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History of American Christianity
« Prev Chapter XIX. The Civil War—Antecedents and… Next »

CHAPTER XIX.

THE CIVIL WAR—ANTECEDENTS AND CONSEQUENCES.

IT has been observed that for nearly half a generation after the reaction began from the fervid excitement of the Millerite agitation no season of general revival was known in the American church.

These were years of immense material prosperity, “the golden age of our history.”213213   E. B. Andrews, “History of the United States,” vol. ii., p. 66. The wealth of the nation in that time far more than doubled; its railroad mileage more than threefolded; population moved westward with rapidity and volume beyond precedent. Between 1845 and 186o there were admitted seven new States and four organized Territories.

Withal it was a time of continually deepening intensity of political agitation. The patchwork of compromises and settlements contrived by make-shift politicians like Clay and Douglas would not hold; they tore out, and the rent was made worse. Part of the Compromise of 1850, which was to be something altogether sempiternal, was a Fugitive Slave Law so studiously base and wicked in its provisions as to stir the indignation of just and generous men whenever it was enforced, and to instruct and strengthen and consolidate an intelligent and conscientious opposition to slavery as not a century of antislavery lecturing and pamphleteering could have done. Four years later the sagacious Stephen Douglas introduced into Congress his ingenious permanent pacification scheme for taking the slavery question “out of politics” by perfidiously repealing the act under which the western Territories had for the third part of a century been pledged to freedom, and leaving the question of freedom or slavery to be decided by the first settlers upon the soil. It was understood on both sides that the effect of this measure would be to turn over the soil of Kansas to slavery; and for a moment there was a calm that did almost seem like peace. But the providential man for the emergency, Eli Thayer, boldly accepted the challenge under all the disadvantageous conditions, and appealed to the friends of freedom and righteousness to stand by him in “the Kansas Crusade.” The appeal was to the same Christian sentiment which had just uttered its vain protest, through the almost unanimous voice of the ministers of the gospel, against the opening of the Territories to the possibility of slavery. It was taken up in the solemn spirit of religious duty. None who were present are likely to forget the scene when the emigrants from New Haven assembled in the North Church to be sped on their way with prayer and benediction; how the vast multitude were thrilled by the noble eloquence of Beecher, and how money came out of pocket when it was proposed to equip the colonists with arms for self-defense against the ferocity of “border ruffians.” There were scenes like this in many a church and country prayer-meeting, where Christian hearts did not forget to pray “for them in bonds, as bound with them.” There took place such a religious emigration as America had not known since the days of the first colonists. They went forth singing the words of Whittier:

We cross the prairies as of old

Our fathers crossed the sea,

To make the West, as they the East,

The empire of the free.

Those were choice companies; it was said that in some of their settlements every third man was a college graduate. Thus it was that, not all at once, but after desperate tribulations, Kansas was saved for freedom. It was the turning-point in the “irrepressible conflict.” The beam of the scales, which politicians had for forty years been trying to hold level, dipped in favor of liberty and justice, and it was hopeless thenceforth to restore the balance.214214   Read “The Kansas Crusade,” by Eli Thayer, Harpers, New York, 1889. It is lively reading, and indispensable to a full understanding of this part of the national history.

Neither of the two characteristics of this time, the abounding material prosperity or the turbid political agitation, was favorable to that fixed attention to spiritual themes which promotes the revival of religion. But the conditions were about to be suddenly changed.

Suddenly, in the fall of 1857, came a business revulsion. Hard times followed. Men had leisure for thought and prayer, and anxieties that they were fain to cast upon God, seeking help and direction. The happy thought occurred to a good man, Jeremiah Lanphier, in the employ of the old North Dutch Church in New York, to open a room in the “consistory building” in Fulton Street as an oratory for the common prayer of so many business men as might be disposed to gather there in the hour from twelve to one o’clock, “with one accord to make their common supplications.” The invitation was responded to at first by hardly more than “two or three.” The number grew. The room overflowed. A second room was opened, and then a third, in the same building, till all its walls resounded with prayer and song. The example was followed until at one time, in the spring of 1858, no fewer than twenty “daily union prayer-meetings” were sustained in different parts of the city. Besides these, there was preaching at unwonted times and places. Burton’s Theater, on Chambers Street, in the thick of the business houses, was thronged with eager listeners to the rudimental truths of personal religion, expounded and applied by great preachers. Everywhere the cardinal topics of practical religious duty, repentance and Christian faith, were themes of social conversation. All churches and ministers were full of activity and hope. “They that feared the Lord spake often one with another.”

What was true of New York was true, in its measure, of every city, village, and hamlet in the land. It was the Lord’s doing, marvelous in men’s eyes. There was no human leadership or concert of action in bringing it about. It came. Not only were there no notable evangelists traveling the country; even the pastors of churches did little more than enter zealously into their happy duty in things made ready to their hand. Elsewhere, as at New York, the work began with the spontaneous gathering of private Christians, stirred by an unseen influence. Two circumstances tended to promote the diffusion of the revival. The Young Men’s Christian Association, then a recent but rapidly spreading institution, furnished a natural center in each considerable town for mutual consultation and mutual incitement among young men of various sects. For this was another trait of the revival, that it went forward as a tide movement of the whole church, in disregard of the dividing-lines of sect. I know not what Christian communion, if any, was unaffected by it. The other favorable circumstance was the business interest taken in the revival by the secular press. Up to this time the church had been little accustomed to look for coöperation to the newspaper, unless it was the religious weekly. But at this time that was fulfilled which was spoken of the prophet, that “holiness to the Lord” should be written upon the trains of commerce and upon all secular things. The sensation head-lines in enterprising journals proclaimed “Revival News,” and smart reporters were detailed to the prayer-meeting or the sermon, as having greater popular interest, for the time, than the criminal trial or the political debate. Such papers as the “Tribune” and the “Herald,” laying on men’s breakfast-tables and counting-room desks the latest pungent word from the noon prayer-meeting or the evening sermon, did the work of many tract societies.

As the immediate result of the revival of 1857-58 it has been estimated that one million of members were added to the fellowship of the churches. But the ulterior result was greater. This revival was the introduction to a new era of the nation’s spiritual life. It was the training-school for a force of lay evangelists for future work, eminent among whom is the name of Dwight Moody. And, like the Great Awakening of 1740, it was the providential preparation of the American church for an immediately impending peril the gravity of which there were none at the time far-sighted enough to predict. Looking backward, it is instructive for us to raise the question how the church would have passed through the decade of the sixties without the spiritual reinforcement that came to it amid the pentecostal scenes of 1857 and 1858.

And yet there were those among the old men who were ready to weep as they compared the building of the Lord’s house with what they had known in their younger days: no sustained enforcement on the mind and conscience of alarming and heart-searching doctrines; no “protracted meetings” in which from day to day the warnings and invitations of the gospel were set forth before the hesitating mind; in the converts no severe and thorough “law-work,” from the agonizing throes of which the soul was with no brief travail born to newness of life; but the free invitation, the ready and glad acceptance, the prompt enrollment on the Lord’s side. Did not these things betoken a superficial piety, springing up like seed in the thin soil of rocky places? It was a question for later years to answer, and perhaps we have not the whole of the answer yet. Certainly the work was not as in the days of Edwards and Brainerd, nor as in the days of Nettleton and Finney; was it not, perhaps, more like the work in the days of Barnabas and Paul and Peter?

It does not appear that the spiritual quickening of 1857 had any effect in allaying the sharp controversy between northern and southern Christians on the subject of slavery. Perhaps it may have deepened and intensified it. The “southern apostasy,” from principles universally accepted in 1818, had become complete and (so far as any utterance was permitted to reach the public) unanimous. The southern Methodists and the southern Baptists had, a dozen years before, relieved themselves from liability to rebuke, whether express or implied, from their northern brethren for complicity with the crimes involved in slavery, by seceding from fellowship. Into the councils of the Episcopalians and the Catholics this great question of public morality was never allowed to enter. The Presbyterians were divided into two bodies, each having its northern and its southern presbyteries; and the course of events in these two bodies may be taken as an indication of the drift of opinion and feeling. The Old-School body, having a strong southern element, remained silent, notwithstanding the open nullification of its declaration of 1818 by the presbytery of Harmony, S. C., resolving that “the existence of slavery is not opposed to the will of God,” and the synod of Virginia declaring that “the General Assembly had no right to declare that relation sinful which Christ and his apostles teach to be consistent with the most unquestionable piety.” The New-School body, patient and considerate toward its southern presbyteries, did not fail, nevertheless, to reassert the principles of righteousness, and in 1850 it declared slave-holding to be prima facie a subject of the discipline of the church. In 1853 it called upon its southern presbyteries to report what had been done in the case. One of them replied defiantly that its ministers and church-members were slave-holders by choice and on principle. When the General Assembly condemned this utterance, the entire southern part of the church seceded and set up a separate jurisdiction.215215   Thompson, “The Presbyterians,” p. 135.

There seems no reason to doubt the entire sincerity with which the southern church, in all its sects, had consecrated itself with religious devotion to the maintenance of that horrible and inhuman form of slavery which had drawn upon itself the condemnation of the civilized world. The earnest antislavery convictions which had characterized it only twenty-five years before, violently suppressed from utterance, seem to have perished by suffocation. The common sentiment of southern Christianity was expressed in that serious declaration of the Southern Presbyterian Church, during the war, of its “deep conviction of the divine appointment of domestic servitude,” and of the “peculiar mission of the southern church to conserve the institution of slavery.”216216   “Narrative of the State of Religion” of the Southern General Assembly of 1864.

At the North, on the other hand, with larger liberty, there was wider diversity of opinion. In general, the effect of continued discussion, of larger knowledge of facts, and of the enforcement on the common conscience, by the course of public events, of a sense of responsibility and duty in the matter, had been to make more intelligent, sober, and discriminating, and therefore more strong and steadfast, the resolution to keep clear of all complicity with slavery. There were few to assume the defense of that odious system, though there were some. There were many to object to scores of objectionable things in the conduct of abolitionists. And there were a very great number of honest, conscientious men who were appalled as they looked forward to the boldly threatened consequences of even the mildest action in opposition to slavery—the rending of the church, the ruin of the country, the horrors of civil war, and its uncertain event, issuing perhaps in the wider extension and firmer establishment of slavery itself. It was an immense power that the bold, resolute, rule-or-ruin supporters of the divine right of slavery held over the Christian public of the whole country, so long as they could keep these threats suspended in the air. It seemed to hold in the balance against a simple demand to execute righteousness toward a poor, oppressed, and helpless race, immense interests of patriotism, of humanity, of the kingdom of God itself. Presently the time came when these threats could no longer be kept aloft. The compliance demanded was clearly, decisively refused. The threats must either be executed or must fall to the ground amid general derision. But the moment that the threat was put in execution its power as a threat had ceased. With the first stroke against the life of the nation all great and noble motives, instead of being balanced against each other, were drawing together in the same direction. It ought not to have been a surprise to the religious leaders of disunion, ecclesiastical and political, to find that those who had most anxiously deprecated the attack upon the government should be among the most earnest and resolute to repel the attack when made.

No man can read the history of the American church in the Civil War intelligently who does not apprehend, however great the effort, that the Christian people of the South did really and sincerely believe themselves to be commissioned by the providence of God to “conserve the institution of slavery” as an institution of “divine appointment.” Strange as the conviction seems, it is sure that the conviction of conscience in the southern army that it was right in waging war against the government of the country was as clear as the conviction, on the other side, of the duty of defending the government. The southern regiments, like the northern, were sent forth with prayer and benediction, and their camps, as well as those of their adversaries, were often the seats of earnest religious life.217217   For interesting illustrations of this, see Alexander, “The Methodists, South,” pp. 71-75. The history of the religious life of the northern army is superabundant and everywhere accessible.

At the South the entire able-bodied population was soon called into military service, so that almost the whole church was in the army. At the North the churches at home hardly seemed diminished by the myriads sent to the field. It was amazing to see the charities and missions of the churches sustained with almost undiminished supplies, while the great enterprises of the Sanitary and Christian Commissions were set on foot and magnificently carried forward, for the physical, social, and spiritual good of the soldiers. Never was the gift of giving so abundantly bestowed on the church as in these stormy times. There was a feverish eagerness of life in all ways; if there was a too eager haste to make money among those that could be spared for business, there was a generous readiness in bestowing it. The little faith that expected to cancel and retrench, especially in foreign missions, in which it took sometimes three dollars in the collection to put one dollar into the work, was rebuked by the rising of the church to the height of the exigency.

One religious lesson that was learned as never before, on both sides of the conflict, was the lesson of Christian fellowship as against the prevailing folly of sectarian divisions, emulations, and jealousies. There were great drawings in this direction in the early days of the war, when men of the most unlike antecedents and associations gathered on the same platform, intent on the same work, and mutual aversions and partisan antagonisms melted away in the fervent heat of a common religious patriotism. But the lesson which was commended at home was enforced in the camp and the regiment by constraint of circumstances. The army chaplain, however one-sided he might have been in his parish, had to be on all sides with his kindly sympathy as soon as he joined his regiment. He learned in a right apostolic sense to become all things to all men, and, returning home, he did not forget the lesson. The delight of a fellowship truly catholic in the one work of Christ, once tasted, was not easily foregone. Already the current, perplexed with eddies, had begun to set in the direction of Christian unity. How much the common labors of Christian men and women and Christian ministers of every different name, through the five years of bloody strife, contributed to swell and speed, the current, no one can measure.

According to a well-known law of the kingdom of heaven, the intense experiences of the war, both in the army and out of it, left no man just as he was before. To “them that were exercised thereby” they brought great promotion in the service of the King. The cases are not few nor inconspicuous of men coming forth from the temptations and the discipline of the military service every way stronger and better Christians than they entered it. The whole church gained higher conceptions of the joy and glory of self-sacrifice, and deeper and more vivid insight into the significance of vicarious suffering and death. The war was a rude school of theology, but it taught some things well. The church had need of all that it could learn, in preparation for the tasks and trials that were before it.

There were those, on the other hand, who emerged from the military service depraved and brutalized; and those who, in the rush of business incidental to the war, were not trained to self-sacrifice and duty, but habituated to the seeking of selfish interests in the midst of the public peril and affliction. We delight in the evidences that these cases were a small proportion of the whole. But even a small percentage of so many hundreds of thousands mounts up to a formidable total. The early years of the peace were so marked by crimes of violence that a frequent heading in the daily newspapers was “The Carnival of Crime.” Prosperity, or the semblance of it, came in like a sudden flood. Immigration of an improved character poured into the country in greater volume than ever. Multitudes made haste to be rich, and fell into temptations and snares. The perilous era of enormous fortunes began.


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