Belief in the Civil War

Principal author:
John L. Clark

It is a real challenge, but it is also of real value to assess the basic motives that lead people to behave in certain ways and to make certain decisions. The intensity, tumult, and pointed moral factors that surrounded the US War of 1861 make it a useful focal point for the study of the moral trajectory of the United States, as well as a poignant exemplar of the execution of moral will.

These motives tend to be pervasive and understood in common, and so it can be difficult to get an explicit and comprehensive handle on them; instead, historians often study the outcomes of these beliefs without tying them into a larger formulation. One area in which the belief structure of a particular culture does manifest explicitly is in the religious expressions within that culture. For this reason, it is expedient to consider the religious beliefs of the people of this period, although this discussion will also consider other aspects of their beliefs where available.

The depth of the violence and trauma of the war was extreme. In order to understand how former members of the same national union could commit to killing each other with such abandon, James M. McPherson reviews what the soldiers in the war said about their beliefs to their friends and family in his book For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought In the Civil War.

Through extensive quotes from letters and journals, McPherson provides a synthesis of the motivations that led soldiers to fight in the war. The book covers three levels of beliefs that motivated these soldiers: initial motivation; sustaining motivation; and combat motivation.” [McP1997, p12] McPherson is careful to discuss the consequences of the samples available for his survey, so the book both bears a strong degree of authority and resonates on a personal level.

While For Cause and Comrades does discuss the ways in which morality and religion affected the resolve of the soldiers, McPherson points out that the main ideology that initially drove men to fight was their devotion to the national cause. “Relatively few Union volunteers mentioned the slavery issue when they enlisted.” [McP1997, p19] Instead, “Confederates professed to fight for liberty and independence from a tyrannical government; Unionists said they fought to preserve the nation conceived in liberty from dismemberment and destruction.” [McP1997, p105]

In fact, this heightened sense of the sacred importance of the United States as a nation had been reinforced by evangelical Christianity from before the Revolution against Great Britain up to and throughout the antebellum period. The books Broken Churches, Broken Nation by C. C. Goen and American Apocalypse by James H. Moorhead provide important background details about the interwoven development of Christianity and national identity in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Each book goes on to describe a separate aspect of the role that religion played in the war, and this discussion will return to them later.

The Christian denominations that grew the largest did so by emphasizing a dramatic, enthusiastic inclusiveness while at the same time focusing on personal, individual salvation that fit closely to the culture of independence that flourished in the colonies and the new nation. “[T]he low-church localism that characterized the functioning polity of the popular denominations and the Enlightenment assertion that government rests solely on the consent of the governed clearly matched and reinforced each other.” [Goe1985, p119] Thus did Christianity continue to move in an evangelical direction: “"Evangelical" as used here refers to conviction that the Christian life begins with a personal experience of conversion and issues in a life of strenuous moral endeavor.” [Goe1985, p12] Revivals were the communal experiences of embracing this conversion. Goen provides a solid and approachable overview of this religious formation of the country. “[A] primary engine of nationalism and union would be evangelical Protestantism, and its most effective technique would be revivalism.” [Goe1985, p23] He summarizes this process as follows:


Revivalism won the allegiance of a people who had lost touch with liturgical forms and elaborate creeds by the simple expedient of forceful preachers who laid aside doctrinal complexities and pressed on their hearers the dramatic alternatives of heaven or hell. Salvation was a matter of individual choice, and sinners were urged to "get religion." That religion might "get" them was rarely considered. The techniques of revivalism thus evolved into an effective strategy for increasing church membership but … they were not very useful for developing moral discipline and a sense of social responsibility.

 --[Goe1985, p25]
This hints at the underlying problems that were thinly veiled by the common, “expedient” shroud of evangelical Christian identity.

The main theological components of evangelical Protestantism, which combined elements of Enlightenment ideology, furthered its popular reception throughout the impending United States. Evangelicals preached millennialism, which was the doctrine that the new republic was uniquely positioned to bring the Christian gospel and the blessings of liberty to the entire world. This theology placed the nation in a salvific role, and served to condition its citizens for its aggressive defense. Moorhead describes how “[t]his weaving of secular and religious motifs into one holy history became commonplace after independence” in the introduction to American Apocalypse. “As one clergyman put the matter, America was leading the world toward a “millennium of republicanism.” [Moo1978, p5]

Inculcated with the belief in the ultimate importance of the United States, soldiers were willing to fight to protect its integrity. McPherson provides a quote from a letter of a “captain, in the 12th New Jersey,” that illustrates how devotion to the principles of the nation affected those who fought. “I would rather live a soldier for life [than] see this country made a mighty sepulcher in which should be buried our institutions, our nationality, our flag, and every American that today lives, than that our Republic should be divided into little nothings by an inglorious and shameful peace.” [McP1997, p99]

The rapid spread of evangelical Christianity in the 18th and early 19th centuries had suppressed underlying moral inconsistencies that would crystallize in the sectional power struggle leading up to the war. The denominations that leveraged the evangelical strategy the best were the Methodists, the Baptists, and the Presbyterians. In Broken Churches, Broken Nation, Goen highlights the way in which these churches succeeded at “three major tasks: securing full religious liberty, completing their indigenous organization, and evangelizing a nation in which more than nine-tenths of the population were outside formal church membership.” [Goe1985, p43] Focusing on these goals, however, caused other moral principles to be ignored. “The real problem was the perception on the part of the evangelicals that an antislavery church would necessarily remain a very small church.” [Goe1985, p146–147]

In the 1830s and 1840s, each of these three denominations split along largely sectional lines; Goen describes the way in which the schisms happened as well as the consequences of separate sectional churches. “The divided churches painfully exposed the deep moral chasm between North and South, furthering the alienation between sections and contributing to the eventual disruption of the Union.” [Goe1985, p4] The antebellum schisms were closely correlated to the exercise of political power both at the time of the schisms and in the period leading up to the war.

The primary purpose of Broken Churches, Broken Nation is to discuss the way in which these church schisms both foreshadowed and prepared for the more destructive civil crisis to come. Because the spread of evangelical Protestantism had carefully traced and reinforced the larger national identity, when the largest churches broke apart that sense of identity was weakened significantly and a widening disconnect between the sections was revealed. Further, many of the ways of framing and understanding the sectional conflict were introduced during the church schisms and then reused as the war approached. “The logic and language of the political crisis was precisely parallel to that of the ecclesiastical disputes.” [Goe1985, p123]

Although slavery was the driving force that caused the churches to break up prior to the war, this does not imply that there was a strong moral commitment to the abolition of slavery in the Northern churches. This is the main argument of John R. McKivigan in his book, The War against Pro-Slavery Religion. Instead, these splits were precipitated by a power struggle over leadership in the churches and in their benevolent societies based on the growing divide over church sanction for slavery.

One weakness in McKivigan's account is that he explicitly delegates to other resources for a discussion of the way in which developments in Northern abolitionism fit into a larger national context. As a result, abolitionism ends up seeming like a monolithic enterprise that managed to develop a radical intolerance for slavery without any provocation. It is useful to consider intensifying Northern abolitionism in the context of political and economic struggles that had been ongoing since the formation of the country, and which took on increasing prominence after the War of 1812.

With that in mind, The War against Pro-Slavery Religion is still quite valuable for its detailed inspection of the developing strategies of Northern abolitionists, and it clearly shows Northern church resistance to these strategies. McKivigan notes that, “[a]lthough many denominations had made antislavery professions in the immediate post-Revolution era, most also had expressed concern for the potentially disruptive effects of emancipation.” [McK1984, p18]

The abolitionist movement started a concerted program of activism towards the abolition of slavery in the 1830s, and William Lloyd Garrison was a main leader of the most radical branch of the abolitionists. His associates, “a group of wealthy and benevolent-minded businessmen” [McK1984, p37] known as the Garrisonians, adopted radical positions not only on antislavery but also on other issues such as feminism. They were uncompromising in their beliefs, and so many Garrisonians chose to stop associating with any organized church, a practice known as comeouterism. Because of their beliefs and their perceived anti-establishment bias, many Christians attacked them as infidels, or unfaithful to proper Christianity, although they continued to grow in size and influence, particularly when they decided to compromise by looking to politics and the Republican party to accomplish emancipation.

Another group of activists worked for immediate emancipation but remained committed to church membership. These Christian abolitionists also criticized Garrisonians as infidels for abandoning any church ties, but in some cases they did secede from their own churches to form separate denominations; these were known as comeouter sects, although they perceived their actions to be substantially different from the church disavowal of the Garrisonians. Both Garissonians and Christian abolitionists provided an extremely strong critique of any church policies with respect to slavery and fellowship with slaveholders throughout the antebellum period.

For all that, church leadership largely prioritized maintaining the broadest membership possible, up to the beginning and even well into the war. For example, “Frederick Douglass accused prominent eastern clergymen of preaching proslavery sermons to reassure the wavering border states that the North had not turned abolitionist.” [McK1984, p186] Eventually, abolitionists turned to the war itself to effect immediate emancipation. “In particular, the abolitionists recognized that the war gave them an unprecedented opportunity to press the federal government to adopt an emancipation policy.” [McK1984, p184]

Earlier, we saw that evangelical Christianity helped to unify the new United States. As another example of this way in which religion could serve to achieve cultural unity, it was used again to help build a sense of distinctiveness and eventually national identity in the South, in what serves as an obviously tragic example of the older trend. Northern abolitionist agitation provided a sharp jolt to the South that caused them to rally behind their traditions and way of life, and the Southern churches did not hesitate to support the cause of Southern distinctiveness.

In Gospel of disunion, Mitchell Snay discusses how the Southern churches helped to facilitate Southern identity and a sense of Southern distinctiveness, in large part by justifying and sanctifying the practice of slavery. Snay notes that the South included a range of cultural elements that needed a way to band together in the face of the perceived threat from the North. By preaching that slavery was the moral backbone of the South, churches provided this common basis. Southern ministers also taught that their society should work to minister to their slaves through benevolent outreach, and the manifestation of this ministry brought Southerners together in a common effort.

Preaching about the benefits and justice of slavery led naturally to an attack of abolitionism, and the entire North by association. Even some Northern churches saw abolitionist efforts as being secular and infidel, and this sentiment was intensely heightened in the South. Snay notes that “[a]s part of their rhetorical strategy … Southerners significantly drew a connection between this unsound philosophy and contemporary religious and social turmoil.” [Sna1993, p119] This strategy of assigning moral blame to your enemies for social problems was common in both sections in the period surrounding the war.

In the face of changing attitudes and aggressive posturing in the North, Southern churches asserted that the South would fulfill the millennial promise that evangelical Protestantism had preached to the whole Union. Southern religion accused the North of abandoning this commitment.


Taken together, these depictions point to a fundamental conception of separation as a restorative act aimed at purging subversive elements and preserving original principles and institutions. This paradigm of separation provided the framework in which southern clergymen thought about political separation from the North. It was this kind of mind set that encouraged Southerners to see their enemies as the true seceders, who had departed from established principles. This interpretation of religious schism anticipated the core of the secessionist argument that disunion was a conservative movement aimed at preserving the constitutional integrity of the original Union.

 --[Sna1993, p148]
The Southern churches strongly helped their section to discover a moral foundation and what would become a national purpose.

Slavery certainly was the core issue behind the sectional struggle for power; as it was perceived as a moral issue, agitators on both sides attempted to use church institutions as a clearinghouse for exercising power over their opponents. Clearly, this sectional conflict worked at cross purposes with the older belief that the United States would be the primary agent in bringing about the Kingdom of God and Jesus' ensuing millennial reign. The tension in this contradiction is evident when examining the inertia in the churches to grasp onto whatever national membership was still available as the war approached, as well as in the North's overwhelming drive to preserve the Union at all costs. The South resolved this tension by defining themselves as being explicitly in opposition to changing principles in the North. Moral agitation surrounding slavery was at the core of this tightening tension stemming from the underlying contradiction. In Gospel of disunion, Snay provides an overview of the Southern defense of slavery, but Mark A. Noll discusses a range of slavery arguments in more detail in his book The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.

As Noll points out, when using literal interpretation of the Bible as your theological basis, the argument that slavery is moral and sanctioned by God is easy to make and had a strong popular reception in a culture that was so economically dependent on the institution. The bluntness of the evangelical Christian proslavery argument caused many Northern abolitionists and preachers to turn to arguments against slavery that were harder to understand and that were often not based on scripture, but instead on rational and Enlightenment ideas. Arguments such as these and increasing activism undermining established religion by groups such as the Garrisonians led to a growing questioning of both the Bible as a source of truth as well as religion in general. In turn, this provided strong material for contrast and attack in the South, and it is one dimension of the theological crisis that Noll identifies in the title of his book.

Slavery was not the only moral issue that was sacrificed to the evangelical Christian goals of popularity and membership. The racism implied in strictly black slavery was almost never discussed; instead slavery in the abstract was simply equated with black slavery, thus continuing to hide even the existence of racism. This crisis would resurface as a long-standing problem during Reconstruction, as Republicans focused on political and economic justice for blacks without seriously considering the broad instability caused by racism, and it would continue well into the 20th century.

In addition, while abolitionists provided a strong critique of the moral basis of Southern wealth, the South answered with sharp criticism of the morality of the Northern economic system. “Southern defenders of slavery did, in fact, raise serious questions from Scripture about the moral order of an individualistic and profit-mad economy, which they saw as the North's aggressive alternative to a slave order.” The Southern view was that “the threat was of “a materialistic, marketplace society that promoted competitive individualism and worshiped Mammon.” The prosecution and eventual outcome of the war strongly influenced the moral focus on slavery to the exclusion of other issues. “Buying and selling slaves so monopolized theological attention that little energy remained for evaluating American systems of buying and selling in general.” [Nol2006, p52–53] Slavery was a useful issue because it provided a clear basis for the power struggle between the sections. “The main public voices often merely reflected the dominant tenor of the particular regions from which they spoke, or they simply sidestepped contentious issues.” [Nol2006, p127] Noll warns that the war suppressed important aspects of moral discussion:


The result was theological weakness in the face of pressing economic circumstances: while there was a heightened capacity to produce wealth, there was also a heightened capacity to produce alienation and vast economic inequality. … [T]heological incoherence in the face of modern economic realities has remained a major problem for Christian thinking ever since the Civil War.

 --[Nol2006, p53–54]

As the war started, soldiers on both sides were mainly willing to fight, kill, and die for cherished ideals associated with the vitality of their nation, be it the former Union or the new Confederacy. Although underlying the conflict in these ideals were the moral fundamentals of slavery as an economic system, soldiers were not initially or primarily driven to fight for the principles associated with slavery. As the war progressed, however, Union soldiers increasingly adopted a revulsion of slavery, a sentiment which helped push them on as their invasion of the South met challenges and the suffering grew. “While restoration of the Union was the main goal for which they fought, they became convinced that this goal was unattainable without striking against slavery.” [McP1997, p118] Many soldiers also bore an acute moral opposition to slavery, but in fact there was a lot of resistance to the idea that the war was primarily about emancipating blacks, and practical consequences of emancipation and the use of slavery to vilify the South outweighed moral motivations.

The mere fact of this invasion provided a large portion of the Southern soldiers' will to stay in the fight. They believed that the North was trying to enslave them by leveraging political—and then military—power. “Southern recruits waxed more eloquent about their intention to fight against slavery than for it—that is, against their own enslavement by the North.” [McP1997, p21]

Northern churches fell into line in supporting the war effort by pushing various aspects of theology that supported what soldiers in the field understood about their cause, including a rapid shift from resisting abolitionism to becoming strong supporters of abolitionist principles. The main portion of American Apocalypse is spent discussing the bewildering array of teachings that the Northern churches used to justify the war. Protestants variously preached that the Union and democracy were a sacred tool of God and required militant defense; that the war was a providential punishment or cleansing action by God against the entire country, or specifically against slavery in the South; and that the intensity of the conflict would unify the nation or bring it into maturity.

One significant and long-standing teaching of evangelical Protestantism was the notion of Providence. Christians in the United States had been steeped in the belief that God directed all events, and therefore they believed that the war must be a tool of God's will, to some good end. Invariably each side in the war interpreted that end to be in support of their goals. Often this belief was reinforced with one of the other church teachings about the righteousness of the cause in order to help understand and submit to God's will. This belief strengthened soldiers on both sides of the trenches, as each side believed that God was working in the war to fulfill their righteous expectations. The eventual outcome of the war led the North to strongly validate this belief in Providence. “In the North euphoria at the end of the war was everywhere expressed in … ardent providentialist language.” [Nol2006, p76] Moorhead emphasizes the danger in this belief:


As the war drew to a close, Protestants experienced heightened confidence that God had vindicated his elect, indeed that he had made the Republic his indispensable tool for world renovation. It was ominous, however, that the clergy had identified this mission so closely with America's military power and achievement. … With an unrivaled unanimity and fervor, Northern Protestants presented the struggle for the Union as a decisive religious battle. In the context of the country's first approximation of modern, total warfare, this inauspicious fact disclosed with peculiar force a dangerous substrate in the idealistic conception of American destiny: spiritual struggle particularly as expressed in those dark and ambiguous millennial symbols of warring hosts and final battles could be easily transformed into more earthly crusading. Thus the Northern response to the crisis of the Union was in part a premonition of later efforts in 1898 to export by gunboat the blessings of Christian civilization or to make the world safe for democracy in 1917; and in more recent memory, Americans have witnessed the mischief of the doctrine that “the fate of the liberty of mankind … depends upon the American army and navy.”

 --[Moo1978, p81]
Southern Christians, in contrast, saw the end of the war as a way in which God was testing their faith and their resolve.

This elastic understanding embedded in evangelical Protestantism led to another of the theological crises that Noll describes in his book. As the war ended and the sections haltingly began to come together again, these conflicting understandings of the Providence of the war led many in the nation to start questioning Providence itself.

It is unclear where Christian morality actually fit into the poisonous swamp at the middle of the 19th century. McPherson highlights another important aspect of the moral confusion surrounding the war: the soldiers had to overcome the clear Christian commandment not to kill. “The reluctance to kill a fellow human being is embedded in many cultures, including Western societies shaped by the Judeo-Christian ethic. Yet those same societies have fought the most savage and destructive wars in history.” [McP1997, p71] The beliefs of the soldiers and of the larger societies engaged in the war sanctioned—even demanded—the violence that the war required. Throughout For Cause and Comrades, McPherson works to “explain how these soldiers overcame their inhibitions: it was a just war, a holy cause against an evil enemy. Both sides believed that God was on their side and that they were doing their duty to God and country by trying to kill the godless enemy.” [McP1997, p72] He goes further and notes that both sides nursed a sense of vengeance towards their enemy that spurred them to further bloodshed. None of this, however, seemed consistent with Christian morality.


Both revenge and hatred were incompatible with Christian ethics. But many American men in the Civil War era were quite capable of reconciling Christianity and vengeance, just as they were able to suspend the Commandment "Thou shalt not kill" for the duration of the war. Otherwise the concept of a Christian soldier would have been an oxymoron.

 --[McP1997, p148]

Moral judgment requires some basis for that judgment. For example, towards the end of American Apocalypse James H. Moorhead criticizes the churches for setting unreasonable expectations about the role of the United States in the plan of God, thus exacerbating the commitment to the war effort. C. C. Goen provides an explicit critique of the churches in the last chapter of Broken Churches, Broken Nation based on the premise that they should have worked harder to repair their sectional schisms, thus perhaps providing the nation with the needed strength to avoid division.

The churches framed their outreach so as to maximize membership, which involved adapting their message to the culture and needs of the United States. By so doing, they ignored a number of lurking moral issues that existed in contradiction with one another. When this happens, even in the present, these inconsistencies imply structural weakness in the moral platform itself, and eventually the force they exert on one another will need to be resolved in some way. We can see in a very sad and dramatic way how that worked out in the Civil War and the following decades of racial strife. At the very least, the war should teach us to be on careful guard for moral inconsistencies and contradictions. The war also showed the power of belief in a way of life; it is important to understand the precise nature of that belief to see how that power can be discharged.

Where the sectional societies did stop to examine moral issues, they did so with an unforgiving hardness that served to antagonize and isolate the opposing section; coincidentally, this served to concentrate power within each section. Resolution of other moral issues, in this case including racism and economic justice, were suppressed and lost traction in the aftermath of the war. Some, such as your author, claim that deeply dangerous moral inconsistencies and moral problems still remain unaddressed in our society. The Civil War provides both a warning that these problems deserve careful and widespread scrutiny as well as hints about how these problems can be ignored.

Finally, the moral authority provided by an established religion, or really by any established belief system, can easily be abused. Any institution that represents a moral authority needs to be able to present an argument for the value and consistency of that moral code, and members of that institution must be vigilant in evaluating that morality and holding the institution accountable for remaining faithful to those values.


C. C. Goen. Broken Churches, Broken Nation: Denominational Schisms and the Coming of the American Civil War. Mercer, 1985.

John R. McKivigan. The War against Pro-Slavery Religion: Abolitionism and the Northern Churches, 1830-1865. Cornell University Press, 1984.

James M. McPherson. For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought In the Civil War. Oxford University Press, 1997.

James H. Moorhead. American Apocalypse: Yankee Protestants and the Civil War, 1860-1869. Yale University Press, 1978.

Mark A. Noll. The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. The University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

Mitchell Snay. Gospel of disunion: Religion and separatism in the antebellum South. Cambridge University Press, 1993.

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