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

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In this eighth article in the series will compare and contrast the information presented in the earlier articles, particularly focusing on the clergy’s role in the justification for war, clerical participation in the wars, the issues of liberty, oppression, and slavery, and the arguments for and against the separation of church and state. 

American Revolutionary War as Rebels and Civil War Confederacy (The South)

American Revolutionary War Loyalists and Civil War Union (The North)

When these two wars are examined in relation to the roles of religious leaders, there is an unmistakable resemblance between the colonial clerics of the American Revolution and the Confederate clerics of the American Civil War. This is also true of the similarity between the Loyalist clerics of the American Revolution and the Union or Northern clerics of the American Civil War.

Some fighting clerics of the 18th and 19th centuries saw themselves as no less than the Ordained Templar Knights of 12th through 14th centuries.  

Escenas de la Reconquista por las Ordenes Militares

Historically speaking, as noted in the first two articles of this series, the idea of fighting monks or ministers in war as actual combatants was not new or even unique and had existed at least since the period of Augustine. Warrior ministers during these earlier periods of history (especially Islamic-Judeo-Christian leaders, monks, and ministers, prior to the American Revolution) believed that their actions were in the name of God and in fulfillment of His plan to establish the one nation of God and to destroy evil whenever and wherever found. In the cases of the American Revolution and the American Civil War, there is a different twist to this longstanding practice. Prior to each of these wars, religious leaders limited their destruction of evil and their efforts to convert all non-believers. Their primary weapon of war was their words and those of the scriptures fired out during missionary efforts, the usual sermon, and their own creative publications.

Additionally, clerics were more likely to take up arms personally as gun-toting combatants when they believed that their real freedoms were threatened. This was the case particularly for the colonial clerics and at least two of the clerics of the Confederacy. It is almost surprising that Loyalist clerics and the northern clerics did not take a more hands-on warrior role since historical precedent exists for such action. They both viewed the activities of the times as rebellious acts of defiance against legitimate government and felt that the threat to them (Loyalist and Union) was a potential loss of social and political influence, as well as of territory and people to control or souls to save. Ironically, colonialist, Loyalist, Confederate, and Union religious leaders all chose for validation of their arguments and actions the same set of religious literature.

The Use of Scriptures and Other Religious Literature

In both wars, the clergy took their place at their pulpits, their bloody pulpits, and gave their communities the justification needed and the blessing of God by interpreting the scriptures. Clergy of both conflicts used the Old and New Testaments as justification for and against rebellion. Religious leaders used scriptural reference as their primary weapon to invoke faith, fear, and desire in the minds and hearts of the people they came in contact with. The idea that God approved fighting for freedom and against injustice reaches back to the Old Testament. It was preached that war founded on religious principles was a religious act. Thus, it was right and just to fight those not seen as with God or to fight those considered unjust or oppressive. So clerics took to their pulpits and their pens declaring their opponents as unjust, oppressive, and, as such, not with God. From their pulpits, the communities’ religious leadership turned their churches into military recruiting stations and their congregations into recruits as combatants and non-combatant supporters for the wars.

The Delaware Regiment at the Battle of Long Island.

Religious Leaders and the Community

Clerical partnerships within communities had changed much between these two wars. Clerics prior to and during the American Revolution were likely to have had a longstanding relationship with the community in which they resided. As Fredrickson noted, the colonial minister, especially in New England, was very likely to have spent most of his career serving the same church and same congregation (111).[1] Colonial religious leaders were closely tied to their communities as well as to community politics. Their power and associated influence was, at a minimum, the result of their position in the community. This influence was usually expanded beyond matters of religion to include matters of local politics. 

This changed drastically after the American Revolution. By the mid-nineteenth century religious leaders pursued their own sense of power and influence. Many were looking to move to the next larger congregation or to climb to the next higher level of the community hierarchy to increase their own personal influence over others and to increase their own financial compensations. During these times the larger the congregation, the larger the financial compensation. Charisma, personality, persuasion, and the ability to present and defend an argument became great assets to the clergymen wanting to expand their horizon. One of the factors that these clerics had to deal with was the impact of the traditional community standards. These standards or norms often influenced clerics in terms of what and how they made religious-political statements to retain their position and standing in the community.

Phillips notes that the American Revolution and the American Civil War (and including the English Civil War) had “followed a Protestant religious revival powerful enough to pump fervor into gathering ideological abstractions” (357).[2] Speaking from their pulpits, religious leaders during the First Great Awakening and the Second Great Awakening helped to plant the seeds of war for both of these American wars (Phillips 357).[2] It’s true that the Protestant revival prior to the English Civil War and the American Revolution help to inspire thoughts of rebellion; however, in contrast to Phillips’ view, the Protestant move prior to the American Civil War was more supportive of church influences over the state, as opposed to securing the separation of church and state.

Battle of Fort Donelson

Colonial and Confederate Clerics

Just as the colonial clerics had no trust in the Loyalists during the Revolutionary War, particularly due to the ties between the Church of England and the monarchy, Confederate clerics believed that the northern clerics served only Union government concerns at a cost to the South. Both the colonial clergy and the Confederate clerics felt threatened by perceived efforts of the Loyalist and the Union clerics to expand their influences across the new American nation. Northern clerics’ missionary expansion efforts were seen with suspicion by southern clerics, as were colonial clerics’ view of the threat that an American bishop would create during the era of the American Revolution.

Both the colonial clerics and Confederate clerics saw their conflicts as an issue of politics and of establishing their own survival and finding their place in the community. However, while the American Revolution was a fight for a real sense of (colonial) survival as a social and political order, along with at least a sense of independence and separation of church and state, there was no real threat to religious freedom in the South during the Civil War as many clerics had proposed. Instead, the religious issue was whether slavery and church politics could be resolved, as well as the clerics’ desire to maintain southern clerical influence as it had been prior to the war. Religion itself in the South did not change; only the approach to biblical interpretations and how these interpretations were used in explaining the Confederacy’s defeat. 

Battle of Guiliford Courthouse 15 March 1781

The colonial religious leadership of the American Revolutionary War effort and the religious leadership of the American Civil War’s Confederacy had in common the use of the idea that they were fighting against a government that had imposed its will upon them in an unjust manner.  The Confederacy, just as the colonial clergy and the founders of the New America had done, quoted scriptures, often the same article and verse, justifying their fight for freedom. The South professed, much like the earlier colonial clergy, that this struggle for secession was not just a fight for civil rights, but also a fight for religious freedom for the church, the gospel, and for existence itself” (Ahlstrom 764).[3] 

The accepted religious literature prior to both wars included references to allegiance to the current standing governments. The colonial clerics and the Confederate clerics found and exercised the same solution to the appearance of religious support of their new enemies. They both removed the offensive passages from their hymnals and prayer books and replaced them with text that supported their own position. In 1861 in the South, under the direction of Bishop Early and the Holston Conference, the clerics inserted “prayers for the Confederacy and not for the United States” (Coulter 294).[4] Colonial clerics did the same by removing references to prayer and allegiance to the king and monarchy of England.

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

Clerics on Slavery

Clerical arguments for and against slavery existed before the American Revolutionary War and continued well after the American Civil War. Clerics began supporting anti-slavery legislature as early as the Quaker leadership’s statements against the practice of slavery during the turn of the eighteenth century. Legislative action against the practice began with the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 prohibiting slave trade. Though much of the North from this period on was anti-slavery, the rise of later support for slavery in the South was eventually tied to economics. Clerics of social groups that felt the need for cheap or free labor as a necessity of their economic survival provided these communities with Bible verses justifying the legitimacy of the practice of buying, selling, and owning human property. Southern clergy saw the issue of slavery as being permitted by God. The divided view on this practice had not reached a geographical split until after the turn of the century, when the northern half of the country clearly developed into a manufacturing-based economy, while the South maintained a dependency on agricultural economics. Thus, many of the northern clerics were united in the anti-slavery movement. Even those that had initially refrained from taking a position eventually supported the condemnation of slavery.

Loyalist and Northern Clerics

In England, religious leaders of the time prior to and during the English Civil War saw themselves as the chosen ones of God, while all others were seen as without God’s teachings. Considering themselves the official spokesmen of God, these religious leaders often created their own set of ethics, virtues, and mores and claimed to be supported by scripture just like the arguments stated by the English in the 1700s. It was their job to set the country straight on all issues relating to God and government. Just like English clerics’ arguments against mob rule, the northern clerics pronounced the southern clerics and politicians as

A morbid philanthropy; an ostentatious and costly self-indulgence; a lack of loyal admiration and reverence for a strong and energetic government; and a disposition in our notions of national policy to substitute the will of majorities, instead of justice, and the will of God. (Fredrickson 119)[1]

Anthony Bowen

Image Right: Anthony Bowen

Born 1805, Died 1872

Born a slave in Maryland, later a resident of Washington, D.C. from 1826 until his death in 1872. Earning his freedom in 1830 and became the first African-American employee of the United States Patent Office. He was an abolitionist. In 1853, he founded the first YMCA chapter for African-Americans. Bowen assisted in founding the St. Paul AME Church and a Sunday Evening School meeting in his home. During the Civil War, Bowen encouraged President Lincoln to enlist Black soldiers.


Norther Clerics

The northern Civil War clergy repeated much of what was heard in the early days of the Revolutionary period, such as Loyalist clergy declaring rebellion as “most wicked, unjustifiable, unnatural, inhuman, oppressive, and destructive . . .“ (Ahlstrom 674).[3] The necessity to conduct war for the sake of sustaining national interest, which was supported by Loyalists and the Church of England against the colonials during the American Revolution, was again repeated by the northern clergy in support of the Union against the rebellious South during the American Civil War. While the southern clerics preached that obedience to government was conditional, northern clerics preached unconditional loyalty. The northern clerics’ interpretation of the issue of loyalty to government was the same as that professed by Loyalists more than eight decades earlier: the powers that be are ordained by God and thus deserving of the unconditional loyalty of the people it presided over. Union clerics argued just like their predecessors that loyalty to the standing government was the best way to protect individual rights. The Loyalist clerics believed that liberty was better protected under the king and monarchy. But not everything was the same between the Loyalists and the northern clerics.

The idea that rebellion was illegal created a sense of hypocrisy. This was pointed out by the northern cleric F. C. Ewer, Episcopal Rector of Christ Church in New York, when he complained in 1864 that there was “something radically wrong in the sweeping, arbitrary meaning, which divines nowadays draw out of [Romans 13]” (Fredrickson 120-21).[1] The prevailing interpretation, he pointed out, would deny legitimacy to all the revolutionary movements in history, including the Protestant Reformation and the American Revolution (Fredrickson 120-21).[1]

The power of the clergy to influence and support the army was not recognized and capitalized on by the South as was done by the North. Just as in the American Revolution, the Union forces recognized the power and influence of religious leadership as a means to motivate through appealing to the emotions of fear, pride, and the desire to comply with “God’s will” and the teachings of the scriptures. Northern clerics enjoyed a numerical majority in contrast to the Loyalist clerics. Each side that won their war had the greater number of clerics supporting their war effort. “In the entire military establishment, only fifty loyalist ministers served through the duration” of the war (Wyatt-Brown 104).[5] In contrast, the army of the North had approved and made every effort to supply one chaplain per regiment.

Namozine Church, Virginia

Church and State

Similarities existed between the position taken by Loyalists and the Unionists versus Colonial and Confederate clerics in regard to the notion of the separation of church and state. Primarily the Protestant North of the American Civil War, as did the Loyalists of the American Revolution, argued that the government was intertwined with the church, particularly the Christian church. Colonials, as did Confederate clerics, professed that there must be a clear separation in order to preserve religious freedom. No longer did this country of liberty stand united under a commonly understood set of religious principles supporting equality and religious tolerance as a national standard.  To the northerners and Loyalists, there was only one right way of thought in the church and that right way depended on whose church and what community you stood in at that time.   Rebel preachers of the new America and those of the Confederacy outwardly professed that they wanted to maintain the separation of church and state, and both readily provided their congregations with arguments and suspicions against any action taken by the government towards uniting the two.

Use of Religious Conviction

Clerics during both wars and on both sides used religion, the church, and scriptures to validate their positions in an effort to influence their communities; yet they developed completely opposite positions. There is a true irony in the arguments used by clerics of the North against those of the Confederacy on the issue of independence, especially in the use of scriptures as the proof of each side’s position. Lincoln recognized the irony of the idea of using the Bible as a tool in war, when in his Second Inaugural Speech he stated,

Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came. . . . Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invoked His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of the other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered fully. . . .(Ahlstrom 686-7)[3]

American Civil War Chaplain

Religious leaders of both wars employed the communities’ religious convictions, fear of God or God’s teachings, and edicts of religious writings that often held more power over the actions of people than did simple civil law to motivate their followers to action. Religious leaders created justification solidifying the foundation of the precepts of the war through the use of the scriptures as proof for the rebellion or against the rebellion. If it were not for other non-religious, economic, and political reasons for these two conflicts, some form of rebellion may have occurred anyway due to the strong conflict between the Church of England and American Protestants, and likewise between the Union and the Confederacy over northern church expansion, as well as the issue of slavery. 

Finally, Religious Leaders, the American Revolution and Civil War, Part 9 of 9: Summary of the Previous Eight Articles in the Series

For Part One of the Series: Religious Leaders, the American Revolution and Civil War, Part 1 of 9: How Religious Leaders Fuel the Flames of War in American History

Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States)
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The Civil War: A Visual History
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  1. George M. Fredrickson "The Coming of the Lord: The Northern Clergy and the Civil War Crisis." Religion and the American Civil War. (1998): 110-130.
  2. Kevin Phillips The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, & The Triumph of Anglo-America. New York: Basic Books, 1999.
  3. Sydney E. Ahlstrom A Religious History of the American People. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972.
  4. E. Merton Coulter The Fighting Parson of the Southern Highlands. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1971.
  5. Bertram Wyatt-Brown "Church, Honor, and Secession." Religion and the American Civil War. (1998): 89-109.

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