Sunday Morning Politics: Religion During the Crisis of Secession

By Emily Stewart

  • In the years leading up to the outbreak of the Civil War, religion became increasingly political.
  • The Crisis of Secession, from late 1860 to early 1861, was a time when religious leaders, of both the North and the South, began preaching religious sermons that contributed to the outbreak of war.
  • By stepping out of their traditional ministerial roles, religious leaders began a trend of pulpit politics.

“In 1859 I visited Alabama to teach school. The Southern States were in a happy case. They were prosperous. Although, the sparks of jealous discontent, against the Abolitionists of the North, had been irritating the body politic, yet, they had not burst forth into flames of revolution… Education and religion received considerable attention. No one far or near interrupted the people in the administration of their state affairs.”[1]

Religion Becomes More Political

John Henning Woods, a former Alabamian unwillingly conscripted into the confederate forces, wrote several memoirs after his experience serving the South. Woods describes the state if the country throughout his memoirs, by recalling his experience in prison camps, serving the Confederate forces, and his life thereafter. Peppered throughout his writing are statements about religion and God. During this time in our country, religious leaders inserted their political opinions into their sermons during the Crisis of Secession, turning their theological pulpits into political podiums. The specific language of Southern religious figures and institutions led southerners to believe they needed to defend their culture, slaves, and morals. During a time when religious beliefs and practices were a significant aspect of individuals’ lives, religious leaders and religious institutions fanned the flame, intentionally provoking congregations and growing secessionist beliefs before the outbreak of the Civil War.

The sermons of religious leaders and the significance of religious institutions display how the South’s decision to secede was prominently influenced by Northern perspectives regarding the Southern way of life. Moreover, Southerners felt that their way of life was under attack by radical abolitionists and distorted Northern propaganda, leading them to fear for their institutions and cling to their vision of society. Therefore, ministers and churches embraced a highly influential role during a highly uncertain time period of American history.

Ministers and Churches Generate Political Conflict

(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

“Thanksgiving Day Sermon” in November 1860.[2] Throughout his sermon, Thornwell described the Northern attack on slavery as an assault on Southerner’s Constitutional property rights.[3] By preaching on the state of the nation and Southern constitutional concerns, Thornwell directly participated in the conversation of religion in American politics.

James Henley Thornwell. Wikimedia Commons)

Benjamin Morgan Palmer, in “The South: Her Peril, Her Duty,” acknowledged how the Southern system of slavery directly supported Southern society.[4] In this sermon, he argues the South had responsibilities bound to the institution of slavery. The language used throughout Palmer’s sermon shows his personal aim to deepen the growing resistance in the South, encouraging individuals to

“conserve and perpetuate the institution of domestic slavery.”[5]

“The South: Her Peril and Her Duty” provides a great example of a Southern minister using his religious platform to continue the political conflict surrounding his time.

Another Southern minister, Reverend Joseph B. Walker of New Orleans, Louisiana, submitted his thoughts on the matter of secession to a local newspaper, The Mississippian. In this letter, Reverend Walker stated,

“the Methodists of the South would tolerate no invasion of their civil or ecclesiastical rights touching the relation of domestic slavery.”[6]

Preserving and defending slavery proves to be a major theme of Southern religious thought during this time. Not only did Reverend Walker insert his personal political thought in the public realm by submitting this letter, he also made a statement on the behalf of the greater Methodist South. By pulling a larger number of individuals into the secession crisis, Reverend Walker created a scenario in which individuals felt compelled to merge their political viewpoints on behalf of their religious beliefs.

Conflict Turns Into Moral Crisis

Religion’s role during the Crisis of Secession became increasingly significant as its influence turned the conflict into a moral crisis. By responding to the Crisis of Secession, religion changed the focus of the political conflict into a moral issue. Therefore, the stakes were heightened for all Americans during this time of intense political aggression. Individuals depended on guidance from religious leaders and institutions in order to resolve their moral questions and opinions on the matter. During the Crisis of Secession, when the question of slavery moved directly into the political sphere, individuals fiercely turned toward “moralists and Christians for support and guidance.”[7] Therefore, religious leaders and institutions set out to provide guidance for the people of the United States during this specific time of moral questioning.

The influence of religion during the Crisis of Secession became increasingly significant to the conflict, which eventually sparked the bloodiest war in American History, the Civil War. Scholars emphasize the role of religion in the Civil War, as something not heavily considered until more recent decades. Nonetheless, many historians are concurrent with their conclusions.

Concluding Thoughts
Religion during the Antebellum period, in the years before the outbreak of the Civil War, became increasingly more political than in previous periods of history. Rhetoric of ministers changed and resolutions were passed in churches as religion moved from private worship to a public expression of politics. During this time, ministers and congregation not only responded to the political conflict, but also added to the conflict and division. Southern ministers urged Southerners to defend their customs and resist the antics of the North. The church’s leverage during the Crisis of Secession turned the conflict into a moral crisis, heightening the stakes for every American.

The pulpits of the North and South became political podiums to further one’s cause and provide guidance for one’s followers. Therefore, religion deserves more attention when discussing the conflicting values during the Crisis of Secession. America, during a significantly religious time, turned to its religious leaders and religious institutions to try and understand the conflicted state of their nation.


Further Reading

Chesebrough, David B., “God Ordained this War:” Sermons on the Sectional Crisis, 1830-1865. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1991.

Noll, Mark A., The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

Snay, Mitchell, Gospel of Disunion: Religion and Separatism in the Antebellum South. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Wable, George C., God’s Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War. North Carolina Scholarship Online: 2014.



[1]John Henning Woods Papers, Ms2017-030, Special Collections, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Va.

[2]James Henley Thornwell, “The State of the Country,” in Southern Pamphlets on Secession: November 1860- April 1861 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 157.

[3]Thornwell, “The State of the Country,” 170.

[4]Palmer, “The South: Her Peril and Her Duty,” 68.


[6]E. Barksdale, “The Methodist Church South and the Sectional Issue- Letter from Rev. J. B. Walker,” The Mississippian, (Jackson, Mississippi), December 11, 1860.

[7]Palmer, “The South: Her Peril and Her Duty,” 66.


About the Project

This page was created as part of an undergraduate research seminar taught in the Virginia Tech History Department by Professor Paul Quigley in Fall 2017. Views and opinions belong to the student authors.

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