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Harry S. Stout

The Political Pulpits of Dixie

A tradition that goes back to the Confederacy.

The subject of religion in the South is only now gaining the attention that it deserves outside the South. The reasons, I suspect, have very much to do with the recovery of the South generally, and its political, economic, and cultural integration into the larger nation-state. The home of the 1996 Summer Olympics and a number of new professional sports franchises is also the home region of two re cent presidents, a stampede of relocated corporations, retirement Meccas, real-estate booms, and, of special interest to us, a religio-political "Moral Majority" and "Christian Coalition." Once marginalized as the unwanted stepchild of the American republic, the South has emerged today as the most fertile field for scholarship on the American cultural and religious scene.

In accounting for the newfound prominence of the South, social analysts have pointed to many political and economic forces. Alongside these obvious structural explanations are cultural explanations located in recent southern history. Of these, none looms larger than the civil-rights movement and the eventual participation of southern cultural and religious institutions in the courageous movement for integration and reconciliation. Recent works by Samuel Hill, Robert Calhoon, and Charles Reagan Wilson have traced the gradual reconciliation of the southern churches to racial integration. In the course of participating in the dismantlement of the century's worth of Jim Crow legislation and structural racism, southern religious and cultural leaders earned a legitimacy they could not en joy as long as they remained in "cultural captivity" to the ideology of white supremacy. This legitimacy, in turn, set the stage for a second integration into national religious and political leadership. Once the transition began, white southern clergy increasingly spoke out on social and political issues. Instead of silence, clerical commentary on public and political issues grew increasingly strident through the 1970s, '80s and '90s, even as it moved from the liberal agenda of civil rights to more culturally conservative positions on the Right.

In commenting on the new assertiveness of the southern clergy, many analysts have perceived a sharp discontinuity from the earlier periods of southern religious history when, supposedly, the doctrine of the "spirituality of the church" dictated a policy of silence in regard to pressing social and political issues. But such a view misses deeper historical continuities that can be found in some unlikely places. Without wishing to deny the courage and initiative of southern white clergymen leading their congregations out of the sin of apartheid and white supremacy, I do wish to question the degree to which outspoken clerical commentary on political issues represented a radical discontinuity in southern religious discourse. There is more continuity in southern political preaching than first appears. In fact, political preaching in the public sphere has a rich heritage that goes back to the creation of the Confederate republic and the "jeremiads" preached by southern churchmen of all faiths and denominations on national days of fasting and thanksgiving.

In saying this, I recognize the irony of bringing together something old (the Confederacy) with something new (civil rights). It was, after all, the immoral arrogance of the former that necessitated the moral correction of the latter. Yet, I would suggest that the two are indissolubly connected in both negative and positive ways. Negatively, they are connected through the legacy of the "Lost Cause," which, as Charles Regan Wilson has shown, became a religiously grounded rationale for apartheid and the ideology of white supremacy. But positively, they are connected in that Confederate preaching represented a rhetorical precedent for political preaching that would be reborn in the civil rights movement and beyond into the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition.

If historians have missed the innovative religious and political significance of the public fast day in white southern society during the Civil War, one reason is that fast days per se did not originate in the South during the Confederacy and so would not appear to be novel. Denominational fasts were common throughout the colonial and Old South, as were churchwide fasts in dissenting congregations, and liturgical fasts in the Anglican calendar. But all of these were narrowly religious and deliberately separated out from politics. They were spiritual events confined to the spiritual space and time of the churches. With rare exceptions, fast sermons delivered on these occasions were not published, nor did they constitute a central genre of public discourse. De nominations or congregations ordained them, and communities of faith observed them. There was no on going southern tradition of what the nineteenth-century historian W. D. Love termed "civil" or "public fasts," fast days called by civil authority and observed by the political community meeting outside its religious confines.

By the 1850s, most northern and midwestern states proclaimed a day of national thanksgiving. Southerners, for the most part, demurred, citing among other authorities Thomas Jefferson, who, during his presidency, re fused to proclaim a national day of thanksgiving on grounds of the separation of church and state. Only a handful of printed fast sermons survive from antebellum southern presses, and references to public fasts are relatively scarce in public records. In times of crisis, the fast was not the resort of instinctive choice in the way it was for the North. In the South's greatest confrontation before secession, the Nullification Controversy, South Carolina's governor Robert Y. Hayne proclaimed a day of fasting for January 1833, only to discover that nobody heeded his proclamation. Most churches failed to honor the fast, and hardly any newspaper in South Carolina reported it.

Richmond was very much a part of this tradition, boasting no fast day sermons from its presses. As late as 1856, Virginia's governor Henry A. Wise re fused to proclaim a day of thanksgiving, observing that: "the Governor of Virginia is not authorized by her laws to call upon the people to bow to any authority in Heaven or on earth be sides their own authority." With northern abolitionists in mind, he then closed the case with the observation that "this theatrical national claptrap of Thanksgiving has aided other causes in setting thousands of pulpits to preaching 'Christian politics' instead of humbly letting the carnal kingdom alone and preaching singly Christ crucified." In the southern pulpit, the doctrine of the church's "spirituality"—the strict separation of church and state—reigned, so that even slavery could be addressed only in terms of the duties masters owed their slaves, not as a political and economic institution.1

Viewed in this tradition, the ascendance of the public fast in the Confederacy is truly remarkable. Through all of American history to 1860, public fasts were quintessentially northern and "Puritan." Yet, when secession came to war, the Confederacy would employ the public fast more frequently than the North. In all, Abraham Lincoln would proclaim three national fasts throughout the war while, in the same period, Jefferson Davis would proclaim ten. In addition, there were multiple state and local fasts in the Confederacy, as well as fasts in the army.

For the Confederacy to adopt the public fast day as its own national ritual of self-affirmation, a profound revolution had to have taken place in a remarkably compressed period of time. This rhetorical revolution, in turn, would pave the way for an ongoing tradition of civic oratory in the southern pulpit. Where the Puritans would take two generations to invent a rhetoric of nationhood and war around the ritual convention of the fast and thanksgiving day, the Confederacy would achieve it in a year, and it would grow thereafter until the very last battles were lost. The public fast enlisted Christianity for ritual and ideological service to the Confederacy, even though churches had for decades reflexively affirmed the apolitical spirituality of the church. With a rhetorical sleight of hand, ministers would continue to celebrate the historic spirituality of the southern pulpit, while at the same time ringing the charges of tyranny against the North and preaching political liberty for the South with a ferocity—and frequency—unmatched in the North.

The successful creation of a Confederate jeremiad involved much more than simply borrowing preconceived theological categories or rhetorical formulas pulled from the Old Testament or the tradition of political preaching in Puritan New England. The task of interpreting God's involvement with the Confederate cause and defining the role of the Christian churches in the Confederate nation was a creative struggle with a history of its own.

The clergy's new burden of political preaching was made immensely easier by the new Confederate Constitution, adopted on February 8, 1861, and ratified March 11. Unlike its federal counterpart, it explicitly declared its Christian identity, "invoking the favor and guidance of Almighty God." This meant that the South was now in a position more analogous to ancient Israel's theocratic constitution than to the North's republican constitution, which failed to invoke—or even mention— God.2 The national motto, Deo Vindice ("God will avenge"), added additional weight to the South's claim to be a uniquely Christian nation standing alone against the apostasy of the North and its godless constitution. Now was the time, President Davis asserted in his first fast day proclamation, to consecrate the new nation and "to recognize our dependence upon God … [and] supplicate his merciful protection." The times were ominous, for war had begun.

Both in tone and substance, it was clear from Davis's proclamation that this was no exercise in "mere" rhetoric, or "Confederate propaganda." The words were serious business because they played with the fire of divinity. To be glib or insincere would be worse than infidelity. And President Davis was anything but glib or infidel. If preachers could now politicize from the pulpit, magistrates could preach from the podium. In terms reminiscent of the pulpit, Davis implored people to call on God "to guide and direct our policy in the paths of right, duty, justice and mercy; to unite our hearts and our efforts for the defense of our dearest rights; to strengthen our weakness, crown our arms with success, and en able us to secure a speedy, just, and honorable peace."3

God's purposes seemed to be gloriously revealed with the victory at First Manassas. Preaching a nationally declared thanksgiving sermon on July 21, 1861, to commemorate the victory, William C. Butler proclaimed in Richmond's Saint John's Episcopal Church that the opportunity to constitute a truly Christian nation amounted to a special calling for the South. The Confederacy did not receive its divine commission from heaven when men ratified the Confederate Constitution, however; God had to ratify it, and he did so by bestowing the remarkable victory at Manassas. That astounding success proved that the South fought for principles that were fundamental to God's "Divine government":

God has given us of the South to-day a fresh and golden opportunity—and so a most solemn command—to realize that form of government in which the just, constitutional rights of each and all are guaranteed to each and all. … He has placed us in the front rank of the most marked epochs of the world's history. He has placed in our hands a commission which we can faithfully execute only by holy, individual self-consecration to all of God's plans.

To appreciate the novelty and power of these words, we must hear them as Butler's Richmond audience undoubtedly heard them in the flush of stunning victory. And we must hear them in a southern setting deeply religious, but previously alien to national fasts and thanksgivings. Whether they could articulate it or not, southern audiences were experiencing a new ritual of social order. Through words like Butler's, repeated in similar settings throughout the Confederacy, a nation was being born. Now they had a "history"—however brief—of their own, as a newly constituted, divinely ratified—and victorious—covenant nation. Preachers could now freely adopt the language of the Hebrew prophets for their own without it being the "political preaching" they had condemned for so many years emanating from the godless North. Now it was God speaking. If the language they used sounded remarkably like the Puritans of old, the fact was never announced. Confederate clergymen spoke as if theirs were the first truly legitimate, God-honoring political fast and thanksgiving days in America since the Revolution.

From this point on in Confederate history, nearly three-quarters of all printed sermons would be public fast or thanksgiving sermons or similar political and war-related sermons preached on other days. Once a rarity in southern print, these sermons became a staple religious product of the Confederate press. Religious publications as a whole, excluding periodicals, would amount to over 40 percent of the unofficial imprints appearing in the Confederacy.

The logic of the Confederate jeremiads and thanksgiving celebrations as it unfolded through the war defined each victory as God's work, a gracious favor just short of the miraculous that signified a triumph of divine justice. A de feat, however, was never a sign that the cause was not righteous, that slavery or secession or the actions taken by the Confederate government might be unjust or sinful after all. Battlefield defeats were God's punishment for the sins of the southern people—covetousness, profanity, Sabbath breaking, pride, usury—sins that left the ideals of the Confederate cause blemished and determined that the Confederate people would have to suffer greatly before being awarded their ultimate victory.4

Through repetition and nearly universal exposure, the Confederate jeremiad shaped responses to the war from the highest to the lowest levels of white southern society. Churches, magistrates, generals, religious newspapers, and even the secular press through the early campaigns, all developed the themes of the jeremiad along separate but parallel tracks. Government officials and military leaders from Jefferson Davis to Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson invariably invoked the terms of the jeremiad in their battlefield reports and public proclamations. Ecclesiastical reports invoked battlefield successes to proclaim the divine truth of the jeremiad's message. The Presbyterian Synod of Virginia's annual report in 1862, for example, identified the public fast as the cause of victory at Manassas:

At first God did not seem to smile on our defensive operations. … Then God put it into the heart of [President] Davis to call for a day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer. … The united supplication of the whole people went up before the God of battles and was graciously accepted through the intercession of our great High Priest. … We were wonderfully delivered out of the hands of our enemies.

The circulation of the South's denominational newspapers and religious tracts underwent a phenomenal expansion during the war and paralleled the proclamations from Richmond and Confederate pulpits. The Baptists acted first, and their Virginia Sunday School and Publication Board would publish over 30 million pages. The Soldiers' Tract Association of the Methodist Church was established in 1862 and published 40,000 copies of two semi-monthly papers (one entitled The Soldier's Paper) and various missionary publications. The Evangelical Tract Society, based in Petersburg, published more than 100 tracts and the Army and Navy Messenger. In 1864, the Central Presbyterian claimed that Richmond alone was sending out ten thousand copies of religious journals each week to the Confederate soldiers, and that religious newspapers had a total circulation of 90,000 per month in the armies.

When viewed collectively, it is surprising how little religious newspapers varied from fast day sermons. Together they reinforced the rhetoric of the jeremiad and beat the drum for a righteous war. The "silence" of the pulpit had long since passed as churches be came the single most important mouth piece for Confederate nationalism and "Christian politics."

The Confederate jeremiad was so powerful in framing white southern perceptions of self and society that it was immune to setbacks and defeats. In contrast to military studies of the Civil War that argue the South lost because of pervasive guilt feelings over slavery, I have found virtually no guilt or defeatism in religious pronouncements from the war years. Instead, one finds an almost unshakable confidence in God's Confederacy.

When defeat finally came, the Confederacy disappeared, but not the rhetoric of the jeremiad. As long as the South dug its heels in on white supremacy and apartheid, that rhetoric lived on as the rhetoric of the Lost Cause— a glorification of fallen Confederate leaders, and a ringing assertion of white supremacy. This rhetoric, in turn, was incapable of reaching out to any larger audience, serving instead to isolate the South and marginalize it. But with civil rights and the dismantling of apartheid, the rhetoric of the jeremiad was ready made to enter into the national political discourse. Southern religious and political leaders could now preach an integrationist politics and, at the same time, integrate their nationalism into the nation's nationalism. Having transcended the divide of separate but equal, they could assert the rhetoric of jeremiad and chosenness as one with the larger body of American Christians.

Harry S. Stout is Jonathan Edwards Professor of American Christianity at Yale University. He is the general editor of the Works of Jonathan Edwards from Yale University Press, and general editor of the Oxford University Press series, Religion in America.

1. The term spirituality was appropriated by southern Presbyterians but spoke for the larger southern tradition of the strict separation of church and state. The doctrine is most closely identified with James Henley Thornwell, who observed:

The Church of Jesus Christ is a spiritual body. … Its ends are holiness and life, to the manifestation of riches and glory of Divine grace, and not simply morality, decency and good order, which may to some extent be secured without faith in the Redeemer, or the transforming efficacy of the Holy Spirit. The laws of the church are the authoritative injunctions of Christ, and not the covenants, however benevolent their origin and aim, which men have instituted of their own will; and the ground of obligation which the Church, as such, inculcates is the authority of God speaking in His Word, and not pledges of honor which create, measure and define the peculiar duties of all voluntary associations.

Thornwell spoke these words in 1848 and would live to reverse them in the crisis of secession. Before the Civil War, virtually all southern Protestants agreed that the doctrine of spirituality of the church precluded the sort of "federal covenant" on which public fasts rested and through which "political sermons" were preached. Thornwell is here quoted from John H. Leith, "Spirituality of the Church," in Samuel S. Hill, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion in the South (Mercer Univ. Press, 1984), p. 731. See also James Oscar Farmer, The Metaphysical Confederacy: James Henley Thornwell and the Synthesis of Southern Values (Mercer Univ. Press, 1986), pp. 256–60. On how slavery was treated in antebellum preaching, see Mitchell Snay, Gospel of Disunion: Religion and Separatism in the Antebellum South (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1993).

2. Nineteenth-century churchmen were acutely aware of the absence of God in the federal Constitution and the implications of this for Christian nationhood. See Harry S. Stout, "Rhetoric and Reality in the American Revolution: The Case of the Federalist Clergy," in Mark A. Noll, ed., Religion and Politics: From the Colonial Period to the 1980s (Oxford Univ. Press, 1990), pp. 62–76. Southern interpretations of the meaning of the Constitution in the context of new nation forming are described in E. Merton Coulter, The Confederate States of America 1861-1865 (Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1950); and Emory M. Thomas, The Confederate Nation, 1861-1865 (Harper & Row, 1979).

3. Davis's proclamation was reprinted in virtually every Confederate newspaper.

4. O. S. Barten explained that God recognized the body politic as a "moral person" rewarded and punished in this world because it would have no existence in the afterlife. This logic was independent of any special covenant or presumption of the Confederacy as the New Israel. "Nations are but aggregates of individuals who compose them, and what God requires of one in his individual capacity, he demands of the whole in their associated character" (A Sermon Preached in St. James Church [Richmond, 1861], pp. 8–9). The Baptist preacher Thomas Dunaway of Lancaster County, Virginia, supported the same point by quoting the canon of international law (A Sermon Delivered by Elder Thomas Dunaway … April, 1864 [Richmond, 1864], p. 8). William Norwood, preaching in Richmond's Saint John's Church, distinguished more carefully between the aggregate sins of individuals, which brought judgments down upon the whole people, and the people of the Confederacy "acting in the national transactions" of their government, which had done nothing to call down God's curse (God and Our Country [Richmond, 1863], p. 7).

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