Religion in the Civil War
Natasha Bornhorst

Influence of Religion

In the 1860’s, since there was no TV or internet, the Union and Confederacy’s main influence was religion. As the saying goes, there are no atheists in fox holes. This means that a man with his life continuously at stake can easily be made into a believer of anything. Both the North and the South used this to their advantage. Almost every soldier regularly attended church services while at war and women and children filled the pews of churches at home. Both regions tried to convince their side what they wanted them to. The North forced upon their people that the Confederacy was stopping forward progress and the southern churches lead their people to believe that the Union was a Godless nation. They both interpreted the Bible the way they wanted to justify their opinions and beliefs. Both the North and the South turned their soldiers ferociously against each other using the power of religion.
soldier praying

Northern Religion

The North wanted to conserve the Union. With the Union's Republican institutions, Democratic ideals and Christian values, the North believed they were part of civilizations forward progress and that the Confederacy was stopping that progress and slowing down the advance of liberty. They claimed they were not just fighting for the nation, but for all of humanity. Christian ministers illustrated the Civil War as millennial, and if the North won, the Kingdom of God would be on earth. A Baptist minister in Philadelphia preached about the defeat of the rebellion in 1863. He said, “It will come with blessings, and be greeted with Hallelujahs, it will be the Millennium of political glory, the Sabbath of Liberty, the Jubilee of humanity.” The issue of slavery, however, was far from consistent from church to church. Some Northern church leaders thought that slavery was a sin and should be immediately emancipated
by whatever means possible. Others beleived it was morally legitimate and took the side that Jesus lived in a world of slavery and never once denounced it. Yet most Northern churches fell somewhere between these two extremes. They thought it was less than ideal but that it would eventually be abolished by slow and peaceful means. They beleived that God would eventually resolve the issue and looked down on the anti- slavery attacks and the immediate call for emancipation. At the start of the war, the North's initial aim was to conserve the Union, not free the slaves. Yet when the Union armies stumbled upon many defeats, Protestant ministers- beleiving that the hand of God was in every event- looked for a spiritual explanation for their military failures. They came across a Puritan tradition, the Jeremiad to explain the losses. This was a sermon that threatened people with judgement unless they renounced their sins. The North interpreted the punishment to be the defeat of the Union and their sin to be slavery. Suddenly, the war circled around slavery and Northern churches sought to abolish it.

Southern Religion

During the Civil War, the South identified them self as a “uniquely Christian nation”. Their Confederate Constitution included and implored the favor and guidance of God. Their motto was Deo Vindice which meant God will avenge. They viewed the Union as a Godless government because God was ignored in their Constitution. The Confederacy’s dependency on religion was its moral defense towards the issue of slavery. Their justification was that they were “Christianizing” African slaves which was considered doing God’s work on earth. The slaves were being punished for their African paganism. The South’s victory at First Manassas on July 21, 1861 vindicated the South’s religiously based nation. "Stonewall" Jackson was one of the Confederates most famous and favored general. He led his troops with Southern religious faith that God would give victory to them, and when he died on the battle field, religious press made a myth of him. Jackson embodied Southern religious values and served as a martyr for the South's lost cause.

Religion of Slaves

African slaves had a secret religion of their own and held secret religious meetings. Black preachers created powerful stories of freedom and redemption against their white masters. They preached that God would change their earthly situation and punish the cruel and immoral slave holders. The slaves chanted songs filled with pain, but hope for rebellion and freedom. Also, within these songs held secret messages to communicate between the slaves without their masters finding out. Below is a hymn called swing low, sweet chariot. It is said to be Harriet Tubmans favorite. It expresses a deep desire to escape from bondage and a return to home. In this case, geographically, home means Africa and spiritually reffers to heaven. These songs inspired slaves to escape and find a better life.

Swing low, sweet chariot,

Comin' for to carry me home!

I looked over Jordan and what did I see,

A band of angels comin' after me,

Comin' for to carry me home!

Swing low, sweet chariot,

Comin’ for to carry me home!

If you get there before I do,

Jess tell my friends that I'm acomin' too,

Comin' for to carry me home.

Swing low, sweet chariot,

Comin’ for to carry me home!

I'm sometimes up and sometimes down,

But still my soul feels heavenly bound

Comin' for to carry me h
The anti-slavery medallion
The anti-slavery medallion

These sermons and songs gave the slaves courage to run away and eventually join the Union army. Yet in presence of a white observer, the black preachers lectured about obedience of their God- ordained white masters. In fact, there was strong incentive to do so. For if the slaves were caught demoralizing their owners, they would surely get whipped and beat. Although the religion of the slaves was hidden and secret, it played a huge role in giving them courage to run to freedom and strengthen the Northern army.
Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln was America’s 17th president and served during the time of the Civil War. He ruled using religion to enforce laws. He included a chaplain of “a Christian denomination” in every regiment. Lincoln often assisted religious organizations like the U.S. Christian Commission. Throughout his life, Lincoln read and often quoted the Bible. While President, he regularly attended the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, yet he never joined a church. Many of his speeches revealed spiritual perception. In his Second Inaugural Address of March 1865 he said, “Both (North and South) read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.” Out of the previous fourteen president's, Lincoln was the only one to quote the Bible and affirmed that it was used in both the North and the South. At the start of the war in 1861, Abraham Lincoln declared that his sole objective was to preserve the Union. Yet later in 1863, he proclaimed his aim was to free the slaves in still- rebelling areas against the government. Lincoln was a key leader in the fight to conserve the Union and end slavery.


In the Civil War, one chaplain was assigned to each regiment. A chaplain is a regularly ordained minister of any denomination appointed to conduct services. There were a few different kinds of chaplains. The first was a regimental chaplain. Their duty was to conduct worship services. They would usually preach about patriotism to the war or admonitions against sinful behavior. The next was a hospital chaplain. Their duty was to provide guidance and comfort to the wounded soldiers. The last type was a post chaplain whose job was to teach illiterate soldiers to read and write.
Sunday Mass at New York Regiment
Sunday Mass at New York Regiment
They also wrote letters for the wounded or dying soldiers; either to inform the family about a death or simply to assist those who could not write. On August 3, 1861 an act was passed by Abraham Lincoln that dramatically improved chaplaincy. It allowed the chaplains to be from any religious denomination. This act was requested by the Board of Delegates of American Israelites to make provisions for Jewish chaplains. Of the Union chaplains, there was a large amount of Roman Catholic’s. Yet also, the Union held the first appointment of Jewish and Black chaplains. The amount of Union to Confederate chaplains was over three times as many because of the shortage of Confederate regiments. Chaplains helped encourage the soldiers and were a huge service to the Civil War.



"Chaplain John's History of the Civil War Chaplains." Angelfire: Welcome to Angelfire. Web Ring Inc. Web. 17 May 2011.

Leidner, Gordon. "Great American History Great American History." Great American History - Free American History Educational Material. Great American History, 28 Dec. 2009. Web. 17 May 2011.

Moorhead, James H. "Religion in the Civil War: The Northern Perspective, The Nineteenth Century, Divining America: Religion in American History, TeacherServe, National Humanities Center." National Humanities Center - Welcome to the National Humanities Center. National Humanities Center, Oct. 2000. Web. 17 May 2011.

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