Mike ScruggsOpinion

The Great Revival in the Southern Armies: Forgotten American History

Yet there is another perspective. In the midst of catastrophic suffering, the South received one of the most phenomenal spiritual blessings in history. It was called “The Great Revival in the Southern Armies.” A great Christian revival swept through the Southern armies, beginning in the Army of Northern Virginia in the summer of 1861 and spreading to almost every Confederate regiment by the end of the war. According to Rev. W.W. Bennett (The Great Revival in the Southern Armies, 1877), there had been 150,000 new conversions in the Confederate Army by January 1865. Some chaplains estimated that over 250,000 men in the Confederate Armies were converted during the war. Between 20,000 and 30,000 conversions occurred in the Army of Tennessee while it was at Dalton, Georgia, in 1863-4. These added to the ranks of the many devout Christians who brought their faith to the army. Bennett estimated that fully one-third of all Confederate soldiers in the field were “praying church-members” at the end of the war. Some estimates run higher. The aftereffects of this great revival continued for many decades, aided in consequence of so many Confederate soldiers entering the ministry after the war. Indeed, the widespread Christian influences that characterize the Southern people today owe much to the great army revival of 1861-5.

Though little remembered or acknowledged today—probably because it conflicts with the politicized myth that the “Civil War” was fought by a righteous Union to end slavery in the South—the Great Revival in the Southern Armies, with its staggering numbers and far more enduring impact, may rank as a spiritual milestone of more sweeping significance than the First (1730-1750) and the Second (1790-1850) Great Awakenings.

Although first manifested in the camps of the Army of Northern Virginia in the summer of 1861, the Great Revival in the Southern Armies really began with prayer in the home churches. As companies and regiments formed in local communities, there was great patriotic fervor. Local churches prayed for the cause of Southern Independence—which they almost universally believed was righteous and just—and for success in battle against their enemies. But the most passionate focus of prayer in these churches and the small prayer groups and homes that made up their Christian communities was for the safety and spiritual welfare of the men and boys, many of whom were close relatives and friends, now marching off to face the hazards, deprivations, and temptations of war.

At the beginning of the war, despite the essentially religious nature of the Southern people, many of the army camps were becoming virtual schools of vice. According to Bennett, they were filled with profanity, intemperate drinking, lewdness, gambling, irreverence, pride, self-seeking ambition, and brutality. To both the physical dangers of war and the moral dangers of such camps, the home churches and families reacted with a mighty outpouring of prayer and fervent campaigns of evangelism in what had become a critical home mission field affecting almost every family. As the war and this fervent campaign of prayer and evangelism progressed, the spiritual and moral environment of most camps changed dramatically. At services by chaplains, evangelists, and missionaries—in prayer groups and sometimes spontaneously—soldiers lifted their voices to God in hymns of praise. “How Firm a Foundation” was a favorite and General Lee’s personal favorite. “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood” was often heard and was the personal favorite of Stonewall Jackson.

Millions of pages of evangelistic literature were delivered to the camps by “colporteurs,” supported in the field by meager salaries from churches and evangelistic societies. These colporteurs became very effective evangelists. They regularly visited the camps— distributing new supplies of tracts, testaments, and literature—and stayed with the soldiers for long periods, befriending them and sharing their hardships and concerns. They prayed with the men both individually and in small prayer groups that became an integral part of camp life. Churches nearby the camps often took on considerable responsibility for the spiritual welfare of soldiers away from home.

The Army chaplains concentrated on basic Christian evangelism, doctrines, and teachings. Denominationally distinctive sermons, politics, and social agendas were generally minimized or avoided. A shortage of chaplains was frequently met from the ranks with soldiers ranking from private to colonel stepping in to meet the need for spiritual leadership in companies and regiments. One Tennessee regiment elected a black Confederate soldier as their chaplain. Many regiments formed non-denominational Christian Associations whose leaders encouraged church membership and often reported conversions, baptisms, and new church memberships that included a mix of denominations. These Christian Associations not only preached and taught the Gospel but also held their members accountable for moral discipline. In addition, Southern women were remarkable in their persevering support for the Southern cause. Southern women played an enormously effective role in evangelical and mercy ministries to Confederate soldiers.

There were many Roman Catholic as well as Protestant chaplains. In fact, although Jefferson Davis was a devout Episcopalian, he was the first American President to have Catholic and Jewish as well as Protestant members in his cabinet. After the war, Pope Pius IX sent Davis a crown of thorns as a token of respect and compassion.

One important reason for the tremendous success of evangelism in the Southern armies was the strong support of both the South’s political and military leadership. For example, in late March of 1864, President Davis and the two houses of the Confederate Congress called for a day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer. On April 8, General Robert E. Lee responded with General Order 21, dated March 30, 1864. In that order he invited (rather than commanded) the Army to join in observing the day. But he pleaded with great passion for their participation:

“Soldiers, let us humble ourselves before the Lord our God, asking through Christ the forgiveness of our sins, beseeching the aid of the God of our forefathers in the defense of our homes and our liberties, thanking him for his past blessings and imploring their continuance upon our cause and our people.”

The South was blessed with an unusual number of prominent Christian generals and officers, but the most revered by the Southern people was Lee. At a Memorial meeting in Richmond on November 3 following Lee’s death on October 17, 1870, Jefferson Davis addressed what was probably the largest gathering of Confederate Generals and officers since the end of the war. In the course of his speech, he gave this fitting praise of Lee:

“This good citizen, this gallant soldier, this great general, this true patriot, had yet a higher praise than this or these; he was a true Christian.”

Confederate Postmaster General John H. Reagan later called President Davis “the most devout Christian I ever knew…who was acknowledged throughout the South to be a man of sincere Christian confession, character, and conduct.” Few people are also aware that Jefferson and Varina Davis compassionately adopted a mulatto boy in February 1864.

On the death of Jefferson Davis, December 11, 1889, his former pastor in Richmond during the war, Dr. Charles Minnigerode, gave this tribute to him:

“He loved the truth; he served God and country. Let us go and do likewise.”

Many high ranking Confederate officers manifested strong Christian commitment, which included strong compassion for the suffering and oppressed no matter what their race or political loyalties. This included Stonewall Jackson, Jeb Stuart, John B. Gordon, Patrick Cleburne, and many others. Jackson, who cannot be understood apart from his fierce devotion to Christ and his teachings, spent much of his pay to sustain a black Sunday School teaching both the Bible and the literacy needed to read it for themselves. Attendance sometimes numbered over a hundred.

“It is only the atheist who adopts success as a criterion of right. It is not a new thing in the history of men that God appoints to the brave and true the stern task of contending, and falling, in a righteous quarrel.”—Rev. Robert L. Dabney, 1868.

Those who in ignorance or from malice seek to destroy the monuments, symbols, and history of the South are seeding a whirlwind of civil distrust and disharmony, which can only have destructive consequences.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR   –  Mike Scruggs, Author and Columnist

a.k.a. Leonard M. Scruggs

 Mike Scruggs is the author of two books: The Un-Civil War: Shattering the Historical Myths; and Lessons from the Vietnam War: Truths the Media Never Told You, and over 600 articles on military history, national security, intelligent design, genealogical genetics, immigration, current political affairs, Islam, and the Middle East.

He holds a BS degree from the University of Georgia and an MBA from Stanford University. A former USAF intelligence officer and Air Commando, he is a decorated combat veteran of the Vietnam War, and holds the Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Heart, and Air Medal. He is a retired First Vice President for a major national financial services firm and former Chairman of the Board of a classical Christian school.

Click the website below to order books.


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