Preaching the Holy War
When the men in blue and the men in gray marched off to fight in 1861, they carried more than rifles and knapsacks. They took the blessing of ministers and other Christian leaders.
There were, of course, exceptions. Historic peace churches (Mennonites, Brethren, and other Anabaptist bodies) did not endorse participation in the conflict, and disaffected elements in each section of the divided country voiced dissent.
On the whole, though, clergy of North and South found scriptural grounds for ardently supporting their respective causes. They preached that message unabashedly. America in the mid-nineteenth century was a culture drenched in the images of the Bible. The ministers’ ability to justify war in the name of the sacred Book did much to mobilize popular support and to maintain that loyalty until bullets and disease had claimed more than six hundred thousand lives.
North: Crusaders for God
When the election of Lincoln in November 1860 prompted southern secession, many northern ministers initially advised caution. Those with strong abolitionist convictions argued that departure of the errant states might prove a blessing, freeing the United States from the taint of slavery. The more numerous conservatives, some of whom sympathized with the South, hoped that a show of forbearance would cause the disunion movement to collapse and bring the seceded states to their senses.
When Confederate batteries opened fire on Fort Sumter in April 1861, however, reluctance to coerce the South vanished. The Union had to be preserved. Lincoln’s call for volunteers to suppress the rebellion won nearly universal backing from ministers. The words of a Congregational minister in Northampton, Massachusetts, may fairly stand as the motto ...