“Think of the many poor souls”: The Civil War as Missionary Opportunity

Friday, January 7, 2011: 9:50 AM
Room 208 (Hynes Convention Center)
Kathryn Gin , Yale University
In an October 1863 diary entry, Illinois native and Union soldier Lewis N. T. Allen described his feelings upon seeing the bleached bones and bodies of the slain at Vicksburg. Their bodies might rot, he noted, but “the soul must live not with the body, but in an eternal world, eather [sic] in happiness and bliss, or in torment forever.” He continued: “It is enough to make ones heart sucken [sic] to walk over the ground when a battle has been fought, and think of the many poor souls, that have departed there, and many that have not been prepaired [sic] for that separation.”

Allen’s belief that slain soldiers’ souls were not immediately destined for heaven without the proper “preparation,” contrasts with hagiographic postwar literature that definitively placed the valiant dead in a heaven much like home. When and why did this shift, from warning to virtual worship of the dead, occur?

To answer this question, this paper draws on sources ranging from the manuscript diaries of soldiers and chaplains, to the published tracts distributed among soldiers by agencies like the American Tract Association and the Evangelical Tract Society. It explores the range of the belief—that soldiers’ service in the war did not guarantee their eternal welfare—among Civil War chaplains, evangelical organizations, and soldiers themselves, both North and South. It argues that chaplains and evangelical agencies initially saw the conflict not only as a “just war” pitting the holy against the unholy—a trope scholars have long parsed—but also as a grand missionary opportunity that forced men to think about the state of their souls. The paper also looks at how the belief changed over time and in encounter with the harsh realities of the war itself—violence, illness, injury, and the increasing scale of death.