Review: The Politics of Faith During the Civil War
Timothy L. Wesley. The Politics of Faith During the Civil War. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2013. 320 pp. ISBN 978-0-80715-000-9.
Until quite recently the significance of religion in America’s Civil War attracted nothing like the interest historians show in arguing over the influence of religion on the Revolution. As George Rable noted in his God’s Almost Chosen People (2010), most sweeping narratives of the war note religion only in passing, an omission that mid-nineteenth century Americans would have found striking. In the last decade, however, books by Rable, Mark Noll, and others, have done much to make up this deficiency, revealing the United States’ crisis of national identity as also a theological crisis. Timothy L. Wesley’s useful new study examines the ways in which the clergy, laity, denominational bodies, and national authorities, responded when a minister addressed civil and political issues from behind the sacred desk. This narrow focus represents a welcome addition to a field in which it would be easy to conclude that religion was simply in the Civil War era ether—everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
Most northerners who attended church in the antebellum era agreed that the clergy should concern themselves with the City of God and leave the City of Man to run itself. Abolitionist or anti-slavery sermons were nearly universally condemned as uniquely and egregiously “political” in the 1830s and 1840s. It took the Mexican-American War and the events of the 1850s to inaugurate what Wesley calls “a new age of political preaching” (11). Many northern preachers agreed with Congregationalist Leonard Bacon, who pronounced after the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act that slavery was now “a question for the pulpit, unless the pulpit itself is to be dishonored and enslaved” (18). Yet there were conservative clergy in the North who, while no supporters of slavery or the hated Kansas-Nebraska Bill, still thought that the use of the pulpit for political harangues was a violation of their ministerial role. Meanwhile, Wesley writes that “Janus-faced” southern clergy of the same era decried northern “political preaching” while stoutly defending slavery and the southern way of life from the pulpit on the grounds that it was a matter of domestic, not political, concern.
In the North, the onset of the war meant that the clergy enjoyed increased prominence as their flocks searched for guidance during difficult times; but it also meant increased scrutiny from all quarters, as northerners increasingly conflated Christianity with the Union cause, leaving little room for even the most conscientious dissent. In this atmosphere, political affiliation became a litmus test for religious sincerity. In 1863 a loyal Methodist clergyman voiced the common opinion that a “Copperhead cannot be a Christian; and he who is not a Christian is not a proper person to preach the Gospel” (73).
The story of the Lincoln administration’s suppression of civil liberties during the war is well known to historians, but Wesley details how often this effort was aimed at the suppression of the pulpit, especially in border states. In 1863, for instance, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton ordered that all the Methodist churches in the vicinity of St. Louis be confiscated and placed under the authority of loyal Methodist Bishop Edward Ames (68). In many border states, and even in states such as New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, ministers who either opposed the Union or simply refused to support it from the pulpit were arrested and imprisoned. In an 1863 letter, Lincoln avowed that “the U.S. government must not undertake to run the churches,” and yet in the same letter he warned, “When an individual, in a church or out of it, becomes dangerous to the public interest…he must be checked” (70).
And yet it was not only the Lincoln administration and the Army that suppressed disloyal preachers. Wesley expands this traditional narrative to show how these ministers also faced “the censure of their fellow ministers and denominational officers, the estrangement of their local congregants, and the disparagement of the secular public, as well” (60). Between 1860 and 1865, Wesley documents 121 ministers who were brought before Methodist annual conference meetings in Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, on charges of disloyalty, adding a new axis to our understanding of dissent and the suppression of civil liberties during the war.
In one of the most interesting sections of the book, Wesley divides northern clerical positions on the relationship between religion and politics during the war into three categories. “Separate Sphere” clergy in the North believed that the religious and the political should remain strictly separate (95). Other northern clergy, whom Wesley labels “Separate Duty,” acknowledged the imperative to address political issues from the pulpit in a general sense, while insisting that the work of advocating specific positions belonged to the political sphere (105). A third group, epitomized by abolitionist firebrand Henry Ward Beecher, Wesley calls “Separate Component” preachers. These clergy viewed their religious and political proclamations as part of the same Christian project and practiced the “unconditional commingling of religious and political concerns” (111). Perhaps most surprising is Wesley’s finding that these categories did not necessarily correspond to denominational boundaries. “Within virtually every Christian tradition,” he writes, “were individuals who both sought to honor the dictates of their denominational creed and live honorably in a national beset by threats to its very existence” (121).
In contrast to their northern counterparts, according to Wesley, the southern clergy’s combination of religion and politics required no complicated taxonomy. In a chapter on the Confederate clergy, Wesley covers well-trod ground, writing that “loyalty to the church and to the nation became so interchangeable that in most parts of the South to hesitate in one’s support of the Confederacy was to court the reproach of the church” (127). Portraying the Confederate ministry as more or less unified, Wesley’s argument leaves little room for Bruce T. Gourley’s Divergent Loyalties (2012), a study of Baptists in Georgia that found a variety of attitudes towards the war within a single denomination in a single state.
Wesley interestingly details the challenges faced by clergy living in occupied areas, both Union and Confederate, during the war. “Federal policy made virtually no distinction between disloyal northern and Confederate churches,” Wesley explains. Nevertheless, he finds that “on a practical level…the consequences were visited on southern churches alone” (146). Wesley also details ministerial support for the storied resistance of southern women in occupied areas, another way in which the unique link between female congregants and their ministers was pressed into service during the war. Yet while southern churches and ministers sometimes suffered at the hands of Union forces, Wesley’s account makes clear that the worst thing to be was an outspoken Unionist minister in contested Confederate territory. In 1863, a Tennessee Unionist Methodist minister had his ears cut off and was clubbed to death. The same year, “Rebel partisans” in Tennessee murdered the Rev. Levi Carter and his son and delivered the son’s eyeballs to a local woman as a prize. In contrast to the carefully calibrated mixtures of religion and politics found in the north, then, in occupied territory the combination of religion and politics could be deadly.
Finally, Wesley details the contributions of black church leaders to the debate over religion and politics during the war. African-American clergy, mostly associated with the African Methodist Episcopal Church, mixed religion and politics as a matter of course, writes Wesley, wielding considerable influence within their communities. Many of the black clergy preached messages of “racial uplift” and moral improvement, but Wesley finds in these messages not a craven desire to win the favor of white power or a tacit admission of black inferiority, but a genuine desire to prepare their congregants for the coming of freedom and the civil equality they assumed would follow. And yet, just like their white counterparts, the African-American clergy was divided, especially on important issues such as colonization and military service. Finally, unlike their white counterparts, Wesley notes that black preachers retained their engagement with and authority in the political sphere well into the post-war era.
Wesley’s book is a fine contribution to our understanding of religion and the Civil War, and to our understanding of the clergy’s place in that struggle. I have only two observations that might qualify as critiques. First, despite a tighter focus than some other recent works on religion and the war, the book still attempts to cover quite a lot of ground, some of it quite complicated, leading at times to a tendency toward summary rather than analysis. Accordingly, the reader will long for more differentiation and nuance than Wesley’s scope allows. Related to this is the tendency to rely heavily on secondary sources. Works of synthesis are important and valuable, especially when they advance new and important interpretations of material that had previously not been pieced together in a useful way. At its best, Wesley’s account of “political preachers” in the Civil War does just this. The chapter on Confederate clergy, however, leaves the historiographical contribution unclear. Nevertheless, the book is a worthy addition to the bookshelf of any scholar trying to understand religion’s role in the Civil War, or the ways in which wars always seem to fuse religion and politics together, often with tragic consequences.