Religion and the Civil War2018-04-15T13:30:24+00:00

Religion and the Civil War

Perhaps the main moral force that propelled Mississippians to secession and brought on the Civil War, religion continued to shape the ways in which all Mississippians interpreted the war once it ensued. Its cadences and beliefs, especially its Protestant evangelical strain, laid the foundation for the Lost Cause mythology even as many believed to the bitter end that Almighty God would deliver white Mississippians and the Confederacy from the scourge of the Union armies.

Current historians and many observers at the time believed that religion had fueled the secessionist impulse among Mississippi’s whites by providing a moral justification for slavery, by creating fissures in national denominations that proved to be a prelude to the political separation that came in 1861, and by honing a rhetoric that led many white Mississippians to equate the North with abolitionism and abolitionism with a profound godlessness. Certainly not all religiously minded white Mississippians espoused secession. Baptist minister Thomas Teasdale and Presbyterian cleric James Adair Lyon heaped vitriol on secessionists, but they seemed to be the exception among both religious clergy and laity. The major denominations—Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians—if somewhat officially reticent during the secession crisis, endorsed the Confederate States of America shortly after its creation. Both church and state gave formal succor to the war effort through a series of fast days, ritual events steeped in biblical images of public atonement for sins in exchange for heavenly deliverance. African American religious expression followed a different tack, replicating the pattern of the antebellum era in which white ministers’ admonitions to obey were presumed to be the antithesis of real religion. African Americans instead blended evangelical beliefs with their earlier traditions and interpreted Christianity from their own perspective as slaves. As the war progressed, African Americans, unlike most of their white Mississippi counterparts, began to see the war as part of a divine plan for emancipation.

Just as the presence of a common religious vocabulary produced different interpretations of the war among blacks and whites, the denominations and the state tended to direct the religious impulse toward different ends. The state government believed that its efforts to secure secession for Mississippi enjoyed divine blessing, but many clergymen and more pious laypeople asserted that secession merely created a purgatory in which southern religious bodies were to rid their region of a range of imperfections. Righteous folk not only lamented worldly amusements such as gambling and horse racing but also noted that slaveholding Mississippians had yet to mold the peculiar institution according to the biblical ideal. Slavery enjoyed biblical support only when it was practiced in a humane fashion and, most important, when it was more of a vehicle for the Christianization of African Americans than for earning profit for slaveholders. Denominations intensified their antebellum calls for legitimizing slave marriages and for new laws to permit teaching slaves to read the Bible. Ministers especially lamented that church attendance lagged during the war, a sure sign that Mississippi might not be godly enough to gain Jehovah’s favor.

But the ebb and flow of the war’s events and the protean outgrowth of the evangelical religious temper did not point white Mississippians toward defeatism. Although portions of Mississippi fell to the Union as early as 1861 and Union armies marched deep into the state’s heartland over the following year, religion produced a strangely consistent response among religious Mississippians. Defeat signaled God’s displeasure, but days of repentance, fasting, and prayer promised the return of heavenly favor. Confederate victory, conversely, seemed to show that the Almighty spoke with a southern accent. Even after the fall of Vicksburg and the news of the withdrawal of the Army of Northern Virginia from Gettysburg, white Mississippians of a religious bent seemed to believe that God was testing their faith and would ultimately give them independence.

Even as the marching of armies sometimes disrupted regular worship, the wave of revivals that swept the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of Tennessee continually provided proof to white Mississippians that their cause was holy, just, and would prevail. Although the Confederate government did not provide for a chaplaincy when the war erupted, Mississippi churches joined in local, state, and south-wide efforts to send missionaries and Bibles to the troops. Testimony from the war years and later reminiscences indicate that massive conversions occurred in the Rebel armies, especially in the fall of 1863 in the Army of Northern Virginia. Reports came to the home front via army chaplains who rotated back to their congregations and via the religious press.

In Mississippi, revivalism was not confined to the army. Baptists and Methodists in the central and western parts of the state recorded conversion activity and gains in church membership in 1863, perhaps in response to the Union Army’s display of the fragility of human life when it wrested Vicksburg from Confederate control in July. But revivals continued in 1864 and 1865, a sign to the pious of the outpouring of divine grace. Just three months before Robert E. Lee’s surrender, a Methodist minister in Columbus reported holding nightly revival meetings that included soldiers stationed in the area. In short, the only common factor in the religious interpretation of the war’s direction was that God would determine its outcome.

Revivalism among whites simultaneously constituted a response of formal institutions and private beliefs that grew out of the antebellum culture. From the late 1790s, when portions of Mississippi were still formally Spanish possessions, to 1861, religious people in the region had built up their churches and their denominational structures. Missionary zeal triumphed in most places over a rigid Calvinism; thus, the institutionalized practice of domestic missions before the war and the growth of organizational structures to carry out these benevolent enterprises explain much of the revivalism during the war. But the intense strains of war brought profound experiences to soldiers and civilians alike, and they often turned more deeply to religion, which now offered explanations for victory, defeat, and death in the manner that it had previously sought to explain human prosperity, frailty, and suffering.

In the same manner that antebellum religion served as a foundation for wartime religious expression, the religious dimensions of the war offered a preview of major postwar themes in Mississippi’s history. The first of these was the image of the Lost Cause. Forgotten in the years after the war were the cleavages in white society over issues of secession and over slavery itself. According to the Lost Cause mythology, the war was a constitutional and biblical struggle against northern fanatics pursued heroically by righteous and united southerners until the bitter end. The wartime experiences had elevated the feelings of sectional loyalty. Although they might quarrel about the policies of the governments in Jackson and Richmond, those disputes were hardly tantamount to Unionism. Tales of wartime Union atrocities circulated among Mississippians in the same way that rumors of slave and abolitionist conspiracies had circulated in antebellum times. Furthermore, shared religious experiences such as revivalism seemed at once to unify white society and to demonstrate the rectitude of the Mississippians’ cause.

Perhaps the keystone in the Lost Cause arch was the symbol of the heroic leader. By all accounts, Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson were Christian heroes, regarded as such on both sides of the Potomac. And Mississippi produced and claimed its share of pious martial leaders. Although a native of Tennessee, Mark Perrin Lowery had fought for the 2nd Mississippi Volunteers in the Mexican War in 1846 and 1847 before entering the Baptist ministry in 1853. Pious and energetic, he volunteered for military service in 1861 and soon rose to the rank of brigadier general, serving at Perryville, Chickamauga, Franklin, and Nashville before resigning his commission in March 1865. After the war, he founded a Baptist institute for young women in Blue Mountain. The presence of flesh-and-blood pious leaders during and after the war confirmed most white Mississippians’ belief that they were morally (and martially) superior to their more numerous Yankee foe.

The tocsin of the Lost Cause muted other white voices that focused more on the perception that God’s displeasure with the slaveholding Confederacy, including its Mississippi branch, was a bigger cause of defeat than were the numerous and well-armed Union troops. Ministers Samuel Agnew and James Lyon asserted that the failure of Mississippi’s white Christians to do more to evangelize their slaves and to treat them with humanity constituted a grievous sin, explaining that God would hold Mississippi’s white society accountable in the same way after the war if it did not offer better treatment to the former slaves. Most white Mississippians preferred to blame their troubles on their uppity former slaves, just as they had blamed abolitionism rather than the abuses of slavery for African American unrest before the war. At the same time, white Mississippians concluded that Providence chastened them because it favored them.

Segregation was the second theme with religious overtones initially honed in the maelstrom of war and fully developed over the next thirty years. Slaveholding society brought white owners and masters and their households into extremely close proximity with their African American slaves. Religious structures fostered this proximity, as blacks and whites gathered together to worship in the same churches. Many Baptist and Methodist congregations had both black and white members, and some congregations articulated ideals regarding the equality of all Christians, irrespective of skin color, even if such ideals were poorly reflected in practice. For white Mississippians, the presence of blacks and whites in an ordered and socially hierarchical public worship exercise helped to justify slavery and white Mississippians’ claims about its beneficence. For all their glaring imperfections and hypocrisies to modern sensibilities, these prewar religious structures were biracial communities of faith and the only mixed-race associations in Mississippi.

The chaos of the war, the Thirteenth Amendment, the reality of economic dislocation, the material destruction of many of Mississippi’s church buildings, and the scattering of white laity and leadership significantly weakened this tense biracial relationship. African Americans, determined to act on their independence and to practice their own Christianity, began to separate from their former congregations and to found their own denominations as early as 1866. The most segregated time in Mississippi, as in the rest of the southern states, became the Sunday morning worship hour, and this transformation occurred before other major features of segregation took shape in law and custom. Just as the sectional cleavage between white evangelicals prior to the Civil War had lent credence to disunion, so the racial segregation of evangelical churches proved a prelude to the horrid opera of postbellum segregation. Although some white evangelicals and evangelical organizations maintained contacts with their African American brethren and attempted to forge formal ties with the nascent African American denominational structures, those efforts died out by 1885. Most white Mississippians interpreted this African American diaspora as proof of black inferiority rather than a bitter fruit of white hypocrisy and cruelty and an understandable desire of independent people to direct their own organizations, especially those as important as the church.

The Civil War intensified rather than transmogrified religious beliefs in Mississippi even as it transformed the racial makeup of its religious denominations. Religiously minded Mississippians continued to believe that God directed the affairs of their lives and held them accountable for their deeds as individuals and, to a great degree, as a people. Black and white Mississippians, however, interpreted the signs of divine favor and disfavor through racial lenses, employing a common textual mythology to argue for radically different ends. Hence, white Mississippians found moral justification and black Mississippians physical liberation as the realities of God’s will in the crucible of war.

Further Reading

  • John B. Boles, Masters and Slaves in the House of the Lord: Race and Religion in the American South, 1740–1870 (1988)
  • Edward R. Crowther, Journal of Mississippi History (May 1994)
  • Percy Rainwater, Mississippi: Storm Center of Secession, 1856–1861 (1938)
  • James W. Silver, Confederate Morale and Church Propaganda (1957)
  • Randy J. Sparks, On Jordan’s Stormy Banks: Evangelicalism in Mississippi, 1773–1876 (1994)
  • Charles Reagan Wilson, Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1864–1914 (1983)
  • Stephen E. Woodworth, While God Is Marching On: The Religious World of Civil War Soldiers (2001)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Religion and the Civil War
  • Author
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date December 17, 2018
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 15, 2018