June 11, 2015

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As the Civil War enveloped the Shenandoah Valley, increasing in severity as it progressed, religion felt its sting just as severely as other parts of society. But because of the Valley’s great diversity, the impact of the war on religious life was multifaceted, and the great conflict touched the various religious traditions differently.

The Valley’s religious diversity stemmed from its location in a border region that blended faith traditions from both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. Typically Southern denominations—Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists—abounded, and Methodists had by far the largest membership. Episcopalians, also a fixture in the South, were present in the Valley but less numerous than in many Southern communities. Like other parts of the South, whites heavily supervised religion for free and enslaved African Americans. Slaves in the Shenandoah Valley had the freedom to choose their own place of worship, but this made the ruling race nervous and masters preferred that their “servants” attend church with them. Independent black congregations did not emerge until after the Civil War. In some ways, then, Shenandoah religion appeared much like other Southern faith communities.

In other ways, however, the Valley more resembled the nearby mid-Atlantic region, whose religious cloth was a complex tapestry. By the time of the Civil War Catholics had just entered the Valley as Irish immigrant laborers. Lutherans and Reformed heavily populated the central Valley, and small denominations that were southern extensions of northern-based groups—Dunkers, Mennonites, the Society of Friends (Quakers), and United Brethren— were well-represented. Dunkers, often known simply as “the Brethren,” and Mennonites were Anabaptists who stressed unity with their fellowships and separation from the sinful world. They were nonconformists in daily life, especially through plain dress, and they also practiced adult baptism. Like the Friends, Dunkers and Mennonites were nonresistant. The United Brethren resembled Methodists with born-again, camp meeting revivalism. Additionally, Lutherans, Reformed, Mennonites, and United Brethren all had German roots, which gave the Valley ethnic diversity, a characteristic more Pennsylvanian the Virginian. Thus, the Valley’s Methodist/Baptist/Presbyterian congregations and their slaves were Southern, but its denominational and ethnic variety made it appear Northern.

Slavery added to the Valley’s differences by dividing white Christians. Presbyterians and Baptists were the most conspicuous supporters of bondage. Like most Southern Protestants, they emphasized a Biblical defense for their labor system, and many Presbyterian and Baptist clergy and laity were slave owners. At the other end of the spectrum were the Friends and the small German fellowships, i.e., Dunkers, Mennonites, and United Brethren, steadfast opponents of bondage who expelled slave owners. Somewhere in the middle were Lutherans, Reformed, and Methodists. Lutherans and Reformed did not object to slavery and slave masters sat in their pews, but overall their congregations were lightly enslaved. Methodists were more conflicted on slavery. The Baltimore Conference, which included Methodists in the Valley, portions of Maryland, and south central Pennsylvania, prohibited preachers from owning other persons, a standard difficult to enforce, but Methodist laity possessed slaves in proportion to the rest of the population. When in 1844 national Methodists divided over slavery, the Shenandoah Valley remained with the northern branch, mostly because it belonged to the Baltimore Conference, but as sectional feelings intensified in the late 1850s, Shenandoah Methodists became increasingly pro-Southern. In sum, Valley religion included the full range of thought on slavery, from those who considered it grounds for excommunication to those who eagerly defended it.

When the secession crisis arose after the election of Abraham Lincoln, the Valley’s variations became more prominent. Methodist laity, awash with secessionist sentiments, urged their congregations to pull out of the Methodist Episcopal (ME), North denomination and join the ME, South. Francis McFarland, a Presbyterian preacher whose household contained slaves, voted for secession but called it his “most painful vote” ever. After Virginia seceded, Zion’s Advocate, a Primitive Baptist periodical in Front Royal, Virginia., previously silent on politics and slavery, exploded with Southern sentiment. The journal explained that Northern “incarnate devils” left little choice but Southern resistance, and it called for a massive barrier so that Virginians would “never again have any intercourse with Yankeedom.” But anti-slavery Protestants who wanted to vote against secession faced violence and intimidation at polling places. Some stayed home, and a few complained that secessionist zealots forced them to return to the polls and change their votes. In Shenandoah County Levi Pitman, a United Brethren Unionist, Republican, and opponent of slavery, managed to vote against disunion, but Pitman received a warning that he was in danger and went into hiding for two weeks. Quite clearly, Valley inhabitants disagreed on the fundamental issues underlying the war, and the impact of the coming conflict on religion would not be uniform.

Of course, all Christians shared some wartime religious experiences. All, for example, felt the disruptions that war brought to religious life. One of the first dislocations came in April 1861 when the Dunkers’ Yearly Meeting, a national gathering of congregational representatives, was scheduled to meet in Rockingham County, but Northern Dunkers feared traveling into the recently seceded South and suggested relocation. Angry Virginia Brethren responded that southerners traveling north faced just as much danger as northerners going south, and the annual gathering went ahead as planned. Almost all of the anxious Northern congregations stayed home. More generally, congregations of all denominations suffered damaged church property or cancelled services due to campaigning armies, and the call to military service deprived local fellowships of white male leadership. In Winchester, the members of the Loudon Street Presbyterian Church lost their preacher, A. H. H. Boyd, when Union occupation troops arrested him in 1864. Boyd contracted disease in prison, was released, failed to recover, and died at the end of 1865. Undoubtedly, the war altered the rhythms of religious life.

If patterns of faith changed, practice of religion remained vigorous. Faith, for example, lightened the load of many bearing a heavy wartime burden. During the 1864 campaign season Lexington Presbyterians met every day at 4 p.m. for well-attended prayer services. George O. Conrad, a forty-year-old Rockingham County Methodist, was a prisoner of war in Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland, where he led prayer meetings that provided spiritual nurture in horrible physical conditions. Lucy Buck, a teenager from Front Royal, was near the breaking point when she went to a service just after Confederates evacuated but before the Yankees had arrived. The sermon was on “let not him boasteth who girds the armour as him who takes it off.” By this, the preacher meant that in the end, the victor would have the last word, and with this defiance of the latest Yankee outrage endorsed by her spiritual shepherd, Buck left the service calmed. Religion had always comforted the afflicted, but now the depth of suffering was much deeper and many in the Shenandoah relied on their faith for reassurance.

Other wartime religious experiences more reflected the Valley’s diversity. Soldiers worshipped in very new surroundings, i.e., in the field. Troops in winter quarters, for example, often built chapels. The 5th Virginia Infantry, mustered in Augusta County, constructed a spacious facility with an altar at the intersection of the facility’s two wings. During the winter of 1861-62 a revival broke out in General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s camp. Ministers joined the troops and filled new roles as chaplains, suffering hardships along with the soldiers. Charles Sidney Matthews See, a Presbyterian chaplain, was captured at the end of the war (Sayler’s Creek; April 6, 1865), sent to prison in the North, and released in June, 1865. The most famous chaplain from the Valley was William J. Jones, who served with Jackson and after the war heaped praise on his commander with a widely-read memoir. Although much of camp religion was consistent with pre-war faith, pious citizen-soldiers and their chaplains prayed, sang hymns, and preached in circumstances unimaginable prior to Abraham Lincoln’s election.

For supporters of the war another change was the confluence of national affairs and faith. Loyal Confederates commonly thought that the God was on their side, and their gap between church and state became almost indistinguishable. When the Lexington Presbytery withdrew from the National Assembly in late 1861 it denounced the Federal government’s subjugation of the South as “cruel,” “unjust,” and “unconstitutional.” In 1862 a gathering of Methodist clergy affirmed support for the new nation. William E. Baker, a Presbyterian cleric, preached resistance to “oppression” and “enemies,” asserting outrage at the “jewels of the republic about to be trampled under by swine.” Lexington Presbyterian layperson Frank Paxton, a lieutenant at Bull Run, observed that the battle, fought on a Sunday, was the “sacred work of achieving our nationality and independence.” “Stonewall” Jackson was particularly zealous in discerning divine support for the Confederacy. After the victory at Bull Run Jackson gave God credit for his personal survival, for his brigade’s pivotal role, and for the victory. “All the glory is due to God alone,” the pious general concluded. Even in defeat Confederates found God’s blessing on their cause with David-and-Goliath sermons that reminded them that God favored the underdog. Seamless combination of church and state became commonplace, a big change for most Shenandoah Christians.

In contrast, the minority groups in the Valley— Dunkers, Mennonites, Friends, and United Brethren—often felt the war differently. These antislavery, nonresistant fellowships, who previously had co-existed comfortably with their pro-slavery and militia-joining neighbors, now were dissenters in a nation at war. The Unionism of many individuals within these groups only made their situation worse.

For the Dunkers and Mennonites the war jeopardized unity within their faith community, a cornerstone of their belief system. One Mennonite congregation in Augusta County openly supported the Confederacy, and when individual members of other congregations wore a gray uniform, they defied the collective wisdom of their fellowships. Gabriel Shank, a Rockingham County Mennonite, enlisted within a week of Fort Sumter. Before departing, Shank desired church membership, but his congregation refused because he had abandoned non-resistance. Shank then requested an emergency meeting of nearby Presbyterian leadership, who admitted him to their congregation. The next day Shank, now a Presbyterian, marched off. He became a lieutenant in the Valley Guards, was captured at Chancellorsville, and died in prison.

Those who remained faithful to non-resistance faced persecution from the larger community. Early Confederate draft law had no provisions for conscientious objectors, and so they put on the uniform against their will. Anecdotal accounts portray conscripted Mennonites who refused to shoot or aim, and “Stonewall” Jackson confirmed that Mennonites, Dunkers, and Quakers could “be made to fire but can very easily take bad aim.” Jackson allowed them to serve as teamsters. He argued that in this role they made a valuable contribution to the army, and he even proposed organizing conscientious objectors into units without officers, simultaneously releasing soldiers for combat and improving the care of horses. Little came of this idea, and, moreover, many members of the peace denominations considered non-armed service as a violation of principle without legal recognition of their religious principles. Some fled to the mountains of western Virginia. There, in March 1862, authorities arrested Mennonite and Dunker resisters and took them to Richmond. The detainees paid a $500 fine, even though they had broken no law, and were released. Another group was held in the courthouse in Harrisonburg, where many became ill under difficult conditions. They were freed when a Union army approached and holding them was no longer feasible.

Legal clarity came when Virginia agreed to a $500 fine plus a tax of two percent of property value for conscientious objectors. A national law taxing objectors $500 quickly replaced it, but when this statute took effect, some authorities did not recognize payments already made to Virginia and nonresistors had to pay again. Those with scruples could also provide a substitute although the peace fellowships generally disapproved of that option. The law covered only men who were eighteen or older when it passed, and those who came of age or converted after its passage were unprotected. Rising eighteen-year-old objectors, then, were vulnerable to the draft and had no legal recognition of their faith. Many escaped through the western mountains, aided by a vigorous underground railroad that consisted mostly of private homes but also included a Mennonite church building. Arrests, fines, and inconsistent legal recognition made conscientious objection difficult.

The most prominent casualty of the war for the peace fellowships was John Kline. Kline was a popular Dunker preacher, a long-time opponent of slavery, and the Valley’s most prominent advocate of nonresistance. In 1862 authorities arrested him along with two Mennonite ministers for their advocacy for pacifists. Between 1862 and1864 Dunkers annually installed him as Moderator of their Yearly Meeting, the highest office in the denomination. Apparently Kline’s neighbors could no longer tolerate this well-known dissenter, and in June 1864 Confederate irregulars assassinated him a few miles from his farm. With strains on the fellowship, persecution for conscientious objectors, and the murder of their most popular preacher, the war touched dissenting denominations differently than most Shenandoah Christians.

Thus, whether worshipping in a camp chapel, praying for succor, invoking God’s blessing on the nation, or shuttling conscientious objectors along an underground railroad, the Civil War generated new patterns of faith. But although the war changed religious practice, residents of the Valley felt their faith just as fervently during the conflict as before it. And they expressed their faith in a variety of ways, just as they always had done.

About the Author:

Stephen L. Longenecker holds a PhD from Johns Hopkins University and is professor of history and chair of the Department of History and Political Science at Bridgewater College. He is the author of Shenandoah Religion: Outsiders and the Mainstream, 1716-1865, and is currently writing a religious history of antebellum and Civil War-era Gettysburg.

This article is included in the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation’s booklet, Home Front to Front Line: The Civil War Era in the Shenandoah Valley.  Copies of the booklet are available at most visitor centers and many bookstores in the Valley, or in the online bookstore on CivilWarTraveler.com.