Thursday, March 13, 2014

March 13, 1863: Revivalism in the Army of Northern Virginia

Private William Dame Meade, First Company Richmond Howitzers

In the winter of 1863-1864, a wave of revivalism swept through the winter camps of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. The following account is from the memoirs of William Dame Meade, a private in the First Company of the Richmond Howitzers.
In this account of our life in that winter camp, it remains for me to record the most important occurrence of all. About this time there came into the life of the men of the Battery an experience more deeply impressive, and of more vital consequence to them than anything that had ever happened, or ever could happen in their whole life, as soldiers, and as men. The outward beginning of it was very quiet, and simple. We had built a little log church, or meeting house, and the fellows who chose had gotten into the way of gathering here every afternoon for a very simple prayer meeting. We had no chaplain and there were only a few Christians among the men. At these meetings one of the young fellows would read a passage of Scripture, and offer a prayer, and all joined in singing a hymn or two. We began to notice an increase of interest, and a larger attendance of the men. A feature of our meeting was a time given for talk, when it was understood that if any fellow had anything to say appropriate to the occasion, he was at liberty to say it. Now and then one of the boys did have a few simple words to offer his comrades in connection, perhaps, with the Scripture reading.

One day John Wise, one of the best, and bravest men in the Battery, loved and respected by everybody, quietly stood up and said, “I think it honest and right to say to my comrades that I have resolved to be a Christian. I here declare myself a believer in Christ. I want to be counted as such, and by the help of God, will try to live as such.”

This was entirely unexpected. He sat down amidst intense silence. A spirit of deep seriousness seemed fallen upon all present. A hymn was sung, and they quietly dispersed. Some of us shook hands with Wise and expressed our pleasure at what he had said, and done.

This incident produced a profound impression among the men. It brought out the feelings about religion that had lain unexpressed in other minds. The thoughts of many hearts were revealed. The interest spread rapidly; the fervor of our prayer meetings grew. We had no chaplain to handle this situation, but men would seek out their comrades who were Christians, and talk on this great subject with them, and accept such guidance in truth, and duty as they could give. And now from day to day at the prayer meetings men would get up in the quiet way John Wise had done, and in simple words declare themselves Christians in the presence of their comrades. Most of them were among the manliest and best men of the company; they were dead in earnest, and their actions commanded the respect and sympathy of the whole camp.

This movement went quietly on, without any fuss or excitement, until some sixty-five men, two-thirds of our whole number, had confessed their faith, and taken their stand, and in conduct and spirit, as well as in word, were living consistent Christian lives. They carried that faith, and that life, and character, home when they went back after the war—and they carried them through their lives. In the various communities where they lived their lives, and did their work, they were known as strong, stalwart Christian men, and towers of strength to the several churches to which they became attached. Of that number twelve or fourteen men went into the ministry of different churches, and served faithfully to their life’s end.

What I have described as going on in our Battery off there by itself at Morton’s Ford, was going on very widely in the Army at large. There was a deep spiritual interest and strong revival of religion throughout the whole Army of Northern Virginia during that winter. Thousands and thousands of those splendid soldiers of the South, became just as devoted soldiers, and servants of Jesus Christ, and took their places in His ranks, and manfully fought under His banner, and were not ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified, and to stand for His cause.

The effect of all this was very far-reaching. What these men carried back home with them wrought a great change in the South—a change in the attitude of the men of the South toward Christ’s religion. There was a great change in that attitude, from before the war, and afterward, produced by the war.

I will try to explain what I mean: Before the war, in the South, as I knew it—in the country neighborhoods, and in the villages, and small towns—you would find a group of men, often made up of the most influential, respected, educated, efficient men of that community, who were not members of any church or professed Christians. These were men of honor and integrity, respected by all, valuable citizens. They respected religion, went to church regularly, as became a gentleman, and gave their money liberally to support the church as a valuable institution of society. That was, their attitude toward religion—respectful tolerance, but no personal interest—no need of it. Their thought, generally unspoken but sometimes expressed, was that religion was all right for women, and children, and sick or weak men, but strong men could take care of themselves and had no need of it. And, of course, the young men coming on were influenced by their example and thought it manly to follow their example. The argument was specious. “There is Mr. Blank; he is an upright, good man, and no man stands higher in the community; he is just as good a man and citizen as any member of the church. He gets along all right without religion—I won’t bother about it.” So he let it alone and went his way. The very virtues of that group of men were a baleful influence in that community—led young men into the dreadful mistake that men do not need religion—that religion is not a manly thing. A good man who is not a Christian does ten-fold more harm, in a community, to the cause of Christ, and to the lives of men than the worst, and lowest man in it; so it was here!

When the call to war came, these very men were the first to go. As a rule they were the leaders, in thought and action, of their fellow-citizens, and they were high spirited, intensely patriotic, and quick to resent the invasion of their rights, and their State. In whole-hearted devotion to the cause, they went in a spirit that would make them thorough soldiers.

The Example of Lee, Jackson and Stuart 
Now when these men got into the army the “esprit de corps” took possession of them. They got shaken down to soldier thoughts, and judgments. They began to estimate men by their personal value to the cause that was their supreme concern. In that army, three men held the highest place in the heart and mind, of every soldier in it—they were General Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jeb Stuart—each the highest in his line. All the army had, for these three men, reverent honor, enthusiastic admiration, and absolute confidence. We looked up to them as the highest types of manhood—in noble character, superb genius, and consummate ability. They were by eminence the heroes—the beloved leaders of the army. There were many other able, and brilliant leaders, whom we honored, but these were set apart. In the thoughts, and hearts of all the army, and the country as well, these three were the noblest and highest representatives of our cause; and every man did homage to them, and was proud to do it. But, as was known, with all their high qualities of genius, and personal character, and superb manhood, each one of these three men was a devout member of Christ’s Church; a sincere and humble disciple of Jesus Christ; and in his daily life and all his actions and relations in life, was a consistent Christian man. All his brilliant service to his country was done as duty to his God, and all his plans and purposes were “referred to God, and His approval and blessing invoked upon them, as the only assurance of their success.” All who were personally associated with these men came to know that this was the spirit of their lives; and many times, in religious services, in camp, these men, so idolized by the army, and so great in all human eyes but their own, could be seen bowing humbly down beside the private soldiers to receive the holy sacrament of the Blessed Body and Blood of Christ.

Now, when the men, who had been so indifferent to religion at home, as so unnecessary for them, came up against this fact, and came to look up to these three men as their highest ideals of manhood, they got an eye opener. If men like Lee, and Jackson, and Stuart, and others, felt the need of religion for themselves, the thought would come, “Maybe I need it, too. No man can look down on the manhood of these men; if they esteem religion as the crown of their manhood, it is not a thing to be despised, or neglected, or treated with indifference. It is a thing to be sought, and found and taken into my life.” And this train of thought arrested the attention, and got the interest and stirred to truer thoughts, and finally brought them to Christ. Thousands of these men were led to become devout Christians, and earnest members of the church through the influence of the three great Christian leaders, and other Christian comrades in the army.

Now, when these men got back home after the war and the survivors of those groups got settled back in their various communities, there was a great difference in the religious situation, from what it had been before the war. There had taken place a complete change in these men, in their attitude toward religion, and this wrought a great change in this respect in their communities, for the returned soldiers of any community were given a place of peculiar honor, and influence. They had their record of splendid, and heroic service behind them and they were held in affectionate, and tender regard—not only by their own families, and friends, but by all their neighbors and fellow-citizens. What that group of soldiers thought, and wanted, went in that town, or countryside.

Now, that group of men who set the pace, and made the atmosphere in that community were Christians. The serious phase of life; the seasoning of hardships; the discipline; the oft facing of death; the stern habit of duty at any cost, which they had passed through during the war had made them very strong men, and very earnest Christians. What they stood for, they stood for boldly, and outspokenly on all proper occasions. They were not one whit ashamed of their religion and were ready at all times, and about all matters to let the world know just where they stood; to declare by word, and deed who they were, and whom they served.

All this set up before the eyes of that community a very strong, forcible, manly type of religion. These were not women, and children, and they were not sick or weak men—they were the very manliest men in that town, and so were taken and accepted by general consent.

Just think of the effect of that situation upon the boys and young men growing up in that community. The veteran soldiers, back from the war, with all their honors upon them—were heroes to the young fellows. What the soldiers said, and did, were patterns for them to imitate; and the pattern of Christian life, set up before the youngsters, made religion, and church membership most honorable in their eyes. They did not now, as aforetime, have to overcome the obstacle in a young man’s mind which lay in the association of weakness with religion, and which had largely been suggested to them by the older men, in the former times.

The old Christian soldiers, whom they now saw, set up in them the idea that religion was the manliest thing in the world, and so inclined them toward it, and assured the most serious, and respectful consideration of it. Religion could not be put aside lightly, or treated with contempt as unmanly, for those veteran heroes were living it and stood for it, and they were, in their eyes, the manliest men they knew.

Now, this leaven of truer thought about religion was leading society all through the South; the Southern men and boys everywhere were feeling its influence, and it was having most remarkable effects. The increase in the number of men, who after the war were brought into the church by the direct influence of the returned soldiers, “who had found their souls” through the experiences of their army life, was tremendous. Those soldiers did a bigger service to the men of their race by bringing back religion to them than they did in fighting for them during the war.

Just after the war, in the far harder trials and soul agony of the Reconstruction days, I think that the wonderful patience, and courage which resisted humiliation, and won back the control of their States, and rebuilt their shattered fortunes and pulled their country triumphantly up out of indescribable disaster, can only be thus really explained—that those men were “strong and of a good courage” because “their minds were staked on God.”

The history of the Southern people during that epoch is unmatched by the history of any people in all time. The result they achieved, this was the reason—beneath the superb “grit” of the Southern people lay deep the conviction “God is our refuge and strength” and “The God whom we serve. He will deliver us.” It was the spiritual vision of the men of the South that saved it when it was ready to perish—and let the men of the South never forget it! Let them give unceasing recognition and thanks to God, for that great deliverance.

If I have made clear my thought—the connection of the religious revival in the army with the fortunes of our people at home after the war—I am glad! If I haven’t, I am sorry! I can’t say any fairer than that, and I can only make the plea that was stuck up in a church in the West, in the old rough days, when a dissatisfied auditor of the sermon, or the organist, was likely to express his disapproval with a gun. The notice up in front of the choir read like this: “Please don’t shoot the musician, he’s doing his level best”—I make the same request.

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