Daily Archives: March 11, 2016

When Political Parties Implode: Pt 5: “The Heather is on Fire…” Politics, Religion, and War


Reverend Benjamin Morgan Palmer, Confederate Preacher and Propagandist

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Over the past six months or so I have alluded to events in the Republican Party that make it appear that it is about to implode. I am a historian, and there is precedent in American history for the collapse of a national political party. This happened before in the 1854 collapse of the Whig Party, the 1912 division in the republican Party, but more importantly during the 1858 through 1860 collapse of the Democratic Party. Now I am not a person to say that history repeats itself. there are similarities and trends, but nothing is ever exactly the same as to why different parties collapse.  

While the issues of each day may be different there are common threads of humanity, hubris and hatred that unite to destroy political parties. I think that this is happening now in the Republican Party, and that it is possible that something similar may occur with the Democratic Party in the coming years. So it is important to look at history whenever possible to see how different political leaders responded in times of intense ideological, economic, social, national, and sectional division.

I decided to add an afterward to the three part series on the disaster that the Democratic Party made for itself and the country between 1858 and 1860. The third part deals with the after effects of results of the democratic Party split in the election of 1860. I followed those articles with one yesterday that dealt secession crisis that enveloped the nation as former Southern Democrats led their states into rebellion against the Union and Northern Democrats joined the anti-secession party in the North. Today is a section that talks about the mood of the country in that time and the impact of religion on the politics of the era. I do plan on doing a bit more work with it but figure that it works fine for the present moment, when religion again is a major part of politics, not only in the United States but elsewhere in the world.

This is a section of one of the chapters of my Civil War and Gettysburg text and I hope that you will find it interesting and thought provoking.


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As no middle ground remained, the nation plunged into war with many leaders in the South and North including those who previously had encouraged conciliation and compromise hardened their positions on secession. In the South men like Alexander Stephens and Judah P. Benjamin joined the secession movement, while in the North the positions of leaders hardened as the Southern states seceded and seized Federal installations including armories, forts, and mints and threatened others. “Northerners greeted secession as a deadly assault upon their own rights, welfare and security. Secession leaders sought not to nullify a single law, but the results of an entire presidential election. Far worse, they intended to shatter a nation that was liberty’s last, best hope. That could not be tolerated.” [1]

But soon only four installations in the new Confederacy remained in Federal hands, “two far away in the Florida Keys; Fort Pickens at Pensacola, Florida; and the most visible, Fort Sumter.” [2] Among them, one, Fort Sumter would sit at the eye of the brewing hurricane of civil war that threatened to hit the nation with unmatched fury.

In the South, Church leaders provided “Ministerial hosannahs to the providential nature of secession, such as Benjamin Palmer’s, contributed vital ideological work to the creation of the Confederacy. Such sermonizing language provided the appearance of a seamless bridge between proslavery and the revolution creating an independent nation.” [3] The South forged ahead to claim the mantle of Christ and God for their side; and given the widely held theological “assumptions about divine sovereignty and God’s role in human history, northerners and southerners anxiously looked for signs of the Lord’s favor.” [4] Of course people on both sides used the events of any given day during the war to interpret what this meant and both were subject to massive shifts as the God of Battles seemed to at times favor the armies of the Confederacy and as the war ground on to favor those of the Union. Tennessee Presbyterian pastor William H. Vernor was blunt in what God’s position on secession and slavery was, “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 North and South, he will espouse the cause of the South and make it his own.” [5]

Benjamin Morgan Palmer was one of the most influential preachers in the South, and when he took the pulpit on November 29th 1860 preached one of the most polemic pro-slavery and secession sermons made anywhere in the South. This Thanksgiving Sermon became one of the most influential Confederate propagandists. “Some 50,000 copies of that sermon were printed in pamphlet form and circulated throughout the South. That pamphlet became a most powerful part of Southern propaganda.” [6] The sermon was electrifying in it Palmer thundered against abolitionists, in particular Northern ministers equating them to atheists and radicals of the French Revolution. .

“Last of all, in this great struggle, we defend the cause of God and religion. The abolition spirit is undeniably atheistic. The demon which erected its throne upon the guillotine in the days of Robespierre and Marat, which abolished the Sabbath and worshipped reason in the person of a harlot, yet survives to work other horrors, of which those of the French Revolution are but the type. Among a people so generally religious as the American, a disguise must be worn; but it is the same old threadbare disguise of the advocacy of human rights…. Under this suspicious cry of reform, it demands that every evil shall be corrected, or society become a wreck—the sun must be stricken from the heavens, if a spot is found upon his disk. The Most High, knowing his own power, which is infinite, and his own wisdom, which is unfathomable, can afford to be patient. But these self-constituted reformers must quicken the activity of Jehovah or compel his abdication. In their furious haste, they trample upon obligations sacred as any which can bind the conscience…. Working out the single and false idea which rides them like a nightmare, they dash athwart the spheres, utterly disregarding the delicate mechanism of Providence, which moves on, wheels within wheels, with pivots and balances and springs, which the great Designer alone can control. This spirit of atheism, which knows no God who tolerates evil, no Bible which sanctions law, and no conscience that can be bound by oaths and covenants, has selected us for its victims, and slavery for its issue. Its banner-cry rings out already upon the air—”liberty, equality, fraternity,” which simply interpreted mean bondage, confiscation and massacre. With its tricolor waving in the breeze,—it waits to inaugurate its reign of terror. To the South the high position is assigned of defending, before all nations, the cause of all religion and of all truth. In this trust, we are resisting the power which wars against constitutions and laws and compacts, against Sabbaths and sanctuaries, against the family, the State, and the Church; which blasphemously invades the prerogatives of God, and rebukes the Most High for the errors of his administration; which, if it cannot snatch the reign of empire from his grasp, will lay the universe in ruins at his feet. Is it possible that we shall decline the onset?” [7]

Even as their preachers like Palmer urged secession and linked the cause of the Confederacy and slavery to Divine Providence events continued to move forward. Those who had been hesitant about secession in the South were overcome by events when Fort Sumter was attacked. Edmund Ruffin spoke for many of the ardent secessionists when he proclaimed “The shedding of blood…will serve to change many voters in the hesitating states, from submission or procrastinating ranks, to the zealous for immediate secession.” [8]

But very few of the radical secessionists found their way into uniform or onto the front lines. Then like now, very few of those who clamor for war and vengeance the most, who send the sons of others to die in their wars, take up arms themselves. Confederate General Jubal Early saw the sour irony in this. Early had been a strong Unionist and had fought against secession until the last as a Virginia legislator during the Virginia secession debate. But when he finally accepted secession as a reality, he went to war and never looked back becoming an intractable enemy of the Union. During the war he became one of the most committed Rebels of the Cause and after the war became one of the most powerful voices for the Lost Cause. That being said, the caustic Early was not fond of the proponents of secession and took pleasure as the war went on by taunting: “the identifiable secessionists in gray uniform who came his way, especially when the circumstances were less than amusing….” [9]After the disastrous defeat at the Third Battle of Winchester in 1864, Early looked at his second in command, former Vice President of the United States, failed candidate for President in the 1860 presidential election, and Confederate Major General John C. Breckinridge, who had advocated secession as they retreated amid the “chaos and horror of his army’s rout. Early took the occasion to mock his celebrated subordinate: “Well General, he crowed, “what do you think of the ‘rights of the South’ in the territories now?” [10]

In the North a different sentiment rose as one volunteer soldier from Pennsylvania wrote: “I cannot believe…that “Providence intends to destroy this Nation, the great asylum for all the oppressed of all other nations and build a slave Oligarchy on the ruins thereof.” Another volunteer from Ohio mused “Admit the right of the seceding states to break up the Union at pleasure…and how long before the new confederacies created by the first disruption shall be resolved into smaller fragments and the continent become a vast theater of civil war, military license, anarchy and despotism? Better to settle it at whatever cost and settle it forever.” [11]

As the war began and both sides mobilized for war, the clergymen on both sides of the now divided land now proclaimed a holy war to support their side’s cause, just as they had in the decades leading to the crisis. Palmer, whose sermon had helped propagandize the cause of secession was active in giving Confederate soldiers a religious basis for their fight, “he insisted that the Louisiana Washington Artillery resist the Northern invasion in order to protect the right of self-government. To them he advocated the pursuit of a holy war, a war of true Christian faith against fanaticism.” [12] The religious character of the war was in evidence as “Clergymen and their congregations became caught up in the patriotic fervor…..It would not be entirely fair to say that politics rode roughshod over religion, but Americans exhibited more spiritual hubris than spiritual reflection” [13] as the country went to war with itself. The depth of the religious dimension of the struggle can be seen in the hymn most commonly associated with the Civil War and the United States. This was the immensely popular Battle Hymn of the Republic whose lyricist Julia Ward Howe penned the lines “As he died to make men holy, let us live to make men free! While God is marching on” [14]

Evangelical Churches, evangelistic organizations and tract societies were particularly active in conducting revival meetings and working to convert soldiers, and as “early as 1862, large-scale “conversion seasons” swept through both Union and Confederate troops: the Army of the Cumberland and the Army of Northern Virginia both experienced large-scale revivals of religion during the winter and spring of 1864.” [15] These would be the last of these seasons of revival as the war entered a new and more brutal phase, which not only tested, but also shattered the faith of many soldiers, one Illinois surgeon named “John Hostetter remarked, “The is no God in war. It is merciless, cruel, vindictive, unchristian, savage, relentless. It is all that devils could wish for.” [16]

Not content with efforts to evangelize and convert soldiers there was also an attempt on the part of some Northern Evangelicals to push religion to the forefront of the conflict and to establish the Christian faith as the official religion of the United States. In doing so they sought to correct what they believed was an error in the Constitution. The error that they sought to correct was that God was not mentioned in it. These Evangelicals believed that the Civil War was God’s judgment on the nation because the Founders had left the mention of God out of that document. The group, which called itself the National Reform Association proposed what they called the Bible Amendment in 1863. The amendment would united Evangelical Protestantism with the Republic, forming what they believed would be a truly Christian nation. They met with Lincoln and proposed to modify the opening paragraph of the Constitution to read:

“We the people of the United States, humbly acknowledging Almighty God as the source of all authority and power and civil government, the Lord Jesus Christ as the Ruler among the nations, His revealed will as the supreme law of the land, in order to form a more perfect union.” [17]

While Lincoln brushed off their suggestion and never referred to the United States as a Christian nation, much to the chagrin of many Northern Christians, the Confederacy reveled in its self-described Christian character. The Confederacy had “proudly invoked the name of God in their Constitution. Even late in the war, a South Carolina editor pointed to what he saw as a revealing fact: the Federal Constitution – with no reference to the Almighty – “could have been passed and adopted by Atheists or Hindoes or Mahometans.” [18]


[1] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free p.236

[2] Ibid. Cooper We Have the War Upon Us p.192

[3] Ibid. Daly When Slavery Was Called Freedom p.141

[4] Ibid. Rable God’s Almost Chosen Peoples p.74

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

[6] Wakelyn, John L. Benjamin Morgan Palmer in Leaders of the American Civil War: A Biographical and Historiographical Dictionary edited by Charles F. Ritter and Jon L. Wakelyn, Greenwood Press, Westport Connecticut 1998 p.309

[7] Palmer, Benjamin M. Thanksgiving Sermon, November, 29, 1860. Retrieved from http://civilwarcauses.org/palmer.htm 9 March 2016

[8] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.273

[9] Ibid. Osborne Jubal p.52

[10] Ibid. Osborne Jubal p.52

[11] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free pp.253-254

[12] Ibid. Wakelyn Benjamin Morgan Palmer p.309

[13] Ibid. Rable God’s Almost Chosen Peoples p.56

[14] Ibid. Huntington Who Are We? P.77

[15] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.415

[16] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.415

[17] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.360

[18] Ibid. Rable God’s Almost Chosen Peoples pp.337-338

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