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

tward 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 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.[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.