Christianity and the Civil War: From the Editor - What PBS Didn't Tell You
More than 12,000,000 Americans watched each episode of PBS’s acclaimed series on the Civil War. Filmmaker Ken Burns created a visual feast with gripping illustrations, stirring music and sound effects, and marvelous commentary by historian Shelby Foote and others. The Civil War series quickly achieved the highest rating of any limited-episode series PBS had ever shown.
As great as that series was, however, it often overlooked one of the most significant aspects of the war. Religion.
Massive revivals broke out among Civil War soldiers, leading to hundreds of thousands of conversions. In many units, chapels were packed night after night.
Before the war, the religiously motivated abolitionists had made slavery a national issue that wouldn’t go away.
Three of the country’s largest denominations—the Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists—all split over slavery or related issues. Great southern Senator John C. Calhoun knew that these denominations “formed a strong cord to hold the whole Union together.” When they split, he accurately prophesied that “nothing will be left to hold the States together except force.”
And how had the nation’s 3–4,000,000 slaves endured their years of bondage? Largely through their widely held Christian beliefs.
But PBS, though occasionally touching on something religious, didn’t tell us all this. Its expert researchers somehow chose to overlook the important role of religion in the war. It’s like overlooking an elephant in your living room.
Not that many other sources will correct the omission. Writes historian Gardiner H. Shattuck, Jr.: “The single aspect of the war that the [National] Park Service has failed to highlight … is the impact of religion on the soldiers. Orientation films and shows at visitor ...