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Introduction to
Religion

by
William L. Barney,
Professor of History, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


Religion was central to the Confederate experience. Most of the clergy preached a holy war that pitted Southern whites as God's chosen people against infidel Northerners who had overturned the Constitution and defied Christian orthodoxy in their unrelenting attacks on Southern civilization.

Through sermons, hymns, and an immense outpouring of religious tracts, evangelical Protestantism was linked to the cause of Confederate nationalism. The core message of a religious military press, instituted in 1863, was the equation of the Confederate soldier with the Christian soldier. Special efforts at evangelicalizing Confederate armies resulted in conversions of perhaps 150,000 soldiers, most of which occurred in the wake of crushing military defeats in 1863. Stressing the immediacy of death, the revivals helped alleviate heightened anxieties over individual mortality in a war of massive casualties.

As can be seen in the sermons of Bishop Steven Elliott of Georgia, the clergy played a critical role in shoring up Confederate morale when the tide of war seemingly turned against the South. The losses and sufferings of the war, preached Elliott, were far from a sign of God's abandonment. Instead, they were a fiery trial of purification in which God was testing and strengthening the moral resolve of Southern Christians. As for those who may have had moral qualms over slavery, Elliott insisted that central to God's mission for the South was the care and conversion of a heathen race of Africans.

President Jefferson Davis pronounced national days of fasting, humiliation, and prayer on nine separate occasions during the war. The words "Deo Vindice" stamped on the Great Seal of the Confederacy proclaimed to the world that the Confederacy was a nation protected by God. Both political and church leaders utilized religion as a bulwark of Confederate nationalism. The literature and denominational publications gathered here help us understand just how Southern whites attempted to enlist God on their side.