages covering religion and ideology as as components of both sides in the Civil War. As a matter of fact I do a lot of criticizing of Northern leaders in my work, including clergy and theologians including men like the eminent Dr Hodge, of Princeton, a hero to many like Noll and others who also agreed that slavery was a divinely appointed institution and defended their Southern brothers. Brinsfield is a solid historian, and that matters more than his theological expertise. As far as McBeth, I knew him too, and like others in the Church History Department at SWBTS as well as other Southern Baptist seminaries he was harshly treated by supposed “conservatives” for decades. Those men were castigated because they were objective, but to too many conservatives “objective” does not matter. McBeth’s work is quite fair, balanced and in the matter of Baptist history is the best there is, the fact is that this section in my text has become even more balanced as I continue to do more research.

      The theological history that you are defending is that of the Lost Cause, which itself is revisionism. Your comment about Columbus and “black lives matter” slur show the insipid shallowness of your argument. Even Samuel Elliott Morrison, the great naval historian who wrote a fairly sympathetic biography of Columbus notes that he was guilty of genocide in the areas that he was governor. You should bother to read those accounts, Columbus us no hero and those memorials are and affront to anyone who calls them self a Christian. Genocide, think about it, we sent the Nazis to the gallows for that.

      This is not about revisionism, it is about truth and I would rather be on the side of truth, even if it is unpopular, which if you look at the latest travesty regarding Texas’s new history texts, which discount slavery as a cause of the war and literally “whitewash” Jim Crow out of history ( not that the publishers of the most common history texts in the rest of the country are much better) I am pissing into the wind.

      The problem is, that once you begin to read the documents cited by Brinsfield, McBeth and so many others you cannot get around the issue. I started by writing a text on the battle of Gettysburg but since I am writing to teach senior officers in importance of connecting policy to strategy and the operational art I decided that I needed to look at the ideologies of leaders in the North and the South. The point is, as I tell my students, is that we cannot understand enemies who fight from a religious or ideological perspective if we do not understand our own history and the role of religion and ideology in it. Frankly I couldn’t give a damn about the Knights of Columbus who uphold a version of Christendom which preaches a Christianity without Christ, an empire over Emanuel, and a Gospel which enshrines genocide over grace. Hell the only reason the Knights exist was that the Catholic Church needed to keep their men out of the Masonic organizations in the North and the South.

      You may laugh off or deride the “black lives matter” campaign, but to do so you gave to give short shrift to the horrible history of racism and violence against blacks before, during and after the Civil War, a condition that was made worse by a legislation and court decisions between 1875 and 1900. That was the world of “separate but equal” the world of systematized violence to deny blacks the very freedoms, including voting rights, that over 300,000 Union Soldiers died to gain. When I read the documents written by men in the North and the South as well as court decisions and the actions of men who ride roughshod over the basic humanity of African Americans for over a hundred years after the Civil War I am ashamed to call myself an American and Christian, because so much of that was admittedly done by the perpetrators in the name of Christ to support a doctrine of White Supremacy that was little different in character than were the Nazi racial codes against the Jews, which sadly were backed by some of the leading German theologians and church historians of their day.

      So please do not lecture me. I would rather be a liberal and speak truth, than a conservative who denies the facts of history.

  4. Pingback: God’s Not Quite Chosen People: Confederate Christianity and the “Christian” Trump Cult | Padre Steve's World: Resist the Beginning, Consider the End

  5. Padre, once again, a tremendously enlightening presentation. I just spent the past day reviewing Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, and this brings to new light some of the most compelling passages now etched in stone at his Memorial. Lincoln’s moral clarity in the midst of theological confusion on a matter of fundamental human justice is particularly revealing for those of us who might have assumed that well educated clergy could read Scripture as we do.

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