The Gospel of Wealth & War

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Since I am out of country I am pre-posting articles that will be released while I am away. This is a short bit from my the second chapter Civil War and Gettysburg text. The chapter as a whole deals with religion and ideology as chief contributing factors to the war, its conduct by both sides and the post-war myth of the Lost Cause. This section briefly looks at how the war and the earlier concept of Manifest Destiny brought about a new paradigm in which the message of earlier evangelicalism which focused on conversion, salvation and personal piety was transformed into a message of wealth and war. The transformation was lasting, and is something that American Christianity has never recovered from.


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Secession and war was now on the horizon, and despite well-meaning efforts of some politicians on both sides to find a way around it, it would come. Religion had been at the heart of most of the ideological debates of the preceding quarter century and now it came to symbolize the causes of both sides. The belief in Manifest Destiny had led Americans to violate nearly every pronouncement of the founders and embark on a policy of imperialism, conquest, and even the extermination of millions in its name. As far as preventing conflict, Evangelical Protestants on both sides had not only failed to prevent the war; to the contrary those very Evangelical leaders were more than instrumental in bringing on the war as they:

“fueled the passions for a dramatic solution to transcendent moral questions. Evangelical religion did not prepare either side for the carnage, and its explanations seemed less relevant as the war continued. The Civil War destroyed the Old South civilization resting on slavery; it also discredited evangelical Protestantism as the ultimate arbiter of public policy.” [1]

When war came Evangelical Protestants on the opposing sides attempted to frame their cause in the light of their nearly identical theology, sometimes seeing it is a prelude to the return of Christ and the beginning of the millennium. An agent of the American Tract Society named Hollis Read was one, he proclaimed:

“A few more such strides, a few more such terrific struggles and travail-pains among the nations; a few more such convulsions and revolutions, that shall break to pieces and destroy what remains of the inveterate and time-honored systems and confederations of sin and Satan and the friends of freedom may then lift up their heads and rejoice, for their redemption draweth nigh. The Day of Vengeance Has Always Preceded And Been preparatory to the Year of the Redeemed.” [2]

Southerners too saw the coming war in similar triumphant theological ways. Some saw in the Confederacy the embodiment of Christ. Methodist minister William Seat of Texas wrote, “The One like the Son of Man has appeared in the rise of the Confederate States.” [3] He wrote that the South would take its place among the nations through it “liberty and pure Christianity would go abroad on earth.” He noted that soon the “peaceful millennial reign would dawn” and the stone from the mountain – the South – would be glorified: “Then the stone cut out from the shall become a great mountain and fill the earth. There shall be no more curse nor death nor sorrow nor crying. There shall be fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore. We solemnly believe that the great prophetic periods have closed: the mystery is finished and the vision of prophecy unsealed. The Final Kingdom has arisen, and the Divine Redeemer has come to reign.” [4]

As the war went on ministers and theologians saw their theological presuppositions dashed on the shoals of reality of William Tecumseh Sherman’s understanding, that “war is hell.” As the war went against the Confederacy, Southerner ministers had to re-frame the cause and the reasons for defeat, which most did not ascribe to slavery, but rather deficiencies in Southern character, and economic policy. In the North the faithful were shaken by the horrendous cost of the war. One of Charles Finney’s correspondents wrote in 1864, “So many are skeptical, doubtful, so many good people are cutting loose from creeds & forms….I am sometimes tempted to ask whether prayer can make any difference.” [5]

American Religion, especially Protestantism, which had served so much to bring about the war, instead became one of its most prominent casualties. American Protestantism shifted its emphasis; some ministers preached a gospel of wealth to align themselves and their congregants with the rising tide of the new rich. Russell Conwell, a former Union soldier in the war turned Baptist preacher, whose church later formed Temple University delivered his Acres of Diamonds sermon in which he proclaimed, “Money is power, money is force…. I say to you to get rich, and it is your duty to get rich.” [6] The sermon became popular throughout the country, and people did not tire of it.


The theology of wealth was not political, it preached no moral crusades, it called for no sacrifice, it considered not justice, and it appealed to people’s basest instincts and left little room for sentiment. The poor, the newly free but oppressed African American and others were left behind. Walt Whitman was concerned that the churches encouraged people to pursue everything but the common good. He wrote, “genuine belief seems to have left us…. The spectacle is appalling. We live in an atmosphere of hypocrisy throughout…. A lot of churches, sects, ect., the most dismal phantasm I know, usurp the name of religion.” [7]

Southern Evangelicals retreated in into a skepticism and denial of human progress, for if that had been the case they would have triumphed over their Yankee oppressors. After the war Southern Evangelicals “expected little from the corrupted world and expected even less from the knowledge of corrupted men, especially men of science and power. The war brought to the South a theology, as well as a politics and economics, of diminished expectations.” [8]

Never again would Evangelical Christianity play as dominant role as it did in early part of the war, and “from the 1860s onward, American Protestantism was increasingly marked by the quiet erosion of faith, and religious experience became plagued more and more decaying faith, and in an increasing appeal to feeling and imagination over confessional reason or evangelical conversion.” [9] That trend continues to the present day as if nothing as happened in the meantime. Mark Twain wrote something about Conwell’s “Gospel of Money” which echoes to the critics of the contemporary “Prosperity Gospel”:

“What is the chief end of man? – to get rich. In what way? – dishonesty if we can; honestly if we must. Who is God, the one only and true? Money is God. Gold and Greenbacks and Stock – father, son, and the ghost of same – three persons in one, these are the true and only God, mighty and supreme.” [10]


[1] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.360

[2] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.414

[3] Ibid. Daly When Slavery Was Called Freedom p.147

[4] Ibid. Daly When Slavery Was Called Freedom p.147-148

[5] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.416

[6] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.456

[7] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame pp.468-469

[8] Ibid. Daly When Slavery Was Called Freedom p.153

[9] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.416

[10] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.457



Filed under faith, History, Religion

2 responses to “The Gospel of Wealth & War

  1. Jim

    All war, in all of history, is always about the money; ideology and religion is for the idiots who fight the wars- all the wars.

    • padresteve


      That is why the older I get the more I appreciate soldiers who also came to understand that; and why I becoming a person who questions the BS when politicians, pundits, and preachers advocate war.

      Thanks as Keats my friend


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