Christ in the Camp: Religion in Lee's Army

On Wednesday March 11th, 2009 I had the privilege of speaking to members of the Spotsylvania Presbyterian Church's Adult Ministry as part of their Christian Classics book review program. The title I selected was "Christ in the Camp," by the Reverend J. William Jones. The transcripts of my 60-minute lecture are below:


Good evening ladies and gentlemen.

I would like to thank Roy Hazelwood for inviting me to participate in the 'Christian Classics' series here at SPC. I have thoroughly enjoyed the variety of titles and presentations that we have shared so far and I hope my presentation tonight merits your attention too.

Most of the books that we have reviewed so far have been theological studies. They have defined what faith is, and taught us how to apply it in our daily lives. Every one of these lessons has been a blessing. The book that I am going to review tonight is more of a straight-forward historical record that depicts the impact that faith had during the Civil War, (or the War Between the States for you locals). It is a testimony that recalls the experiences of believers both on the battlefield and off. As you can see this is a rather large book (600+ pages), but I can promise you that it is not a cumbersome read. In fact it is the kind of book that you can read a few chapters, put down for a few weeks, and then come back to. I spent months working through the book.

The title is "Christ in the Camp," and it is considered to be THE definitive study of the role that religion played in the Army of Northern Virginia. In fact the original subtitle is "Religion in Lee's Army." Released in 1886, it has been reprinted many times over the years through multiple publishers. I have quoted passages from this book in virtually every book I've written on the Civil War and it's among my personal favorites.

Before I get into the root of the book, I want to share a little background on its author, the Reverend J. William Jones.


Rev. Jones (on the LEFT) was an extraordinary man who wrote a series of critically acclaimed books on the southern armies including "Stonewall Jackson: A Military Biography," "Personal Reminiscences of General Robert E. Lee," "The Morale of the Confederate Armies," and a "Memorial Volume of Jefferson Davis."

The good reverend has been referred to as the "evangelist of the Lost Cause." Some have even gone as far as to proclaim him as the most important writer of the time due to his role in preserving the stories of religion during the war. He was so well respected that the Lee family actually commissioned him as Robert E. Lee's official biographer shortly after the general died. If you're a Confederate historian, you can't get a bigger endorsement than that.

Jones was also the Secretary for the Southern Historical Society which was a public organization founded by Confederate Major General Dabney H. Maury (on the RIGHT) in 1868-1869 and documented Southern military and civilian viewpoints from the American Civil War until now. These studies were compiled into the Southern Historical Society Papers, published in the late 19th Century, comprising 52 volumes of articles written by Southern soldiers, officers, politicians, and civilians. Many of them are available online. Obviously all of Jones' work favors the South's perspective, so please keep that in mind. His bias is understandable as he was an ardent secessionists and supporter of the Confederate States of America. His political views however do not dampen his enthusiasm for the Word of God.

In his book "Christ in the Camp," Rev. Jones' main character is faith. It is the foundation of the entire piece. What I like about it is that the lessons that can be learned from the 1800's are still just as relevant today. Let's examine this remarkable title and then I will be happy to answer any questions that you may have.

The description of the plot by the publisher does an excellent job of outlining the premise and I'll read it here:

In the midst of the titanic struggle of the American War Between the States, a spiritual war for the souls of men was waged with equal vigor. From 1861 to 1865, many thousands of soldiers professed Christ as their Savior and Lord, and many more were renewed in their commitment to serve God in camp and battlefield.

Herein are recorded stories of the heroism of chaplains who stood in the line of battle to minister to the fallen and to work at the bedside of fatally ill comrades. Some of the army pastors were themselves counted among the slain. It tells of worship services in camps attended by ten, a hundred, or a thousand men gathered to hear the Word of God expounded. Here, too, we read of the Christian generals who supported the many facets of Gospel work: Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Jeb Stuart, and others.

The Bible-centered, Christ-centered ministry of Christian chaplains should come as no surprise to even the casual observer of United States history. The American Civil War, especially, provided abundant evidence of the work of God through chaplains and other Christians in the armies. Historian Mark Noll in a recent lecture entitled "The Civil War as a Theological Crisis" stated that "religion was the number one most important cultural norm [in the United States] in 1860 ... at least one third of Americans were members of churches and total attendees of worship services were at least two times the formal membership." Five million men voted in the 1860 election - fifteen million Americans were regular churchgoers! Therefore, ninety-five percent of the churches in America in 1860 were Protestant.

So that gives a little overview of the book's focus.


Let's begin by briefly looking at the subject of faith and its impact during one of the darkest periods in American history. Religion in America during the 19th-Century, more specifically, Protestantism, was a major brick in the foundation of the nation. Religion played a vital role politically, socially, and of course spiritually.

Therefore it is no surprise that faith remained a welcome companion to both soldiers in the field and citizens on the home front. It is my opinion that Christianity was also a major factor during the reconciliation and reconstruction years that followed the war. And although I am speaking about the War Between the States, this is true of all wars. There is an old saying that goes "There are no Atheists in foxholes" and with no disrespect to our non-believing friends, I have to agree.

To this day, casualties from the American Civil War (620,000+) still exceed our country's losses in all other military conflicts. From 1861 to 1865, both sides suffered tremendous fatalities (almost 2% of the population was lost) and the subsequent damage to the country's infrastructure cost millions to rebuild. Perhaps if either army could have foreseen the tragedy that would befall them, a compromise may have been offered in place of musket fire.

Still, one cannot deny the fact that one of the positive repercussions of the War Between the States was the number of soldiers that were baptized in the field. Many troops became 'born-again' during the later years of the war as things became more desperate and hopeless. The romance and pageantry that had once attracted volunteers by the thousands at the beginning of the conflict wore away as the blood-soaked killing fields spread like a cancer across the country. From firesides of the Eastern Campaign here in Virginia to the army campsites of Tennessee, soldiers came to Christ by the thousands.

However, according to some accounts, religion did not accompany many soldiers at the start of the war. The magazine 'Christianity Today' recalled the trials and tribulations with living a Godly life while on campaign. It stated: "Day-to-day army life was so boring that men were often tempted to 'make some foolishness,' as one soldier typified it. Christians complained that no Sabbath was observed. General Robert McAllister, an officer who was working closely with the United States Christian Commission, complained that a 'tide of irreligion' had rolled over his army 'like a mighty wave.'" Frankly you had thousands of young men who had never left home, unsupervised, and "off their leashes" so to speak.

Fortunately, as the war progressed, a movement referred to as "The Great Revival" took place in the South. Beginning in the fall of 1863, this event was in full progress throughout the Army of Northern Virginia. Approximately 7,000 rebel soldiers in Robert E. Lee's force were converted before the revival was interrupted by General U.S. Grant's attack in May of 1864.

Dr. Gardiner H. Shattuck, Jr., author of 'A Shield and Hiding Place: The Religious Life of the Civil War Armies,' reports that "The best estimates of conversions in the Union forces place the figure between 100,000 and 200,000 men-about 5-10 percent of all individuals engaged in the conflict. In the smaller Confederate armies, at least 100,000 were converted. Since these numbers include only 'conversions' and do not represent the number of soldiers actually swept up in the revivals-a yet more substantial figure-the impact of revivals during the Civil War surely was tremendous."

Throughout the war the church was repeatedly called upon to meet many new challenges that came with a divided nation. Protecting the sanctity of religious practices remained a top priority for those who were extremely concerned about the repercussions of the wartime climate. First and foremost was the inevitable splitting of the denominations following the South's secession. And although there appeared to be no immediate hostilities harbored by Christian leaders on either side, the fact remained that the political split in the country - also split the church. This had a profound affect on virtually every aspect of their operations.

For example, up until the outbreak of the Civil War, the American Bible Society, based in New York, handled the production and distribution of most Protestant-based materials including Bibles and tracts. After the conflict began, an entirely new system had to be formed in order to meet the needs of the South's congregations. Many of these dilemmas were addressed by the Presbyterian Church's General Assembly.

One major point addressed the need to establish a new chapter of the Bible Society to shoulder the task of producing and distributing religious materials in the Confederate States. Privatized organizations representing a multitude of denominations stepped forward printing and distributing gospel tracts in the field. Another concern pertained to the issue of camp worship and the negative affects of military operations on the Sabbath.