Summing-up the Article Series
This nine part series titled Religious Leaders, the American Revolution and Civil War, brings out several ideas that are suggestive. It is worth considering, for instance, if the colonial-era clergy had established a commonly accepted meaning for the scriptures and the will of God that favored England, it is unlikely that they would have taken part in the battle for independence without having first renounced their faith. However, as history has shown, it is easier to adjust the interpretations and adapt than to reject one’s own faith.
The belief in what was right and wrong was fundamental to the motivation of the participants. Clerics helped their communities solidify that perception of right and wrong based on religious interpretation. If all the clerics of this period had preached a uniform argument against rebellion, would not many of their congregational members have followed suit and resisted the fight? This, of course, is arguable since economics and politics in general were also very motivating factors.
The Bullets Fly
As was shown in this study, a lack of clerical influence on the part of the colonials would have made some recruiting efforts more difficult and probably made the retention of soldiers more difficult as well. A soldier’s motivation on the battlefield after the bullets begin to fly is often an issue of survival. A skilled preacher or other leader can do much to encourage a soldier to continue forward under the pressures or battle. If clerics had established a uniform argument favoring rebellion, though the outcome would be no different, it would have been greatly more difficult for Loyalist clerics to create dissent and doubt against the validity of the rebel cause. This is purely speculation, of course.
If the clergy of the period had stood side by side, North and South, united as one voice and one cause, for or against secession or the issue of slavery, would not the people have followed? Again, economics and politics were powerful forces even without religion, but religious conviction of the righteousness of the cause added greatly to the participant’s motivation.
It may also be proposed that if clerics, North and South, had established a single religious and scriptural interpretation on the war issues, such as support for or condemnation of slavery, or the acceptance or denial of legitimate government and rebellion, what we remember of the American Civil War would be much different than is written today. Both sides would not have been able to claim a religious over that of the other side's position.
Though both sides believed their cause to be the right cause, from a religious perspective, only ONE side would have had the ability to influence participants based on religious justifications. The others would have had to reject those portions of the religious beliefs that were in conflict with their economic and political convictions. If they preached a common anti-slavery message and condemned rebellion, the South may not have had the ability to mobilize an army enough even to attempt a military solution to its argument with the North. If the southern clergy had stood more united and reminded the North that the southern declaration of independence was no less formed on the same principles of personal liberty, religious freedom, and independence as was that argued by the founders of the United States of America, would the outcome of the American Civil War have been different?
More than likely the answer would have been no; however, it is also likely that there might have been more sympathy from the North by those that recognized the hint of hypocrisy in the United States government’s rejection of Southern claims of independence. Even Union cleric E. C. Ewen, as pointed out in the previous article, recognized the great hypocrisy when he raised the issue during the war that the denial of the scriptural references used by the South to confirm their claims as the same as that used by the religious leaders of the American cry for independence before 1776.
It is likely that the secession movement may have remained a purely political issue, never reaching the need for armed conflict or at least greatly reduced the impact of the conflict. It may have been resolved in a vote. A southern pro-slavery nation may have been created, with the United States being only half as large as it is today, though this is more speculation. It is hard to imagine that there would have been as much destruction and death resulting from this war if the religious leadership from both sides had stood united in religious interpretations and convictions.
Religion in America #47 "America's Religions," Ch. 51: African American Christianity
What Have We Learned
As this article series shows, religious leaders deserve more recognition than they have received in earlier historical interpretations for the influence that they held during the early stages before these wars and, even more so, their influence during these periods of armed conflict. The actions and efforts of the clergy prior to and during the American Revolutionary War and the American Civil War were powerful influences during these two periods. Religious convictions, fear of God or God’s teachings, and edicts of religious writings held more power over the actions of people than did civil law. Bold statements connected to or based on faith reasoning could incite the masses. Clerics used their ability to influence the public toward the political ends of the conflicts, heightening the tensions and escalating the carnage.
For further academic studies and exploration on the influence of religious leadership and religion in general during the 17th through the 19th centuries, the reader should consider focusing on individuals, racial or ethnic groups during this period. African American history and religion material is probably the most prevalent in this arena; YouTube has several videos available on this topic. The next potential topic would be Native American religion through this period and how Christianity was force-fed to native children, especially during the early and mid- 19th century.
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.
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