Monday, February 3, 2014

The Astonishing Dalton Revival, 1864

During its 5 months in winter quarters at Dalton, Georgia, in 1864, the Army of Tennessee began to experience a remarkable outpouring of spiritual revival. Soldiers and officers alike made professions in Jesus Christ as Savior as Christian revival spread through every regiment.

The signs of spiritual renewal began the previous winter as the army took up its quarters in Tullahoma following the Battle of Murfreesboro (see "Ministering to soldiers' spiritual needs"). Through the early months  of encampment in 1863, army chaplains, local pastors, and even soldiers and officers regularly preached to the troops. Bibles and Christian publications were freely distributed among the men. So well received was this Christian literature that calls went out to the public pleading for more. In William J. Hardee's Corps, for example, his Presbyterian chaplain, J.H. Bryson, wrote a joint letter of appeal with another Episcopal chaplain, C.T. Quintard,
We feel that we need only mention the fact that our brave soldiers are asking for the Word of Life in order to secure from a generous public the most liberal contributions. Who can withhold, when the sick and wounded who fill our hospitals ask for the word of God to cheer and sustain them during their days of affliction, their nights of weariness and suffering? We feel confident that there are many who will give neither grudgingly nor of necessity, but with cheerful hearts and liberal hands. The religious interests of our soldiers demand and must receive prompt attention from every lover of good order, civil liberty, and piety towards God.
Dalton, Georgia, 1880
Source: Georgia Archives

Thousands of appeals like this were made, and there was a tremendous response by Southern churches and individuals. Thus the seeds of the great revival to come in the west were sown in camp during the early months of the war.

Chaplains and ministers recorded many accounts of great revival throughout the armies in the east and west.1 J. William Jones's Christ in the Camp and W.W. Bennett's, The Great Revival in the Southern Armies are two comprehensive and compelling collections of these accounts, and I'm pleased to have both in my library. Many eyewitness descriptions were made by soldiers in letters home or in published accounts provided after the war. My own great grandfather, Nathan Oakes, a private in Hardee's Corps, was a witness to these amazing events. In fact, the Confederate Veteran published a couple of his letters to the editor, one in which he wrote of a close comrade who made a profession of faith during this period at Dalton.

Sadly, overlooked by most Civil War historians is this compelling phenomenon of religious revival in the Southern armies. The Army of Tennessee at Dalton, now under the command of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, was ground zero for the spiritual rebirth of thousands. Rev. W.W. Bennett noted, "The work at Dalton while the army lay there was almost without parallel. In the coldest and darkest nights of winter the rude chapels were crowded, and at the call for penitents hundreds would bow down in sorrow and tears."

That the seeds had been sown for missionary work is evident in the words of Rev. S.M. Cheery, chaplain in Bate's Brigade: "Often I am approached by the soldiers, who inquire, "Parson, is there no chance to get a Bible. I am very anxious to procure a copy, and am willing to pay any price for a pocket-Bible." We are unable to supply one-fourth of the demand for the Scriptures..."

Rev. A.D. McVoy of the 38th Alabama in Stewart's Corps, wrote on February 3rd about the spread of spiritual revival in his brigade and throughout the division.
We have a large Brigade church built, in which we have been holding services for two weeks. About ten days ago we commenced a series of nightly meetings; at first more on the order of prayer-meetings, but the interest began to increase so rapidly that in three nights we found a revival springing up in our midst. Great crowds gather nightly. We find our church too small. Large numbers are seeking the Lord—forty to fifty every night. The word of God and religious services seem to be better appreciated than ever before in this brigade. Men's minds appear to dwell more on religion and the soldiers more concerned about their soul's eternal welfare... The prospect before us is very encouraging. Wickedness and vice seem restrained. Members of the Churches are becoming revived. The Spirit of the Holy One is present and felt. Good resolutions are being formed in every regiment. A number are endeavoring to fulfill their promises made to God upon the eve of and during the late battles. We are expecting and praying for great things.
And the spiritual fervor was not only evident among the soldiers. Gens. John B. Hood, Otto Strahl, and even Joseph E. Johnston himself were baptized. Gens. William Hardee and Daniel Govan were confirmed in the Episcopal Church. In fact, many other officers in Johnston's army were influential in fanning the flames of the Dalton revival. Rev. J.J. Hutchinson reported of what he witnessed:
Ten days ago Gen. Pendleton, a hero of Manassas memory, preached to the soldiers at Dalton. General Johnston and very many other officers were present. On the same day Major-General Stewart, who is an Elder in the Presbyterian Church, assisted in this brigade in the administration of the sacrament of the Lord's supper. On the same day I preached to Gen. Finley's brigade, where the General and his staff were present, and where he united audibly with our prayers.
Hutchinson's account continues with a mention of Maj. Gen. Patrick R. Cleburne, who, according to author John Wesley Brinsfield, had constructed in the center of his division a platform specifically for religious services. Hutchinson also was quite impressed with Brig. Gen. Mark P. Lowrey, a Baptist minister before the war, now commanding a brigade including my great grandfather's 32nd Mississippi Infantry Regiment. 
Gen. Cleburne, the hero of many battle-fields, treated me with much attention and kindness—had a place prepared for preaching in the center of his division, where himself and most of his officers were present, and where I was assisted by Brigadier-General Lowry [sic], who sat in the pulpit with me and closed the services of the hour with prayer. I partook of the hospitality of Gen. L. at dinner, and spent several delightful hours in profitable religious conversation. The General is a Baptist preacher, and like the commander of the division, is a hero of many well-fought battle-fields. He takes great interest in the soldiers' religious welfare, often preaches to them, and feels that the ministry is still his high and holy calling. I wish I had the space to give you more of his interesting life's history, and to speak of this noble and pious officer as he deserves.
On another occasion, Rev. A.A. Worrell along with other ministers, including Gen. Lowrey, held a series of meetings for soldiers gathered in the camp. Lowrey preached on the text from Revelation 3:20, "Behold! I stand at the door and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open unto me, I will come in, and sup with him, and he with me." Worrell recalled, "The sermon was clear, pointed, strong, and persuasive; and, at its close, many came forward for prayer and instruction. How many were converted that night I do not know; but I believe there were many."

Rev. Brig. Gen. Mark Lowrey
Of this period of Christian revival in Dalton, reaching its climax in camp in April-May, but continuing throughout the entire Atlanta Campaign, Gen. Lowrey makes humble mention of his role in his autobiography:
I often preached in camp. While in camp at Dalton, Ga., in the Spring of 1864, there was a general revival of religion in the army, and I participated in it, preaching very often to my command. Within two weeks, I baptized over 50 of my own men in camp, on the march, and in the field.2
As Lowrey's words indicate, the revival didn't stop when in May the Confederates broke camp at Dalton. Bennett writes, "The constant movements of the armies in all sections of the South at this period of the war greatly interfered with the work of the revival; but the fire still burned and often on the outer lines the most delightful meetings were held in which many gave their hearts to God." 

Indeed, wrote Rev. McVoy about the battles the army fought in its retreat toward Atlanta, "The work of God is going on amid the cannon's roar, the fatiguing monotony of the trenches, and the heroic movements of the picket line. Religion is infusing a spirit of fortitude, endurance, and determination into the hearts of the soldiers that no hardship, no suffering, can undermine or break down."

No doubt in the months of conflict after Atlanta, when disappointments and the deprivations of war were at their most extreme, the comfort and hope received at Dalton helped sustain the army. The revival, which reached its apex at Dalton, made Christian believers out of at least a third of the army. The eastern army experienced a similar result. "The discipline of war was terrible to the people of the south," writes Rev. Bennett, "but in the end it was beneficial. In the midst of desolation and blood they turned their thoughts to Him who holds in his hands the destinies of nations, and out of great sufferings the patience and faith of the gospel shone forth in brightness and power." He concludes his book, published a decade after the war, by observing the spiritual and cultural effects of the Great Revival in the Confederate Armies on the Southern people:
Strange as it may seem to many readers, the call to preach the gospel of Christ came to the hearts of the men of war on the tented field; and no sooner were their carnal weapons laid aside than they buckled on the Divine armor, and, seizing the sword of the Spirit, entered the battle against the powers of darkness. In this we find one of the strongest proofs of the genuineness of the Army Revival. Truly, its fruits are still enduring. Thousands who were participants in that glorious and, to some, strange work, have passed the flood of death and are seen no more among men, but the seed they sowed in trench and camp and hospital, in the bivouac, and on the weary march, was watered from above and has borne a rich harvest. And may we not hope that the full fruition of this work is to be realized in that era of peace and good will which is even now descending upon our common country?
In so many ways, the War Between the States has no parallel in history. But particularly in its astonishing Christian revivalism and reformation is it distinguished from all other wars, at least since Cromwell's New Model Army. "Whatever may be the judgment of the world as to the principles on which the Southern people entered into the strife," writes Bennett, "it must be admitted that they brought with them a strong religious element. Their convictions of right in what they did were second only to their convictions of the truth of the Christian religion."

Indeed, the wave of Christian conversion and renewal wasn't contained only within the Army of Tennessee. Lee's army in Virginia experienced a similar revival that swept through his entire army.

Lt. Thomas J. Stokes of Cleburne's Division at Dalton, wrote home in April 1864 to his sister, Mary Gay, "General Lowry [sic] baptized about thirteen of them who were from his brigade. He is a Christian, a soldier and a zealous preacher, and his influence is great. It was truly a beautiful sight to see a general baptizing his men. He preaches for our brigade next Sabbath." The revival continued right up to the Federal attack on the Confederate stronghold at Dalton in early May. Stokes writes again on May 5, 
The great revival is going on with widening and deepening interest. Last Sabbath I saw eighty-three immersed at the creek below our brigade. Four were sprinkled at the stand before going down to the creek, and two down there, making an aggregate within this vicinity of eighty-nine, while the same proportion, I suppose, are turning to God in other parts of the army, making the grand aggregate of many hundreds. Yesterday I saw sixty-five more baptized, forty more who were to have been there failing to come because of an order to be ready to move at any moment. They belong to a more distant brigade... If we do not move before Monday, Sabbath will be a day long to be remembered—‘the water will,’ indeed, ‘be troubled.’ Should we remain three weeks longer, the glad tidings may go forth that the Army of Tennessee is the army of the Lord. But He knoweth best what is for our good, and if He sees proper can so order His providence as to keep us here. His will be done.
Sources: The Great Revival in the Southern Armies, W.W. Bennett; Christ in the Camp, J. William Jones; The Spirit Divided: Memoirs of Civil War Chaplains: The Confederacy, John Wesley Brinsfield; Confederate Veteran, Vol. 7, 1899; Mark P. Lowrey AutobiographyLife in Dixie During the War 1861-1862-1863-1864-1865, Mary A.H. Gay


To view my blog about my great grandfather, Nathan Oakes, and the
32nd Mississippi Infantry Regiment in which he served in the Army of Tennessee,

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