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Religious Leaders, the American Revolution and Civil War, Part 9 of 9: The Message

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By Edited Sep 29, 2016 0 0

As discussed in the first article of this series on the roles and influence of religious leaders before the American Revolution and through the American Civil War, this exploration endeavored to compare and contrast the role of religious leaders during the American Revolutionary War and the American Civil War to discover and explore the changing roles and ideas that influenced religious leaders who actively participated during these two American wars, as well as their associated activities. In order to aid the understanding of the subject, it was necessary to look briefly at the periods prior to each war as well as the roles of clerics during each war. Though primarily a historically focused study, this series also included philosophy and religion from a historical perspective.

Most historians writing about these two wars, or about religion in America during these same two periods, have not given enough attention to the full extent and impact of the religious leadership of eighteenth and nineteenth-century America. Additionally, there has been little mention or focus given to the similarities between the colonial rebellion and Confederate rebellion resulting from the clerical influences. This is also true for the similar clerical arguments supporting the Loyalists and the Union. Religious leaders were key factors during these two wars in influencing, inspiring, justifying, and influencing others to take part, and more importantly they helped to heighten each armed conflict and its effects as felt in the number of dead, as well as destroyed personal property, farms, and towns.  

Competing Flags

The Message of this Article Series in-a-Nutshell

Religious leaders were powerful influences within their communities and active participants in the country’s transition to war and during war. Except for religious leaders such as Quakers and others that swore off any violence of any kind, many felt the need to actively participate in the war effort in some form. Many clerics simply preached support for their side, while others participated in social organizations assembled for the purpose of providing aid to the soldiers and families.  Others chose more direct roles as chaplains or medical providers; those that felt an even higher state of passion for the fight took up their rifles and enlisted as soldiers or accepted commissions as officers leading others into war. Clerics who clearly felt that a threat existed to their personal freedoms, particularly economic and religious freedoms, were willing to accept the role of combatant. They often freely participated in non-lethal ways, being more than willing to encourage others to take up arms and do their duty for God and country.

AmerHistorySlide3

Communicators

The religious leaders of these times were great communicators and persuader(s) of the truth as they saw it, preaching religious support for or against the political views of the time. Clergy could reach the people on a daily and weekly basis through their preaching and close communications with their congregations. Clerics were commonly accepted as experts on all issues about religion, morals, and virtue. Due to the traditional religious upbringing most members of the community received, even people not directly in the congregation accepted clerical influences out of sheer respect towards the cleric’s position in the community and the expectation that these men knew God’s wishes.

Religious leaders tied economic and political arguments to the scriptures in order to support the separation of America from England and the Confederacy from the United States as being sanctioned by God and as a duty to their faith. Religion was used as the binding link that brought together community standards and the people with political goals in order to justify war and aggression against another. Clergy used their influence over their communities to move their flock down a path of thought and belief that either served personal ideology or the general political consensus of the area. These religious leaders, as well as the political leadership of the country, used strong religious beliefs to motivate and unite civilians and soldiers toward the aims of the war and to justify war.  Religious leaders with political aspirations saw mutual opportunities to achieve their ends by using religion as a motivator in war.

Rationalizing

People looked for a rationale and the religious leadership provided that rationale, but a rationale often fitting the economic and political-religious place in the social order. Often these clerics had to balance their personal beliefs with those of their congregations.  Colonial clerics created, supported, and promoted the idea that rebellion was akin to the biblical reference to the Israelites’ struggle against oppression and injustice. If his congregation doubted the political basis for revolution, the cleric was ready to provide the needed encouragement. The Bible was the law that justified aggression against the enemy; rebellion against injustice and oppression was not seen as an act of offense, but an act of defense. And so it was preached by the colonial cleric and by the Confederate cleric. 

Before and after both wars, the religious leadership demonstrated that scriptural interpretations are truly influenced by situational factors such as economics and politics. Scriptural interpretations were influenced by economics, politics and, of course,the side of the fence a cleric stood on at the time of the discussion. Situational religious interpretation was tied to economics and politics. As religious leaders began to increase their mobility around the country, their views and application of scriptural interpretations became more and more influenced by the social order of the community they resided in. Scriptural interpretation depended on local common social views, politics, and economics.

Declaration Independence

Colonial/Confederate

Colonial and Confederate clerics took similar positions during each war. Colonial clerics believed that their fight was a sincere battle for survival as a social and political order and as an independent nation.  Confederate clerics fought over issues of politics and to secure their own survival as an influential force in the community, as well as the idea of establishing an independent nation. However, there was no real issue of a threat to religious freedom during the Civil War. The South had made itself reliant on free labor and the southern clerics generally felt it necessary to support slavery instead of running against the economic concerns of their congregations. The issues for the religious leaders were retaining the support of their congregations and their influence in the political community. The justification or rejection of slavery using scripture as validation was simply a tool towards those aims. 

Even winning and losing in war was interpreted through religious literature. For those on the winning side, clerics pronounced that this was evidence of God’s blessing and that their side was truly the chosen people.  In the case of the American Civil War, southern clerics were quick to place blame for their loss on slaveholder excesses, the failure of slaveholders to evangelize their property, southern politics’ failure to be in line with God’s plan, or any other rationale. Colonial clerics promoted the negative aspects of the joint reliance of the Church of England and the monarchy and the idea that this relationship would inevitably result in a loss of religious freedom in the New World, since religious freedom was one of the motivating factors that influenced many to immigrate to the New World.

James Caldwell American Revolution

Loyalists/Northerners (Union) 

One of the great ironies is that the religious leaders of the North preached some of the same arguments condemning the South’s secession as had the Church of England and the English monarchy against the colonials of the 1700s.  Loyalist clerics and northern clerics provided the opposing view in favor of loyalty to the established government. Three out of four clerics were in favor of the British position. Both sides of the argument subscribed to the scriptural references that obedience to the “powers that be” was approved by God. They served to promote the maintenance of the status quo, believing that it is better to work within the established system than to create a new one. In the case of the Loyalists, they believed that the best way to protect the freedoms, rights, and the safety of the colonies from outside invaders was through remaining loyal to the monarchy and the Church of England.

Long before the American Revolution and the American Civil War, successful military leaders recognized the motivational power associated with religious influence. Maurice of Nassau, Gustavus Adolphus, and later Oliver Cromwell “preferred men as had the fear of God before them and made some conscience of what they did” in their ranks (Aho 213).[1] Use of faith, religion and scriptures as a motivator to action was much more effective than political rhetoric. During the American Revolution, the colonial forces recognized the power and influence of religious leadership to motivate through appealing to the emotions of fear, pride, and wish to comply with “God’s will” and the teachings of the scriptures. 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.  The Confederacy and England also failed to take full advantage of the power of religious leadership. They failed to recognize what others before them knew, as David Hume states, that “all princes that have aimed at despotic power have known of what importance it was to gain” the loyalty and support of the established clergy (Bailyn 98).[2]

If you haven't taken the opportunity to read the full series, along with the accompanying videos, you'll find the first article in the series titles: Religious Leaders, the American Revolution and Civil War, Part 1 of 9: How Religious Leaders Fuel the Flames of War in American History.

Religion in America #21: "America's Religions," Ch.22-23 The Revolution and Second Great Awakening

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Bibliography

  1. James A. Aho Religious Mythology and the Art of War: Comparative Religious Symbolism of Military Violence. London: Aldwych Press, 1981.
  2. Bernard Bailyn The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967.
  3. Carl C. Stophlet A Comparison and Contrast of the Roles of Religious Leaders of the American Revolutionary War and the American Civil War. Carson: California State University Dominguez Hills, 2002.

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