At the start of the Civil War, there were more than 53,000 churches in the United States. Although only about 40 percent of the nation’s almost 32 million people were formal members of organized faith traditions, as many as 80 percent of Americans visited Catholic or denominationally Protestant churches regularly.
Churches As Influential Opinion Makers
In addition to inculcating personal faith beliefs, churches acted as important agents of culture. There were, after all, no movies, television or telephones—and certainly no Internet—to inform Americans in their development as citizens.
Along with families and local communities, antebellum and wartime churches were a primary means through which gender and racial roles were outlined and civic knowledge was delivered. Civil War-era religiosity was not confined by the walls of the local meeting house but permeated northern and southern secular society. Mark Noll, an expert on American religions, asserts,
“By 1860, religion had reached a higher point of public influence than at any previous time in American history.”
The southern defense of slavery, for example, was largely formulated by Protestant clergymen and predicated on the biblical validity of the institution. Southern planters, moreover, used biblical catechisms in their efforts to control the enslaved. Northern church leaders were instrumental in all kinds of reform movements of the day, including abolitionism.
Church-affiliated newspapers were widely read and American higher education was principally the provenance of denominations.
Throughout the antebellum period, Catholic and Protestant churches collectively served as the nation’s only organizational instrument of social welfare and indigent assistance. With war, church leaders in both the North and South assumed central roles in maintaining home front commitment to their respective war efforts.
The Black Church during the Civil War
By Leslie Willis-Lowry, Archivist & Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, Temple University Libraries
“Black abolitionism … cannot be separated from the influence of Black religion.”
--Gayraud S. Wilmore
Born in protest, the Black church, prior to the Civil War represented the initial stirrings of Black rebellion among both the secret religious congregations of the slave community, and in the openly organized independent Black churches and religious mutual aid societies of freemen in the North. Constantly moving between the poles of immediate survival and future liberation, Black congregations cultivated a spirit of uplift and self-expression, laying the foundation of Black power and self-determination. They understood that the “…Christian Gospel was a gospel of liberation … and … refused to accept an interpretation of Christianity that was unrelated to civil freedom.” This fundamental religious faith brought strength and courage to each of them.
Beginning in the 18th century, scholars C.E. Pierre and Carter G. Woodson have documented missionary efforts to convert enslaved and freedmen by various religious denominations in Pennsylvania and other colonies such as Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans and Quakers. Even before the emergence of the Independent Black Church movement, enslaved and free Blacks were actively involved in religious practice. The Pennsylvania Gazette of November 25, 1772, described Moses Grimes, an African American who had run away from John Hales of Philadelphia as “very religious, preaches to his colour, walks before burials, and marries.” Richard Allen and Absalom Jones forged the first self-governing African American churches by leading a walk-out from the Methodist Episcopal Church in protest to the discrimination they experienced and founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia in 1816. Other African American denominations were also founded in Philadelphia: First African Presbyterian Church; African Zoar Church; and the First African Baptist Church.
Regardless of denominations, the Black church was the center of community, hope and solace for the faithful. It spoke out on the issue of slavery without fear, and supported the fight for freedom, equality and justice. At the onset of the Civil War, Black churches had no “squeamishness about bearing witness against slavery.” They were sanctuaries for fugitives from slavery, and played an important role in establishing channels of communication between anti-slavery groups and the enslaved. As Black congregations grew, they continued to serve as meeting houses for anti-slavery rallies. They also linked to become powerful instruments in helping the enslaved make their way to freedom through a network of escape routes and secret flight strategies known as the Underground Railroad. Although a complex and dangerous undertaking, the Black church, along with the anti-slavery work of their sympathizers lent support by providing physical, material and financial aid to achieve their goals.
The Black church not only provided the survival and liberation strategies that allowed freemen and the enslaved to sustain themselves but also supported the recruitment of black soldiers in the face of intense racial prejudice. During the Civil War, Black soldiers were anxious to join the fight against slavery. They hoped that their military service would gain them freedom, voting rights and the right to full citizenship. Arguing that military service would prove their right to citizenship and guarantee the right to vote, Frederick Douglass was a strong advocate of allowing Black men to fight in the Civil War. Douglass believed that it would be a matter of survival for freed Blacks in the South, and he along with other Black abolitionists, often used the Black church to deliver their freedom messages. There they “challenged Christians to confront an institution that violated the central tenets of the Christian faith, including the principle of equality before God.”
The Black church has a long history of anti-slavery and other political activities. Undergirded by a collective faith, it was a fertile ground during the Civil War for the freedom movement among both the enslaved and freemen. Despite the brutalities and dehumanization of slavery, it was in their churches that Blacks sought to exercise their powers of leadership and to control their own affairs. There they had a sense of individual value that contradicted the devaluing and dehumanizing forces of slavery. As the hub of increasing economic power, the Black Church was a reservoir of strength and purpose for those engaged in the struggle for emancipation and civil equality.
The “Emancipation Proclamation signed by Abraham Lincoln on Jan. 1, 1863, seemed to re-enact the Exodus story of the ancient Israelites: God had intervened in human history to liberate his chosen people just as in the time of Moses and the Egyptian slaves.” The Exodus was about a collective faith -- a collective deliverance -- the exodus was also about freedom. The enslaved survived because they believed in the eventual justice of a benevolent God.
Meeting during the Civil War, “on January 12, 1865, less than three weeks after the fall of Savannah, twenty black religious leaders … were summoned for an urgent mission to help General William Sherman, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and President Lincoln himself figure out how to implement the Emancipation Proclamation … All except two were ordained ministers, serving as pastors and assistant pastors of the city’s five historic black churches. The other two were prominent laymen with important fiduciary responsibilities.” After introducing themselves, the men were interviewed for hours concerning their understanding of the issue of slavery and freedom, emancipation and education and how they hoped to maintain their freedom and sustain themselves. Their response, among other comments, was “give us the means to be independent, give us ownership of land.” Within a few days, Secretary Stanton and General Sherman drafted Field Order #15, incorporating the suggestions of these religious leaders, “which carried the weight of the African American populace in its words. Stanton would later report that the discussion achieved the profundity he would expect of the President’s cabinet; historian Ira Berlin called it ‘one of the most important gatherings of the entire Civil War era.’ ” Unfortunately, after Lincoln’s assassination, Sherman’s order was set aside by order of President Andrew Johnson. Johnson vetoed a similar plan by the U.S. Congress during Reconstruction, and was for these and other actions supporting the Confederacy impeached.
When the Civil War ended, the Black church faced new challenges which stressed a greater communalism and social solidarity. Attempting to meet both religious and social needs, they assisted their newly freed congregations to lead independent lives: helping them to find employment and housing, providing medical care; reuniting families; and offering resources for educational advancement. Serving as a center for educational activities, the Black church, with the support of their missionaries, established schools and educational institutions. Although the Baptists and Methodists took the lead in establishing schools, other denominations, including the Presbyterian, Congregational and Episcopal congregations, sent missionaries to help educate Blacks and open schools. These missionary efforts over time gave rise to the establishment of independent black institutions of higher education now branded as Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
Christianity’s Role On The Battlefield
Away from the home front, men in both Union and Confederate armies were resigned to divine but unalterable providence and certain of a heavenly afterlife; both beliefs made them better soldiers, as military commanders knew and played upon.
Perhaps most importantly, in both the Union and the Confederacy, religion provided a way for men and women to make sense of the unimaginable suffering wrought by the war. Millennialism, a belief in the imminent earthly reign of Christ, was the dominant theme of mid-19th century Christianity.
Most in the North were post-millenialists and believed that the gradual defeat of evil and perfection of humanity would facilitate Christ’s return (postmillennialism helps explain the emergence of so many northern reform movements during the age). These individuals thought of the war as a means of eradicating slavery and other impediments to the establishment of Christ’s new order.
A minority of northerners and southerners were pre-millenialists who believed apocalyptic destruction must precede the new Christly kingdom, a kind of purification through fire. Because of its “New England” origins, many southern Christians eschewed millennialist thought in all of its forms but believed the southern slave society was unequalled in its Christian sublimity, and thus, any sacrifice offered in its defense was warranted.
In one way or another, then, wartime Americans viewed the Civil War through the lens of religion and saw it as a prerequisite for a coming age of peace, prosperity and spiritual harmony.
Civil War-era Americans typically attended Catholic or mainstream Protestant services (usually Baptist, Methodist or Presbyterian), but such was not always the case. Hundreds of thousands of historic “peace” church members, chiefly Brethren and Mennonites, including Amish and Quakers, adhered to the doctrine of Christian pacifism, although some took up arms in the conflict. There were 150,000 Jews in the U.S. when the Civil War began; 7,000 served in the Union Army while 3,000 fought for the Confederacy. A small number of Americans, almost all of them northerners, practiced mystical religions like Swedenborgianism.
Pennsylvania was unique among all the states in its proliferation of such comparatively minor groups, owing to its long history of religious tolerance. Of the country’s 109 Mennonite meeting houses, 95 were in the state, as were roughly one-fourth of all Baptist Brethren places of worship (46 of 163). There were also more Friends churches (141) in Pennsylvania than even in New York (116). All told, the Keystone State could boast of more than 5,300 churches when the war began, more than any other state in the North or the South.
The Spirit Of America
In the last decades of the antebellum age, religion played an increasingly formative role in American society, so much so that even avowed secularists could not escape its cultural influence.
Thus, when word of Fort Sumter’s fall spread throughout the divided country, religion shaped the way in which most people received and interpreted the news. When the war grew bloody beyond all expectations, faith helped Americans make sense of it all.
By the war’s close, the spiritual zeal of the American people had taken a considerable hit, and ethical scientism and societal secularization further lessened the church’s role (though not its size) in American society in the post-war decades. But during the Civil War, religion shaped American life in a unique and profound way.