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The Great Revival by William Wallace Bennett

The Great Revival
William Wallace Bennett

Chapter I
Religion Among Soldiers

The late American war has no parallel in history. When we consider the area of the contest, its gigantic proportions, the number of men under arms, the magazines of warlike stores, the sieges, the marches, the battles, the enthusiasm of the people, the discipline and valor of the soldiers, the wretchedness and desolation which followed the contending hosts,—we may in vain search the annals of the world for the record of a struggle approaching it in all the dreadful elements of war.

The American may now add to his boasts, that his country claims pre-eminence in the greatest of all national calamities—a civil war.

We have read, but now we know by experience, that war, more than all things else, reveals the angel and the demon in man.

Our composite race evinced on both sides in the struggle the special traits of its near and remote ancestors. The good and bad were strangely mingled. So it has ever been in wars, especially in wars between people of the same race. Ours gave a powerful emphasis to this sad truth.

Sincere piety, brazen wickedness; pure public virtue, sordid baseness; lofty patriotism, despicable time-serving; consecration to a sacred cause and shameless abandonment of principle, appeared in every section of the country.

To the people of the Old World the war must have been a subject of interest and wonder. 

The rapid transformation of peaceful citizens into excellent soldiers must have created among them surprise, if not alarm; the ingenuity and skill displayed in the preparation of war material revealed a progress in this direction which they hardly dreamed that we had made; the steady valor of many battlefields assured them that the American veteran of twenty months was not inferior to the European veteran of twenty years. 

The atrocities of the war must have shaken their faith in the sincerity of a people who subscribed the code of nations, and professed to regard the Bible as a revelation from Heaven. On the other hand, the patient endurance of hardships, toil, and all manner of privation by a people whom they had been educated to look upon as voluptuous, tyrannical, and effeminate, by reason of their peculiar institutions, must have filled them with astonishment, if not with admiration. The leading public journal of the world thus described the impression made on the European mind by the attitude of the Southern people: "The people of the Confederate States have made themselves famous. If the renown of brilliant courage, stern devotion to a cause, and military achievements almost without a parallel, can compensate men for the toil and privations of the hour, then the countrymen of Lee and Jackson may be consoled amid their sufferings. From all parts of Europe, from their enemies as well as from their friends, from those who condemn their acts as well as those who sympathize with them, comes the tribute of admiration.

"When the history of this war is written the admiration will doubtless become deeper and stronger, for the veil which has covered the South will be drawn away and disclose a picture of patriotism, of unanimous self-sacrifice, of wise and firm administration, which we can now only see indistinctly.

"The details of that extraordinary national effort, which has led to the repulsion and almost to the destruction of an invading force of more than half a million of men will then become known to the world; and whatever may be the fate of the new nationality, or its subsequent claims to the respect of mankind, it will assuredly begin its career with a reputation for genius and valor which the most famous nations might envy."

Such were the compliments which the South wrung from reluctant and opposing nationalities by the genius and ability she displayed in her struggle for independence.

But there is one aspect of the war, on the Southern side, which has been almost wholly overlooked by statesmen and politicians. We mean its religious aspect. "Whatever may be the judgment of the world as to the principles on which the Southern people entered into the strife, it must be admitted that they brought with them into it, and carried with them through it, a deep and strong religious element. Their convictions of right in what they did were second only to their convictions of the truth of the Christian religion. Nor has the stern logic of events eradicated this conviction from the Southern mind. The cause is lost, but its principles still live, and must continue to live so long as there remains in human nature any perception and appreciation of justice, truth, and virtue.

The great moral phenomenon of the war was the influence and power of religion among the Southern soldiers. War is a dreadful trade, and the camp has always been regarded as the best appointed school of vice; the more wonderful then is it to see the richest fruits of grace growing and flourishing in such a soil.

Christianity visits and reforms every grade of human society; and some of its greatest miracles of grace are wrought upon the most wicked subjects, and in the worst localities. "The Gospel is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth;" and this blessed truth has been as fully tested amid the horrors of war as in the sweet day's of peace. We do not usually consider how important a part military characters have borne in the history of our religion. True, it is not to be propagated by means of the sword; and let many who have borne the sword have been its bright ornaments, and sometimes its most successful preachers.

The soldiers mentioned in the New Testament have great interest connected with their brief history, and some of them are models of faith and piety.

Among the anxious multitudes that flocked to the preaching of John the Baptist, there were soldiers who put in their question as well as others, "saying, and what shall we do?" To whom the Baptist replied, "Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely and be content with your wages." Thus from the beginning did the "men of war" receive the truth.

Was it not a Centurion, a Roman captain of a hundred men, that gave that simple and beautiful illustration of his faith as he kneeled before the Saviour praying for his servant? How pure must have been his life, and how clear and strong his faith, to bring from our Lord that high commendation, " Verily, I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel."

We cannot forget that amidst the darkness and horror of the crucifixion conviction seized the heart of another Roman soldier, and while the Jews derided the suffering Christ, he exclaimed, "Truly this man was the Son of God."

It was in the house of Cornelius of the Italian band, ''a devout man, that feared God with all his house, who gave much alms to the people, and prayed to God always," that the gospel message was opened to the heathen world. To this godly soldier an angel was sent to assure him that his "prayers and his alms had come up for a memorial before God." On him, his family, and his "devout soldiers," the Holy Ghost fell while Peter preached, and like as it was on the day of Pentecost, they "spake with tongues and magnified God." Thus, at the headquarters of the "Italian band" at Caesarea was the first Church of Gentile converts established.

Centurion Julius, of "Augustus band," under whose charge Paul was sent to Rome, was a kind-hearted, gallant soldier, if not a Christian; for he "entreated the Apostle courteously," and gave him liberty when they touched at Sidon, "to go unto his friends and refresh himself" And when Paul and his companions were shipwrecked on the island of Malta, another soldier, "whose name was Publius," "the chief man," or governor, "received them and lodged them three day's courteously." It was doubtless under a deep sense of this man's kindness that St. Paul prayed for his sick father, and laid his hands on him and healed him."

In every age of the Church since, soldiers have been found among the most zealous and devoted followers of the Redeemer.

When Christianity was made popular by the example and patronage of Roman Emperors, of course thousands of all classes flocked to her standard; but history' also shows that every rise of the pure faith in ages of superstition and ignorance, every genuine revival, has been sustained and helped forward by military men. Among the Reformers in Germany in France, and in England, there were "devout soldiers," who wielded the sword of the Spirit as valiantly- against the enemies of the Lord as they did the sword of war against the enemies of their country.

Whatever some may think of Oliver Cromwell, there is no doubt that he was a devout and earnest Christian, and that there was much sound religion among his invincible "Ironsides." He talks of experimental religion as no man could who had not felt its inward and renewing power. After a number of fruitless efforts against the Royalists, he determined to rally " men of religion" to his cause, convinced that "with a set of poor tapsters and town apprentice people" he could never overcome the forces of the King. With these "men of religion" he alway's conquered. They marched into battle singing psalms and shouting such watchwords as, "The Lord of Hosts!" How far their invincibility was grounded in their religion, Cromwell shall judge for us: "Truly I think he that prays and preaches best will fight best. I know nothing that will give like courage and confidence as the knowledge of God in Christ will; and I bless God to see any in this army able and willing to impart the knowledge they have for the good of others." From this unfailing source he drew the strength and wisdom so conspicuous in his own deeds. "He seldom fought without some text of Scripture to support him."

In his reverses and victories he saw the hand of God. When his cause looked gloomy he urged his soldiers "to see if any iniquity could be found in them," and to put away "the accursed thing." When victory crowned his arms, he would exclaim, "This is nothing but the hand of God." He taught his soldiers to regard themselves as the "instruments of God's glory'' and their country's good."

In the great revival which prevailed in England under the preaching of Whitefield, the Wesleys, and their associates, godly soldiers bore a conspicuous part. And in America, no lay preacher was more zealous and successful than Captain Thomas Webb, of the British army. Converted under the preaching of John Wesley at Bristol, England, he soon began to recommend in public the grace which had renewed his own heart. Afterwards in America he preached with great fervor, and as he always appeared before the people in his military dress, he attracted large crowds, and many of his hearers felt the power of the gospel proclaimed by this soldier of the Cross.

The name of Col. Gardiner is "like ointment poured forth." Wild and profligate in early life, he strove, after his conversion, to make some amends for his sinful career by his zeal and devotion in the cause of Christ. His full influence for good only the final day will reveal. By the highborn, and the lowly, his religious power was felt and confessed. He found the army an inviting field for Christian effort, and his earnest toil was repaid with richest fruits. One of his dying dragoons said "he should have everlasting reason to bless God on Colonel Gardiner's account, for he had been a father to him in all his interests, both temporal and spiritual."

Such he was to all the men under his command. He fought against every form of vice. "He often declared liis sentiments with respect to profanity at the head of his regiment; and urged his captains and their subalterus to take the greatest care that they did not give the sanction of their example to it."

For every oath a fine was imposed, and the money used to provide comforts for the sick men. Of this plan he says: "I have reformed six or seven field officers of swearing. I dine with them, and have entered them into a voluntary contract to pay a shilling to the poor for every oath; and it is wonderful to observe the effect it has had already. One of them told mc this day at dinner that it had really such an influence upon him, that being at cards last night, when another officer fell a swearing, he was not able to hear it, but rose up and left the. company. So, you see, restraints at first arising from a low principle, may improve into something better."

The renown of Havelock is immortal. But not as a warrior only is he remembered. The odor of his piety and the fruits of his faith will sur\ave the imposing monuments raised in memory of his devotion and valor. He was a brilliant light in the midst of thick darkness. His life was great in deeds of piety; his death was glorious. On a litter, in a soldier's little tent, the stricken warrior lay. "He would allow of no attendance but that of his wounded, gallant boy, On this, the last day of his life, General Outram came to see him. The two friends had often faced death together, and passed through tr^'ing scenes side by side, and a warm affection had sprung up between them. Outram approached the side of the dying hero and inquired how he was. Havelock replied that he never should be any better, "but," he added, " for more than forty years I have so ruled my life that when death came I might face it without fear. I am not in the least afraid. I die happy and contented; to die is gain." Finding himself rapidly failing, he left messages for his wife and children far away on the Rhine, and "then told his son to come and see how a Christian could die." "He sleeps on the field of his fame, and his lonely tomb, beneath the tropical grove, is hung round with unfading laurels, and never will the Christian traveller or soldier pass it without dropping one tear to him who sleeps beneath."

Hedley Vicars was an excellent Christian soldier. In the midst of the dangers attending the hard service in the Crimea he was as peaceful and happy as if reposing quietly with his friends at home. In one of his letters from Sebastopol he say’s to his sister: "It is six months since I have been in reach of a house of prayer, or have had an opportunity of receiving the sacrament; yet never have I enjoyed more frequent or precious communion with my Saviour than I have found in the trenches, or in the tent. When, I should like to know, could we find the Saviour more precious than when the bullets are falling around like hail?" Again he writes: "I have often heard it said, 'the worse man, the better soldier.' Facts contradict this untruth. Were I ever, as the leader of a forlorn hope, allowed to select my men, it would most certainly be from among the soldiers of Christ, for who should fight so fearlessly and brave ly as those to whom death presents no after terrors?"

"You should be braver than the rest of us," said some of his brother officers to Dabney Carr Harrison, one of the heroes of the South in the late war, after witnessing some exhibition of his serene fearlessness in danger. "Why so?" said he, pleasantly. "Because," said they, "you have everything settled for eternity. You have nothing to fear after death." "Well, gentlemen," he said, solemnly, after a moment's pause, "you are right. Everything is settled for eternity; and I have nothing to fear."

General Joseph Warren, the first eminent sacrifice in the Revolutionary war, spent two full hours in prayer the night before the battle of Bunker Hill. "When he rose from his knees, there was no anxiety on his face; all was peace and joyful trust in God. He gave a few simple directions, took a cup of coffee and a light breakfast, and left for the lines on Bunker Hill, where his life was given up, as he had prayed, a cheerful sacrifice for his country."

The bravery of Christian soldiers in battle has been well attested. Some rigid, irreligious disciplinarians are often annoyed by the zeal of godly men in an army, but great commanders like Cromwell and Washington know how to turn this zeal to good account.

An officer once complained to General Andrew Jackson that some soldiers were making a noise in their tent. "What are they doing?" asked the General. "They are praying now, but they have been singing," was the reply. "And is that a crime?" the General demanded. "The articles of war order punishment for any unusual noise," was the reply "God forbid that prayer should be an unusual noise in my camp," said Jackson, and advised the officer to join the praying band.

In a desperate battle a pious cavalryman had his horse killed under him by a cannon ball. "Where is your God now?" exclaimed an ungodly officer near him. He replied, "Sir, he is here with me, and he will bring me out of this battle." The next moment the officer's head was taken off" by a cannon ball. Faith in God gives true courage. A line of battle was formed, and waiting for the word to move on. "I stepped out of the line," says a Christian soldier, "and threw myself on the ground, and prayed that God would deliver me from all fear and enable me to behave as a Christian and good soldier. Glory be to God, he heard my cry and took away all my fear. I came into the ranks again, and had both peace and joy in the Holy Ghost." Another, as he marched to battle, exclaimed, in the fullness of hope, "I am going to rest in the bosom of Jesus!" When the day closed he was in heaven.

Such honor God puts upon his faithful servants, even amidst the sins of the camp and the horrors of the battle-field. In the Southern armies the moral miracles were as great as ever appeared among armed men since the dawn of Christianity And among the sad memories of our struggle, the recollection of the great and blessed work of grace that swept through all military grades, from the General to the drummer-boy, is "the silver lining" to the dark and heavy cloud of war that shook its terrors on our land. 

William W. Bennett, A Narrative of the Great Revival In the Southern Army (Philadelphia: Claxton, Remsen & Haffelfinger, 1877), 7-16.


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