Religion during the Civil War era has of late witnessed a resurgence of historical interest. George Rable’s God’s Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War offered Civil War scholars a broad overview of the role religion played in the war while simultaneously noting the many areas where work remained to be done. Timothy Wesley’s The Politics of Faith during the Civil War is an example of how Rable’s work was not the final but the first word in a new wave of scholarship on the importance of faith and the war’s events.
Wesley’s broadest goal is to insert ministers back into a central role in the Civil War narrative. For too long, he contends, they have been sidelined as players in the drama. Not merely as religious men but as opinion makers and shapers with extraordinary access to the corridors of power and into their congregations’ mental and emotional lives, these men of the cloth wielded immense cultural and political influence over large segments of the population.
After a brief overview of the rise of ministerial influence in the first half of the nineteenth century, Wesley details why the idea of “disloyal” preachers struck such fear in the federal body politic. Most of these men were highly partisan clerics residing in the Border States and took on the wrath of Lincoln’s Republican administration as they might that of Hell itself. Wesley emphasizes that “governmental repression of suspect Border State clerics was an important, if historiographically underappreciated, part of the Union [End Page 86] war effort” (68). He highlights Lincoln’s complicity in the arrests and the transformative effect these actions had on clerics as a whole. This (effective) repression ultimately, if unintentionally, served the larger function of making the preacher “just another American professional, no longer cosseted in all things by the fealty of the masses and the shield of the people” (92).
Perhaps the strongest element of the book analytically is Wesley’s effort to create a taxonomy of preacher politics. Preachers, he contends, fit into three broad Christian categories: “separate spherist,” “separate duty,” and “separate component.” Separate spherists believed ministerial discourse should restrict itself to material grounded solely in the religious realm and that anything with the slightest notion of political attachment had no place in the church. An ultra-conservative viewpoint in the wartime North, it represented an increasingly narrow part of the spectrum as the war progressed. Separate-duty Christians adhered to an ideology in which ministers advised their congregations to adhere to a collective ideology of faith without expressly stating how one should reach that state. Finally, separate components (a problematic phrasing) saw religious and political sermons as irrevocably intertwined and the negative phrase “political preaching” as an attempt to muzzle them (and through them, the Lord). Yet, northern ministers’ efforts to assert their political ideologies did not come without peril. Wesley aptly demonstrates how dangerous it was for political preachers of various persuasions to advocate a given position—either through active discourse or acts of omission—with the risk of banishment, alienating their flocks, imprisonment, and even mob violence (sometimes orchestrated by members of their own congregations).
Subsequent chapters on Confederate and African American ministers offer preliminary examinations into these two less-studied segments of society and their political contributions to the respective war efforts. African American ministers, Wesley points out, were not “uncritical cheerleaders of the Union” but rather acted as “opinionated and autonomously minded men of faith” (192). These two chapters offer valuable points of departure for more in-depth exploration of these ministers and their contributions to the wartime political discourse.
Wesley’s points are interesting enough that one might wish he had pursued them further. Many ministers actively contributed to the advancement of specific policies and actions of their governments, advancing certain agendas in the realms of finance, law, diplomacy, or medicine. Be it Matthew Simpson and his efforts to promote emancipation, Moncure Conway and...