Religious Leaders and the American Civil War

Here in the seventh article in the series is a brief exploration of the major religious events of the antebellum period as they relate to the role of religious leaders prior to the American Civil War.

In 1783, Britain recognized the new nation by signing a treaty with the United States. The economy of the northern half of the country was primarily commercial, and the South was agricultural in nature, relying heavily on free labor to work the farms and fields. The southern half of the country had been severely ravaged as a result of the war for independence. This led some southerners to consider themselves in some way losers of the American Revolution.  The war that gave recognition to this new nation “left scars visible from Maine to Georgia and deep sectional divisions were already opening up around the slavery question” (Phillips 319).[1]

The clerical arguments on the issues of liberty, oppression, and slavery returned prior to the American Civil War, just as they had prior to and during the American Revolution. The South believed that the government of the United States was oppressing them and that God sanctioned slavery. The southern clerics began to play a similar role to that of their colonial predecessors who sought independence. The South viewed the North in much the same manner as England and the king were viewed by colonials prior to the American Revolution. Union clergy then were viewed as members of the oppressive government and as a threat to religion and economic freedom in the South. 

Power Shift

After the American Revolution a power shift among religious groups occurred. Prior to 1830, the majority of the American white population was British and Protestant in heritage (McPherson 7).[2] After 1830, German and Irish immigrants began pouring into America. The majority of these new arrivals (1/2 to 1/3) were Roman Catholics (Phillips 395).[1] To the displeasure of the Protestants, the Catholic Church became “more important and aggressive” than it had been in previous years (Phillip 395).[1] Anglicanism, Quakerism, and Congregationalism were all weakened during the Revolution and this continued into the nineteenth century. The Church of England in America had been “disestablished everywhere in the South,” including the border states by the 1790s (Phillips 332).[1] Anglicans were renamed Episcopalians and the Church of England in the United States became the Protestant Episcopal Church. Baptist congregations grew tremendously and so did the influence of their clerics. 

Second Great Awakening

The Second Great Awakening took place during the first half of the nineteenth century with the objective of expanding the Protestant power base. This period prior to the American Civil War marked a “surge of revivalism, enthusiasm, and new sects” (Phillips 357).[1] A moral revival swept the nation, moving in opposite directions, with the North establishing an anti-slavery position and the South fighting to preserve a social order founded on biblical standards that included the justification of slavery as approved by God.

Company E, 4th United States Colored InfantryCredit: United States Library of Congress, 1864

Northern and southern religious leaders, throughout the period preceding the American Civil War, played leading roles in establishing the moral position in support of the politics of the day. In some cases, these clerics worked toward not just support, but the establishment of specific, political positions for their side of the political fence.  This resulted in clerics and congregations drawing lines within their church communities. During the 1840’s, the Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians split into northern and southern branches. The southern branches were clearly pro-slavery churches. Southern clergy professed and preached that it was southern liberty and freedom at stake and that slavery was a key element in sustaining their status quo. The northern clergy turned the anti-slavery argument into a country-wide movement, into what Ahlstrom called a “juggernaut” bent on destroying the practice of slavery (Ahlstrom 673).[3] These revivalist causes were transmitted from church and Congress to the private home and onto the battlefield.

Moral reform for the North during the early 1800s was primarily the result of “political minded clergy and lay evangelicals” (Miller 97).[4] Their strategy involved demonstrating a clear division of right and wrong, good and evil, with the South and slavery being the clear evil. Clerics of the North not only saw the practice of slavery as inconsistent with liberty and freedom, they also saw it as an effort by the South to maintain a sense of southern aristocracy or, as it is called by some historians, a “slaveocracy” (Phillip 359).[1]

Soldiers near Fredericksburg in the spring of 1863 about the time of the Second Battle of Fredericksburg.Credit: Russell, Andrew J., photographer, 1863

National Reform

Northerners were on a mission of national reform that tied politics to religion, providing renewed opportunity for political preaching from the pulpit across the country, just as they did prior to the American Revolution. The land of the Yankee and New England clergy promoted the Puritan idea of “collective accountability” and that “every man is his brother’s keeper” (McPherson 8).[2] Protestant ministers “competed with lawyers as [the] guardians of republican virtue” (Miller, Stout, and Wilson 8).[4] By the late 1840s temperance, Sabbatarianism, women’s rights, and anti-slavery themes were being spread across the country and preached from pulpits and podiums nationwide (Phillips 359).[1] The most significant of the moral or cultural reforms during the pre-war period was abolitionism. Cleric Theodore Parker from Massachusetts gave the position of the North in 1854, when he accused the South of being

. . . the foe to Northern Industry, to our mines, our manufactures, and our commerce . . . to our democratic politics in the State, our democratic culture in the school, our democratic work in the community. (McPherson 41)[2] 

So strong were the northern Methodists’ views, that when charged by southern clerics for instigating the coming war, they were quick and willing to take credit, as noted by the words of Granville Moody in 1861:

We are Northern Methodist [and] are charged with having brought about the present contest. I believe it is true that we did bring it about, and I glory in it, for it is a wreath of glory around our brow. (Ahlstrom 673)[3]

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 did much to fuel the flames of contempt by the anti-slavery forces and the pro-slavery proponents. Clergy from both sides united with politicians to plead their cases to the public.  Presbyterian ministers like the Rev. Henry Beecher characterized the Fugitive Slave Law and the Kansas-Nebraska Act as “the products of an aggressive slave power Conspiracy” (Fredrickson 116).[5] A leading Baptist minister and educator, Rev. Francis Wayland, also spoke out against the Kansas-Nebraska Act (Fredrickson 117).[5] Other clerics went further in establishing formal organizations specifically to target the slavery issue such as The Church Anti-Slavery Society formed in 1859 under the leadership of the Congregationalist ministers George and Henry Cheever (Fredrickson 116).[5]

Southern Viewpoint

The South viewed all this legislative action and the efforts of the northern clerics as a clear threat to their way of life. They began to see themselves as being in the in the same situation as the colonial Americans had been in the previous century. It was time to consider establishing a separate southern nation. To the South, slavery was considered an economic necessity and, thanks to the clerical interpretations of the scriptures, a religiously sanctioned practice. Sydney Ahlstrom wrote that in the South, “the clergy rightfully claimed to be the official custodians of the popular conscience” (Ahlstrom 672).[3]

Timothy H. O'Sullivan (American - Slaves, J. J. Smith's Plantation, South CarolinaCredit: Timothy O'Sullivan, 1862

Southern Presbyterian clergy defended and developed a slavery philosophy supported by biblical theology. As late as 1864, they formally avowed that it was the southern church’s special mission to preserve “the institution of slavery and to make it a blessing both to master and slave” (Ahlstrom 672).[1] Some of the references southern clergy commonly used to demonstrate that slavery was sanctioned in Bible included Genesis 14:14 and Leviticus 25:44-45, which say,

 And when Abram heard that his brother was taken captive, he armed his trained servants, born in his own house, three hundred and eighteen, and pursued them unto Dan. (Gen. 14:14)

Both thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids. Moreover of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they begat in your land: and they shall be your possession. (Lev. 25:44-45)

Confederate 100 Dollar Note with slavesCredit: Confederate States of America. December 22, 1862

Cleric support of slavery was generally in an effort to support the economic position of the South that had, in the minds of the people and the politicians, been tied to free labor. Rarely would slavery-supporting clerics attempt to associate slavery with goodness, no more than disease, pestilence, death, and evil are associated with goodness just because they are referred to in the Bible. The Rev. James Henley Thornwell of South Carolina explained in 1850 that slavery “is a part of the curse which sin has introduced into the world” (Wyatt-Brown 91). He continues that “it is not absolutely a good ¾ a blessing ¾ but rather a natural evil which God has visited upon society” (Wyatt-Brown 91).[6]


According to Phillips, the sectional and anti-slavery controversy in the U.S. started at the end of the American Revolution (Phillips 340)[1]; however, as was shown in Article Two of this series, the controversy began prior to the revolution when colonial clerics like Witherspoon, Cooke, Osgood, Hart, Hopkins, Ebenezer Baldwin, Levi Hart, young Edwards, Belknap, Avery, Potter, Emmons, Eliot, Lewis, and Stiles questioned the practice and noted that there was a sense of hypocrisy in a nation declaring independence for freedom, yet promoting and maintaining slavery in its own midst.

Despite the anti-slavery movement, the southern preachers and their political allies convinced most of the South that slavery was not a sin and, furthermore, that it was sanctioned and encouraged by the Old and New Testaments. Slavery was considered to be good, a necessity for the South’s prosperity and peace, and a means of “preventing blacks from degenerating into barbarism, crime, and poverty” (McPherson 8).[2]

Northern clergy were setting standards of social and political morals and behavior, or at least providing the scriptural justification for such, while the South preferred to maintain the status quo. Clergy from both camps spoke out in defense of their issues and points of view. By sheer numbers the North had the upper hand in clergy. As the country finally reached the boiling point, the number of ministers per inhabitants in the North was 1:187, while in the South the ratio was 1:329 (Wyatt-Brown 92).[6] Each believed vehemently that God was on their side.  With this conviction North and South were certain to divide, and the war would test that certainty and cause each side to re-evaluate their side’s relationship with God (Miller, Stout, and Wilson 11).[4]

The role of pre-Civil War religious leadership was again similar to that before the American Revolution, providing the official religious interpretation of scriptures and the word of God. They helped to shape the political positions that were to mold the cultural beliefs and morality, as well as inspire their followers and congregations towards common goals founded on common grounds. 

Next:  Religious Leaders, the American Revolution and Civil War, Part 8 of 9: To Compare and Contrast the Two Wars

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