Religious Factors of the Civil War

In the American Civil War both the North and the South believed God was on their side.
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The War Between the States, also known as the American Civil War, is often described as a war fueled by disagreement between the North and the South over States’ rights and slavery. However, religious factors also influenced the positions taken by both sides in the conflict. Many Christians in the North believed the future of God’s kingdom on earth depended on preservation of the Union. In the South, Christian ministers claimed the Bible, literally interpreted, sanctioned slavery. As war became imminent, church leaders in both the North and South proclaimed that God was on their side. At the same time, religious revivals were beginning to take hold throughout the country. Both military leaders and soldiers found strength in believing the Civil War was a holy cause.

1 Religious Makeup of America in the Civil War

In the 1860’s the United States was predominantly Protestant with Methodist, Baptist and Presbyterian churches having the largest memberships. The Roman Catholic Church was growing, however, and by 1870 counted as many followers as Methodism. Methodists and Baptist congregations were active in both the North and South. In the North, blacks began establishing their own churches in the late 1700’s. In the South, both Baptist and Methodists were active in evangelizing the slave population. Catholicism counted its largest membership in the states of California, Oregon and New Mexico. While Jews made up only a small percentage of the American population, approximately 7,000 Jews fought for the Union army and about 3,000 fought for the Confederacy.

2 Religious Factors of the North

Protestant religious leaders of the North were not initially unanimous in their support of abolition. The Methodist church avoided taking a stand on slavery for fear of losing Southern congregations. Episcopalians viewed slavery as a secular issue and not a religious one. Instead, most Protestant churches emphasized keeping the Union together at any cost. Dissolution of the Union, they feared, would translate to the world as a failure of democracy and Christian values. As the war progressed, Northern religious opinion changed. Early Union defeats in Virginia were seen by Northern religious leaders as God’s punishment for their failure to take a stronger stand against slavery. Sermons from the pulpit became more radical. Many churches called for immediate emancipation of the slave population. Ministers used public fast days to proselytize that the war was a baptism of blood.

3 Religious Factors of the South

Confederate leaders believed that religion and morality were at heart of their decision to secede from the Union. The Confederate Constitution, unlike the U.S. Constitution, emphasized a Christian identity and affirmed the nation’s dependency on God. Religious leaders of the South firmly believed that Scripture ordained and sanctioned slavery. As early as 1845, Baptist leaders gathered in Georgia and proclaimed that slavery was Biblical which in turn meant that abolition was sinful. By 1857, a schism had occurred between the northern and southern branches of the three major Protestant faiths -- Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian -- over the question of slavery. Although Baptist leaders did not initially support the idea of secession, once politicians made it clear that the break with the Union was primarily over slavery, ministers began using their pulpits to call for war.

4 Religious Revival in the Civil War

The Great Revival of 1863 attracted a significant number of converts among Civil War soldiers. More than 100,000 men on each side of the conflict became practicing Christians while fighting the war. For Confederate soldiers, defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg brought home the reality that the war would not end soon and might end in their defeat. Soldiers turned to Christianity for help in facing the horrors of war and accepting death. Many Confederate soldiers who survived the war ultimately became church leaders or leaders of religious revivals. Northern soldiers benefitted from the assistance of the government-supported U.S. Christian Commission. Civilian commission members lived near army camps and provided soldiers with religious materials, conducted religious services and helped spread the Gospel.

Laura Leddy Turner began her writing career in 1976. She has worked in the newspaper industry as an illustrator, columnist, staff writer and copy editor, including with Gannett and the Asbury Park Press. Turner holds a B.A. in literature and English from Ramapo College of New Jersey, with postgraduate coursework in business law.