April 12, 2011 marked the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War (better described as The War Between the States, or more precisely The War of Northern Aggression). One of the seldom heard facts about the War is that, among all of the bloodshed and brokenness, a great revival of Christianity took place. War has a way of driving atheism out of its participants and the War Between the States was no different. Men of great Christian character fought on both sides of the divide—some wore gray, some wore blue—but the army of northern Virginia seemed to have an unusual wealth in this regard. While the stalwart leadership of Generals Lee and Jackson no doubt had something to do with it, the honor and integrity of the group as a whole was noted by all, friend and foe alike.
Dr. J. William Jones, a chaplain with the Virginia army, was a witness and a participant to the entire war. He writes: “It was my proud privilege to follow the fortunes of [the northern Virginia] army, as private soldier or chaplain, from Harper’s Ferry in 1861 to Appomattox Court House in 1865—to know personally many of its leading officers—to mingle freely with the private soldiers in camp, on the march, in the bivouac, on the battle-field, and in the hospital—and to labor in those glorious revivals which made nearly the whole army vocal with God’s praises” (p. 6). In addition to being present throughout the whole ordeal, Dr. Jones kept numerous diaries and wrote many articles for newspapers while in the field. These documents, and numerous interviews with other eyewitnesses form the basis for the astounding story contained in his book, Christ in the Camp (or Religion in the Confederate Army).
In our modern day, 150 years later, we tend to forget the enormous loss of life that took place in the bloody battles and skirmishes between 1861 and 1865. We find it easy to quibble and argue over the ideological aspects of the War Between the States, overlooking the devastating toll that the war had on the nation’s fathers, sons, and husbands. Theologian R.L. Dabney lamented that “early in the war, when the stream of our noblest blood began to flow so liberally in battle, I said to an honored citizen of my State, that it was so uniformly our best men who were made the sacrifice there was reason to fear that the staple and pith of the people of the South would be permanently depreciated. His reply was: ‘There is no danger of this while the women of the South are what they are. Be assured the mothers will not permit the offspring of such martyr-sires to depreciate.’” ((Robert L. Dabney, “The Duty of the Hour,” Discussions, Vol. 4, 120.)) The reply of this “honored citizen” was prophetic, not only to the preservation of the South, but to the future of the entire country. The mothers, daughters, and wives of the war get forgotten about, just as the strong character of the men on the battlefield receives little attention as being the primary impetus and motivator of the efforts of Reconstruction after the war. Although history may have forgotten these influences, Dr. Jones did not.
In his “Introduction” to Dr. Jones’ book, Rev. J.C. Granberry, a fellow chaplain in the northern Virginia army, writes this:
To us of the South, this volume possesses special interest. For the men who wore the blue we have no unkindness; we are ready to cast flowers on the neatly-kept graves of those who fell, and to clasp the hands of those who survive; but the men who wore the gray are our brothers, defenders, heroes. The ex-Confederate may now be a Democrat or a Republican; he may reside in Florida or Washington Territory: but his heart will be still and cold in death when it ceases to throb and warm at the mention of the soldiers of the South, whether they sleep as the greater part do, or yet live. How grateful then to us should be the story of what divine grace did for those brave men; how it exalted and hallowed their character, comforted them amid all their risks and sufferings, inspired the dying, whatever may have been the issue of the day, with immortal triumph, and continues to be in peace as in war the guide and joy of those whom battle, accident and disease have spared!
But the value of this book is not restricted by sectional, partisan, or national lines. It is independent of all political and social questions involved in the civil strife. These pages do not discuss slavery, State-rights, secession; nor compare the skill of generals and prowess of troops on the opposing sides. Christ in the Camp; or, Religion in the Army, never mind what camp or army, is a theme of deep, thrilling, world-wide significance. The only triumphs the author records are the triumphs of the cross. That so many soldiers were saved by the power of the Gospel to the praise of the riches of God’s grace is the fact in which he desires all Christians to rejoice. Some narrow and prejudiced Federals may not be able to understand how it was possible for those men to be saved without repenting of “the sin of rebellion.” We cannot waste time on them. Those of broader views and more generous spirit, especially godly men who followed the Stars and Stripes, will thank God for the evidence that the soldiers who opposed them with constancy and valor, many shedding their lifeblood on the field, were partakers of like precious faith with themselves. To me it is a happy thought that in the two confronting camps, often at the same hour, there rose with voice and heart the common strain, “All hail the power of Jesus’ name!” (p. 14-15)
What a message for the political divides of our own day. The campaign promises of President Obama to soften the hard lines of partisan politics have been shown to be nothing more than empty words. The political arena of the 21st century is as intensely polarized as the one from the 1860s. The Mason-Dixon line no longer forms the boundary between political rivals, but the colors of red and blue on a U.S. map do much the same thing. Only the Gospel of Jesus Christ holds the real power to cross political (and state) lines and unite the country. Dr. Jones’ book is a testimony that it happened once, and that it can happen again. Christ in the Camp should be required reading for every U.S. citizen.
In the “Preface” to the second edition, published in 1904, Dr. Jones had this to say about his book:
In sending out this edition, with the notable improvements made by the Publishers, public sentiment in this section appeals to all interested in this most important chapter of the history of our grand old army, to see to it that it is put into the libraries and homes of our people that the story of how Christ was in the Camp may be read by the present generation, and handed down to our children’s children.
The book is sent forth with the fervent prayer that yet more in the future than in the past, it may prove useful in showing our young people the power of religion to promote real manhood, and in leading our old soldiers to follow their Christian leaders, and comrades, “even as they, also, followed Christ.”
Although our own generation is more than 100 years removed from when Dr. Jones penned these words, it is my prayer that his “fervent prayer” would be answered in our day. The America of 2009 is exactly the audience that needs to be taught and exposed to the Christ that was “in the Camp” of both the Confederate and the Union armies. May He be pleased to visit us in both our Red and our Blue states.