Daily Archives: March 2, 2017

The “Chosen People” of the Confederacy and the Mission to Advance Slavery

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Another in my series dealing with aspects of Black history in the United States which is in every bit a part of American history as any other historical narrative about our nation. One thing that constantly amazes me is the way that some people, in fact many people, including the School Board of the State of Texas go out of their way to minimize the real and tragically crime against humanity that American slavery represented. Like many of the proponents of the whitewashing of slavery out of school textbooks, many of the most vehement supporters of the institution of slavery and its supposed Divine mandate were Christian churches, preachers, and writers. They were in the forefront of the secession movement and at the beginning of the Civil War bragged about how “God was on their side.” One again this is not an easy read if you take your Christian faith seriously, and it has direct application in how american Christians treat other despised races, ethnic groups, religions, and lifestyles today.

So have a great day,


Padre Steve+



“Lo! Suddenly, to the amazement of the world a mighty kingdom arose…. [of strictly providential Divine origin….The One like the Son of Man has appeared in the ride of the Confederate States.” Reverend William Seat 1862 [1]

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.” [2]

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.” [3]

Religion and the churches “supplied the overarching framework for southern nationalism. As Confederates cast themselves as God’s chosen people.” [4]  the defense of slavery was a major part of their mission. Southern clergymen had to find a balance between the two most important parts of their political and religious identity, evangelicalism and republicanism. Since these concepts could mean different things to different people Southern clergy and politicians had to find a way to combine the two. Depending on the interpreter “republicanism and evangelicalism could be reactionary or progressive in implication, elitist or democratic.” [5] This can be seen in how Northern and Southern evangelicals supported abolition or the institution of slavery.

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.” [6] 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.” [7]

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. As such, for Southern preachers to be successful agents of the state, the “key to their success as the foundation of a hegemonic ideology lay in making” [8] evangelicalism and republicanism to seem to be both elitist and democratic at the same time.  This resulted in a need to convince the “Southern people to acknowledge God’s authority was bound up with a legitimization of both clerical and civil rulers. Christian humility became identified with social and political deference as the clergy urged submission to both God and Jefferson Davis.” [9]

“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.” [10]


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.” [11] He told Richard Ewell after that General order his men not to fire on a Union officer galloping on a white horse during the Valley campaign, “Never do such a thing again, General Ewell. This is no ordinary war. The brave Federal officers are the very kind that must be killed. Shoot the brave officers and the cowards will run away with their men with them.” [12]

For Southerner’s, both lay and clergy alike “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.” [13]

From “the beginning of the war southern churches of all sorts with few exceptions promoted the cause militant” [14] 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.”  [15]


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.” [16]

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.” [17]

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.” [18]


Bishop Leonidas Polk

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.” [19] Lee’s chief of Artillery Brigadier General Nelson Pendleton was also an academy graduate and an Episcopal Priest.

Southern churches were supremely active in the war effort. Churches contributed to the Confederate cause through 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.” [20] Likewise, many Southern ministers were not content to remain on the sidelines in the war and “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.” [21]

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.” [22]  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.” [23]

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.” [24] 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] Ibid. Daly When Slavery was called Freedom p.147

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[11] Fuller, J.F.C. Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship, Indiana University Press, Bloomington IN 1957 p.129

[12] Davis, Burke They Called Him Stonewall: A Life of T.J. Jackson CSA Random House, New York 1954 and 2000 p.192

[13] Ibid. Faust, The Creation of Confederate Nationalism p.60

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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