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The Civil War--antecedents And C

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.[340:1] 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
1860 there were admitted seven new States and four organized

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.[342:1]

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 co÷peration 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.[346:1]

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.[346:2]

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.[348:1]

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

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.

Next: After The War

Previous: The Great Immigration

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