Religion and Culture in Illinois and the North during the Civil War

Drew E. VandeCreek, Northern Illinois University

 

In the decades preceding the Civil War religion had taken an increasingly large role in American life. Puritan theology had influenced colonial New England in significant ways and many Revolutionary patriots found inspiration in the scriptures and the notion of a chosen people. But in the antebellum period a broad wave of popular religion known as the Second Great Awakening fundamentally democratized American Protestantism.

Revivalists like Charles Grandison Finney preached that individuals were responsible for their own salvation, and undercut the authority of established religious organizations such as that which had thrived in New England for two centuries. Unlike the traditional Calvinism of the religious authorities, the new evangelists told Americans that they could perfect themselves and their society. One upshot of the Second Great Awakening thus became a broad and deep movement of social reform.

As Protestant churches broke away from the familiar New England model and sundered their ties with the state, they opened the way for a new generation of laymen and women to take significant positions in church leadership. These individuals created a new "benevolent empire" of voluntary associations devoted to evangelism and reform, such as temperance, Sabbatarianism (policing Sabbath activities) and, abolitionism. This period also saw the growth of a new female ideal. As men moved decisively into the workings of a market economy, moralists like Catharine Beecher reasoned that women took up the work of their "separate sphere," a realm in which women used their native religiosity and morality to raise children, guide their husbands, and uplift society. 1

As the teachings of the Second Great Awakening became established in their religious and cultural life, Americans came to embrace an ideal of Christian civilization. Individuals prided themselves on their resolute conscience, self-control, and benevolence toward those less fortunate than themselves. Working in offices and living in cities, men and women no longer witnessed the farm's familiar cycle of birth and death, harvest and slaughter, and developed a general aversion to suffering and bloodshed. Americans believed that their society had produced a record of moral as well as material progress most evident in individual conscience and benevolence. This synthesis of religious and political thought dominated Whigs’ vision of American public life in the antebellum period.

The Civil War represented a culmination of several of these beliefs. Americans responded to the war's pain and suffering with a new generation of voluntary associations, including the United States Sanitary Commission and the United States Christian Commission. Women found new authority and influence as their familiar sphere expanded with the crisis in public life. Abolitionists' ardent demands for dramatic social reform in the form of freed slaves also seemed to gain recognition as the Union's war aims turned toward emancipation in 1863. Many northern ministers came to see the conflict as an expression of God's will.

But the war also challenged and eroded much of delicate optimism that informed public life in the antebellum North. Many northern ministers and intellectuals entered the war as advocates of "moral suasion" as the only means to social reform. William Lloyd Garrison's vocal, if controversial, wing of the abolitionist movement rejected any collaboration with a corrupt state bound by the Constitution, itself "a covenant with death."

But these idealists faced a legitimate crisis as the war unfolded. They asked themselves several questions. In political terms, was the suppression of the southern rebellion consistent with the Declaration of Independence's right to self-government? In a more specific religious context, two other questions arose. Were Christians to fight for their beliefs or turn the other cheek? If they did fight, could they align their nation's cause with the Bible's teachings?

Many northerners had already coalesced around a popular abolitionism, best articulated by Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, which damned the South for "treat(ing) people as things." Slavery deprived individuals of the Declaration of Independence's "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." It also seemed to strip African-Americans of their very humanity, robbing them of the opportunity for individual improvement so central to the northern evangelical sense of self. Southerners retorted that they promoted the Christian faith among their slaves. The South organized organic communities in which benevolent slaveholders cared for their charges, while the North trapped workers in wage slavery and entrepreneurs in a relentless contest for wealth. 2

Early in the war many northern intellectuals struggled with their new circumstances. The Illinois abolitionist G.W. Bassett refused to embrace a war effort that might free the slaves. He argued that the "same principle that has always made me an uncompromising abolitionist, now makes me an uncompromising secessionist. It is the great natural and sacred right of self-government." Bassett had supported John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, Virginia, and would have cheered a slave uprising in the South. But he rejected the Union's prosecution of a war against the same South. 3

Many abolitionists joined the Union cause however. Ministers and intellectuals reasoned their way toward a view of the conflict as representing God's providence. Some saw a pattern of moral regeneration in the war's hard work and bloodshed. The Rev. J.M. Sturtevant, president of the abolitionist Illinois College, spoke on "The Lessons of Our National Conflict" in July of 1861. He suggested that the war's adversity might cure four of Americans' chronic vices, including "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." Sturtevant argued that the war discredited the antebellum movement for humanitarian and social reform. Echoing earlier American political self-examinations, the minister argued that Americans' individualism had left them self-centered and "incapable of virtue." He concluded that the war "will furnish the very discipline we need." 4 Even William Lloyd Garrison characterized Republicans as "instruments in the hands of God." 5

Despite many northern ministers and intellectuals circling the wagons around a newly authoritarian set of beliefs, the war's carnage sparked an outpouring of anxiety among those still clinging to humanitarian ideals. The abolitionist author Lydia Maria Child wrote after the first Battle of Bull Run that although she had "said all along that we needed defeats and reverses to make us come up manfully to the work of freedom...these last battles, with all their terrible incidents, have made me almost down sick. Night and day I am thinking of those poor soldiers, stabbed after they were wounded, shot after they dropped down from fatigue. My heart bleeds for the mothers of those sons." 6

Even the Illinois Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll found the slaughter worse than he could bear. Ingersoll, who led troops at Shiloh, admitted that "he never saw his men in the fighting line without thinking of the widows and orphans they would make, and half hoping they would miss their aim." He summed up his view in an 1862 letter: "War is horrid beyond the conception of man…. It is enough to break the heart to go through the hospitals. Old gray-haired veterans with lips whitening under the kiss of death – hundreds of mere boys with thoughts of home- of sister and brother meeting the dark angel alone, nothing but pain, misery, neglect, and death around you, everywhere nothing but death – to think of the ones far away expecting the dead to return –hoping for one more embrace – listening for footsteps that never will be heard on earth – for voices that have grown still and forever – it makes one tired – tired - of war." Overcome by the spectacle, Ingersoll resigned his commission and turned to a career as a public opponent of religion. 7

Despite the war's grisly toll, many Americans came to equate the Union effort with God's purposes. During the conflict the federal government first inscribed American currency with the words "In God We Trust." Julia Ward Howe's "Battle Hymn of the Republic" emphatically identified the nation's war goals with God's "terrible swift sword." Others encouraged William T. Sherman's armies, marching across Georgia and South Carolina, with choruses of "Onward Christian Soldiers." 8

While native-born white Protestants fought one another, the North's immigrant Catholics often used the conflict to prove their Americanism. Most Catholic immigrants, including Irish, German and French in this era, turned first to their church for identity and help navigating a new society. Bishops, for their part, believed that only a strong church could ease immigrants into American society. Many Protestants disliked Catholics and feared immigrants' strong loyalty to their church, as witnessed in the rise of 1850s' American, or "Know Nothing" Party. The war provided these immigrants with an opportunity to prove their loyalty to their new nation.

Church officials hurried to convey priests to military camps where they could look over Catholic soldiers and see to the spiritual needs of the wounded and dying. Catholic leaders had already experienced Protestant efforts to "steal souls" among the impoverished and ill Catholic immigrants who turned to Protestant-dominated public institutions. Now they realized that Protestant chaplains might use the war as an opportunity for evangelism. Protestant officers often proved unwilling to accept Catholic priests as chaplains in units in which Catholic soldiers represented a minority. Most Catholic chaplains served ethnically identified Catholic units filled with Germans or Irishmen. 9

The Civil War and emancipation changed the face of religion for a portion of the African-American population as well. Many increasingly put aside traditional spirituals and other religious expressions in the African style as reminders of slavery and white stereotypes. While Jubilee Singers and minstrel shows traveled the nation exhibiting these cultural forms, many black Christians turned toward their white brethren's more formal practice of worship.

Abraham Lincoln reserved a special place in history for the American Republic, "the last best hope of earth." But in his Second Inaugural Address Lincoln resisted identifying his war efforts with God's work. In his address Lincoln produced a statement that rejected the Second Great Awakening's discredited religious moralism. But it also questioned the fierce moral certitude that had come to inform the Union and Confederate war efforts.

Although Lincoln named slavery as the war's central cause, his insistence upon humility, and democracy's constant discussion and revision of its goals, restrained him from becoming an unforgiving Union partisan, even as he fought to crush the Confederate war effort. Instead Lincoln interpreted the Civil War as God's judgment, however inscrutable, upon the United States, South and North.

Lincoln's emphasis upon humility and democracy allowed him to speak "with malice toward none; with charity for all." He noted of North and South that "Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other." Ultimately he based the Union's policies upon a contingent sense of purpose, acting "with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right." In the words of one scholar, Lincoln "believed that men had the duty to fulfill God's purposes as they could best understand them." 10

The President had long been a religious skeptic, but the tragedy of war, coupled with personal losses, seemed to make him more receptive to faith. He brought an encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible, one of the few books available to him as a youth, to his task. Unlike so many of the ministers who opined on the significance of the Civil War, Lincoln did not claim to know God's wishes. "The Almighty has his purposes," the president concluded, but humans might not discern them.

Instead of a clear-cut claim that the Union fought for God, Lincoln embraced the notion that the democratic processes of constitutional government came to reveal God's purposes for the Union. Southerners had disrupted this process with secession, and northern self-righteousness in victory might do the same. The pull and haul of politics thus influenced Lincoln's solemn address as well. The Second Inaugural's emphasis upon man's imperfect attempts to perceive the designs of an inscrutable God stood as a challenge to Radical Republicans bold enough to believe that they could readily discern the war's purpose and the subsequent policies it required. Lincoln mused that "Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them. To deny it, however, in this case, is to deny that there is a God governing the world." 11

Lincoln's emphasis upon an inscrutable God allowed many Americans to accept the outcomes of the Civil War without the inner turmoil that accompanied a straightforward attempt to reconcile the tragedy with the humanitarian optimism of the antebellum period. Nevertheless, the war left an enormous void in American religious and cultural life. A God of goodness and mercy seemed far distant. Confronted with a more remote deity, many Americans began to succumb to the temptation to align their religion with the outlines of liberal individualism and self-interest.

In 1859 the Englishman Charles Darwin had published The Origin of Species, in which he outlined the natural processes that contributed to the evolution of life on earth. Although the vast majority of northerners had never heard of Darwin or his work by 1861's outbreak of hostilities, his vision of an earth governed by natural processes echoed many war experiences. One northern intellectual had concluded that "nature is careless of the single life. Her processes seem wasteful, but out of seeming waste, she produces her great and durable results." 12

In the decades following the Civil War many American intellectuals and divines integrated what they perceived to be Darwin's central message into a new social philosophy that resembled nothing so much as the Confederacy's caricature of industrial society. Many set aside social responsibility, let alone benevolence, for an unvarnished pursuit of the main chance. Public unbelief became, for the first time, a part of American national life. Articulations of American "civilization" came to focus upon social manners and propriety, ignoring large questions of social inequality while defending accumulated wealth as "the survival of the fittest."

This great reversal in American intellectual life seems to pivot around the events of the Civil War. But Darwin's theories in fact reflected the culmination of a growing body of scientific research undermining the notion of a just God superintending life on earth. The Civil War punctuated these accumulating doubts and anxieties with its seemingly endless procession of dead and wounded, suffering and ruin.

In the future Americans would seek surrogates for religion's once-central position in their civic life. For many, science came to occupy this role. In place of antebellum religion's emphasis upon social progress rooted in individuals' inner transformations, science offered the prediction and control of natural and social phenomena. Increasingly scientists and professionals came to assume the cultural authority once claimed by ministers. In the new cultural context, religion seemed to become an increasingly private realm divorced from public life. Yet religious verities still informed laws as well as customs. As late as 1925 the State of Tennessee charged the schoolteacher John Scopes with the violation of a state law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in class.

1. Kathryn Kish Sklar, Catharine Beecher; A Study in American Domesticity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1973).

2. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin (Boston : John P. Jewett & Company, 1851); Philip Paludan, "Religion and the American Civil War," Religion and the American Civil War, ed. Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout and Charles R. Wilson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) 22.

3. George Fredrickson, The Inner Civil War (New York: Harper and Row, 1965) 62-3.

4. George Frederickson, "The Coming of the Lord: The Northern Protestant Clergy and the Civil War Crisis," Religion and the American Civil War, ed. Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout and Charles R. Wilson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) 119.

5. Fredrickson, Inner Civil War 61.

6. Fredrickson, Inner Civil War 84.

7. Fredrickson, Inner Civil War 85-6.

8. Philip Paludan, "Religion and the American Civil War" 24-25.

9. Randall Miller, "Catholic Religion, Irish Ethnicity, and the Civil War," Religion and the American Civil War, ed. Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout and Charles R. Wilson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) .

10. Abraham Lincoln, "Second Inaugural Address," Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, vol. 8 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1953) 332-3.

11. Allen Guelzo, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1999) 416-20; Paludan, "Religion and the American Civil War" 29.

12. Frederickson, Inner Civil War 75.