I have read a lot of books about the history of revivals and not many of them mention the revivals in the Confederate armies, particularly Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia during the American Civil War. This silence is not confined to Christian writers. Secular historians also tend to overlook their Christian beliefs and motives. In an article “Robert E. Lee and the Hand of God” (North and South, Vol. 6, No. 2, February 2003) Richard Rollins wrote,
“For most Civil War historians, religion seems to have played almost no part on the war. Some have studied the divisions in Protestant denominations in the 1850s, when schisms occurred over slavery. The lives and work of the clergy before and during the war have been chronicled. Military historians have portrayed faith as a curious aspect of quirky individuals like Stonewall Jackson and Oliver Otis Howard. The evangelical revival that occurred in the armies has attracted little attention, and has only recently has a historian usually associated with the military side of the war tried to understand what role religion played in the lives of the common soldiers. It is as if we assume that religion has no role in campaigns and battles.
Lee has typically been portrayed as the great general with little or no reference to his faith. The army commander on his horse, or the military strategist making plans for his invasion of Maryland or Pennsylvania, seem unrelated to the devout Christian. Douglas Southwall Freeman, in his four volume study R.E. Lee, as well as his three volume Lee’s Lieutenants, treated religion as an aspect of the private lives of Lee and his subordinates, with little significance in terms of their military actions. The most recent biography, by Emory Thomas, leaves the impression that religion played virtually no role in Lee’s life. It is mentioned a scant half-dozen times, and never in a discussion of his military career. A recent survey of two hundred books and articles on Lee’s military career included only one that dealt with his religion, and that was published in 1897.” (p 13)
Two early books about the Confederate revivals are Christ in the Camp by J. William Jones, first published in 1887, and The Great Revival in the Southern Armiesby William Bennett, first published in 1876. They paint a very different picture about the influence of Christianity on Lee and his army. Both have been republished by Sprinkle Publications, Virginia.
Bennett’s book is more partisan and apologetic for the South,
“The cause is lost, but its principles still live, and must continue to live so long as there remains in human nature any perception and appreciation of justice, truth and virtue.” (p 9)
Bennett argue that slavery was not that bad, quoting a letter signed by 100 Southern ministers around 1861,
“Most of us have grown up from childhood among the slaves; all of us have preached to and taught them the word of life; have administered to them the ordinances of the Christian Church: sincerely love them as souls for whom Christ died; we go among them freely and know them n health and sickness, in labor and rest, from infancy to old age. We are familiar with their physical and moral condition, and alive to all their interests, and we testify in the sight of God, that the relation of master and slave among us, however we may deplore abuses in this, as in other relations of mankind is not incompatible with our holy Christianity, and that the presence of the African in our land is an occasion of gratitude on their behalf, before God; seeing that thereby Divine providence has brought them where missionaries of the Cross may freely proclaim to them the word of salvation, and the work is not interrupted by agitating fanaticism. The South has dome more than any people on earth for the Christianization of the African race. The condition of slaves here is not wretched, as Northern fictions would have men believe, but prosperous and happy, and would have been yet more so but for the mistaken zeal of abolitionists.” (p 89)
In contrast, Fredrick Douglas wrote in his autobiography,
“For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others. It was my unhappy lost … to belong to a religious slaveholder … He always managed to have one or more of his slaves to whip every Monday morning.” (quoted in John Patrick Daly, Southern Religion and the Road to War and Defeat, 1831-1865″, North and South,Vol. 6, No. 6, September, 2003, p 25)
J. William Jones’ Christ in the Camp is less partisan. J.C. Granberry wrote in the Introduction,
“It is independent of all political and social questions involved in the civil strife. These pages do not discuss slavery, State-rights, secession, nor compare the skill of generals and prowess of troops on the opposing sides. “Christ in the Camp, or, Religion in the Army”, never mind what camp or army, is a theme of deep, thrilling world-wide significance. The only triumph the author records are the triumphs of the cross. That so many soldiers were saved by the Gospel to the praise of the riches of God’s grace is the fact in which he desires all Christians to rejoice.” (p 14)
J. William Jones was a chaplain in Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia (ANV). Christ in the Camp focuses on revivals on that army and consists largely of his recollections and accounts of other chaplains and eyewitnesses.
(“J. William Jones, when chaplain of 13th Virginia Regiment, C.S.A.”, facing page 60 in Christ in the Camp)
Jones believed the ANV was the most Christian army ever,
“Jesus was in our camps with wonderful power, and that no army in all history – not even Cromwell’s “Roundheads” – had in it as much of real, evangelical religion and devout piety as the Army of Northern Virginia.” (p 20)
Jones is a bit hagiographical about Lee,
“If I have ever come in contact with a sincere, devout Christian – one who seeing himself to be a sinner, trusted alone in the merits of Christ – who humbly tried to walk the path of duty, “looking unto Jesus” as the author and finisher of his faith – and whose piety constantly exhibited itself in his daily life – that man was GENERAL R.E. LEE.” (p 81)
(“General Robert E. Lee”, facing page 30 in Christ in the Camp)
Jones’ opinion of Lee was based on his personal experience with him and is in contrast with the modern historians, which Richard Rollins mentioned, who downplay or ignore Lee’s spiritual side.
Many students of revival believe there is a cycle where God’s people become proud and complacent, think they can ignore God, and slip into sin. They are disciplined and oppressed. They repent and turn back to God and are restored and experience revival. After a while they became complacent again and the cycle repeats itself (Henry and Richard Blackaby, Claude King, Fresh Encounter, God’s Pattern for Spiritual Awakening, B and H Publishing, Tennessee, 2009). This pattern can be seen in the ANV. Jones records that after the Confederates’ initial victories, morale and piety in the army declined,
“But there came, soon after the first battle of Manassas, and during the long inactivity which followed it, a period of demoralization which was unequalled by any witnesses during the war. Our people generally though that this great victory had virtually ended the war – that before the spring England and France would recognize the Confederacy, and the North be forced to acknowledge our independence. Many people at home quit praying and went to speculating in the necessaries of life, coining money out of the sufferings of soldiers and people, and the demoralization soon extended to the army. The vices common to most armies ran riot through our camps. Drunkenness became so common as to scarcely excite remark, and many who were temperate and some who were even total abstinence leaders at home, fell into the delusion that drinking was excusable, if not necessary, in the army.
The drunken brawls of even high officers were the common talk around the camp-fires, and the men of the rank and file claimed the privilege of imitating the leaders.”(p 267-268)
After the Battle of Antietam/Sharpsburg in September 1862 the ANV retreated to the Rappahannock River in northern Virginia where they experienced a period of revival. Jones wrote,
“The Confederate disasters of the early part of 1862 brought our people once more to their knees, and the active campaign which followed very decidedly improved the religious tone of the army.” (p 272)
“But when we came back from Sharpsburg to rest from a season amid the green fields and beautiful groves, and beside the streams of the lower Valley of Virginia, there began that series of revivals which went graciously and gloriously on until there had been fifteen thousand professions of conversion in Lee’s Army, and there had been wrought a moral and religious revolution which those who did not witness it can scarcely appreciate.” (p 273)
(“General Lee at the Soldiers’ Prayer Meeting”, facing page 51 in Christ in the Camp)
This revival continued during the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862. It appears to have come to an end by the time of Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania in June 1863. Jones does not say much about the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg.
(High Water Mark, Gettysburg, by Mort Kunstler)
However, he does record Lee’s General Order No. 83, dated August 13, 1863,
” …Soldiers! We have sinned against Almighty God. We have forgotten His signal mercies, and have cultivated a vengeful, haughty, and boastful spirit. We have not remembered that the defenders of a just cause should be pure in His eyes, just as our ‘times are in his hands’; and we have relied too much on our own arms for the achievement of our independence. God is our only refuge and our strength. Let us humble ourselves before Him. Let us confess our many sins, and beseech Him to give us a higher courage, a purer patriotism and more determined will; that He will convert the hearts of our enemies; that He will hasten the time when war, with its sorrows and sufferings, shall cease, and He will give us a name and place among the nations of the earth.” (p 56)
(Sunrise Service by Mort Kunstler)
Clearly, Lee was a lot more Christian in his motivation and thinking than many modern Civil War historians acknowledge. It looks like their victories at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville again led to the ANV becoming complacent and proud. After the defeat at Gettysburg, the ANV retreated to the Rapidan River area in Virginia where, humbled again, they experienced a greater period of revival. From an eternal perspective, Lee’s “Gettysburg Address” may turn out to have had a greater impact than Lincoln’s.
Jones records numerous eyewitness accounts of the revival around the Rapidan River area.
“The whole army is a vast field, ready and ripe to the harvest, and all the reapers have to do is go in and reap from end to end. The susceptibility of the soldiery to the Gospel is wonderful, and, doubtful as the remark may appear, the military camp is most favorable to the work of revival. The soldiers, with the simplicity of little children, listen to and embrace the truth. Already over two thousand have professed conversion, and over two thousand more are penitent.” (Rev. Dr. Rosser in Christ in the Camp, p 339)
“There has been for several weeks past a most glorious revival going on in our regiment, conducted by our respected and highly esteemed chaplain, Rev. C. H. Boggs. By the blessing of God his efforts have been crowned with great success, and many souls have been brought to realize the inestimable value of a Saviour’s love. We wish this good work to continue. It is still going on, but we wish to increase it – to extend its influence, if possible, until every man in the regiment is convinced of his lost and ruined condition, is brought to see his danger, and persuaded to fly for safety to Him who alone can save. (H.B. Richards in Christ in the Camp, p 341)
“Not for years has such a revival prevailed in the Confederate States. its records gladden the columns of every religious journal. its progress in the army is a spectacle of moral sublimity over which men and angels can rejoice. Such camp-meetings were never seen before in America. The bivouac of the soldier never witnessed such nights of glory and days of splendour. The Pentecostal fire lights the camp, and the hosts of armed men sleep beneath the wings of angels rejoicing over many sinners that have repented.” (Richmond Christian Advocate in Christ in the Camp, p 337)
“God is wonderfully reviving his work here, and throughout the army. Congregations large – interest almost universal. In our chaplains’ meeting it was thought, with imperfect statistics, that about five hundred were converted every week.” (Rev. G. R. Talley in Christ in the Camp, p 338)
Jones records instances where Confederate soldiers were baptized in the Rapidan River while Union soldiers on the other side watched (p 342,368,376).
He believes there were at least 50,000 coverts in the ANV (p 391).
After the war Jones writes,
“In 1867 I addressed letters to all of the college presidents, and many of the leading pastors in the South, in order to ascertain how far our returned soldiers were maintaining their Christian profession, and what proportion of them were preparing for the Gospel ministry.
Their replies were in the highest degree satisfying and gratifying, showing that about four-fifths of the Christian students of our colleges had been in the army, and that a large proportion of them had determined to preach while in the army – and nearly all of the army converts were maintaining their profession, many of them pillars in the church.” (p 463)
(William Jones around 1867, facing the title page of Christ in the Camp)
Jones also reproduces some calls to prayer, fasting and repentance from the Confederate President Jefferson Davis, such as this one on the aftermath of Gettysburg,
“Again do I call the people of the Confederacy – a people who believe that the Lord reigneth, and that His overrruling Providence ordereth all things – to unite in prayer and humble submission under His chastening Hand, and to beseech His favor on our suffering country. It is meet that when trials and reverse befall us, we should seek to take Him to our hearts and consciences the lessons which they teach, and profit by the self-examination for which they prepare us. Had not our successes on land and sea made us self-confident and forgetful of our reliance on Him? Had not the love of lucre eaten like a gangrene into the very heart of the land, converting too many among us into worshippers of gain and rendering them unmindful of their duty to their country, to their fellow-men, and to their God? Who, then, will presume to complain that we have been chastened or to the despair of our just cause and the protection of our Heavenly Father? Let us rather receive in humble thankfulness the lesson which He has taught in our recent reverses, devoutly acknowledging that to Him, and not to our feeble arms, are due the honor and the glory of victory, that from Him, in HIs paternal providence, comes the anguish of defeat, and that, whether in victory or defeat, our humble supplications are due at His footstool. Now, therefore, I, Jefferson Davis, President of these Confederate states, do issue this, my proclamation, setting apart Friday, the 21st day of August ensuing, as a day of fasting, humiliation and prayer, and I do hereby invite the people of the Confederate States to repair on that day to their respective places of public worship, and to unite in supplication for their favor and protection of that God who has hitherto conducted us safely through all the dangers that environed us.” (p 46-47)
(Jefferson Davis, facing page 44 of Christ in the Camp)
I find it troubling when the President of the Confederate States of America, which most people now associate with slavery and racism, sounds more Christian than many Christian politicians today. After all, in spite of all their emphasis on repentance, it does not appear to have occurred to them to repent of their support for slavery. Robert E. Lee was personally opposed to slavery, but by fighting for the South, it could be argued that he was still supporting it. William Bennett could write about the revivals, yet he still condoned slavery and insisted on the righteousness of the South’s cause.
Instead, their attitude seems to have been, “If we repent, God will do what we want and we will win the war.” The Confederates were not the only Christians who think they can bend God to their agenda. God is concerned with His agenda, our repentance and returning to Him, rather than blessing our agenda. While God did answer their prayers for revival, He did not grant their prayers for military victory.
What would have happened if God had answered their prayers and the Confederacy won? The science fiction writer Harry Turtledove has written an eleven book alternative history series unofficially called “Southern Victory” in which the CSA wins the Civil War when Lee’s orders did not end up in Union hands before the Battle of Antietam in 1862 and the CSA is recognized by Britain and France.
The United States allies itself with Germany. When the Great War begins in 1914, the CSA is on the side of Britain and France while the USA with its industrial might is on the side of Germany. The Great War is also fought in North America. Germany and the USA win. Canada is occupied. The CSA has to pay reparations, resulting in hyper-inflation and the rise of the equivalent of the Nazis in the form of the Freedom Party in the CSA. Kaiser Wilhelm still rules Germany.
The Second Great War begins in 1941 when Britain, France, Russia and the CSA declare war on Germany and the USA. The Holocaust is carried out against the Blacks in the CSA. The USA, CSA, Britain and Germany develop atomic bombs and use them. The Allies surrender. Both Canada and the CSA are occupied by the USA which introduces Nuremberg-style war crimes trials against the CSA for their crimes against humanity.
If Germany and the Ottoman Empire had not been defeated in World War I, there would have been no British mandate in Palestine, no Hitler, no Holocaust, no modern nation of Israel. I am not suggesting things would have turned out exactly as Turtledove envisaged after a Confederate victory, but I believe their defeat was for the best.
A Confederate victory and a lasting revival in the South appear to have been incompatible. During the Civil War Confederate victories resulted in pride and backsliding. Their defeats resulted in revivals in the army. When we consider all the things which went wrong for the ANV at Gettysburg, it looks like God did not want them to win.
If the Confederates had won at Gettysburg and forced the Union to recognize the South, there would have been no call for repentance by President Davis and General Lee and no revival in the Rapidan River area in 1863. They would have most likely become proud and complacent in victory again, and there probably would not be a “Bible Belt” in the South today.
I suppose the Christians in the Confederacy were not much different from many evangelical Christians today. We only turn to God when things go wrong. We expect Him to bless and prosper our plans and agendas even when we have not fully repented. Nevertheless, God still shows His grace and mercy to us.