The Civil War produced four years of hope, and then heartbreak, which challenged the fabric of all Southerners. Religion, however, was where whites continued to inspire each other and reaffirm their sacred beliefs. As Richmond burned, whites hid behind their shutters and blinds, but blacks praised God and rejoiced – celebrating, dancing, and bowing to Union troops. One Richmonder said, “Our servants were completely crazed. They danced and shouted, men hugged each other, and women kissed … imagine the streets crowded with these people.” Among whites there was disbelief. As whites watched blacks dancing and singing praises of thanks to God, the twisted notion that it had been a good thing must have seemed like a bad dream.
With the end of slavery the Christian virtues supporting it were discredited by federal law. At first there was shock and denial throughout the South and especially in its churches. This quickly turned into confusion and chaos as theologians rushed to find their voices. The problem was that their voices came, but they were not in harmony.
Some informed their congregations that Satan had won the war, and addressed their parishioners in apocalyptic terms. According to Richmond pastor Moses Hoge, the world was going to end and that time was near. The British theologian John Cummings went further when he stated in a published article, that “God would return to earth in 1867 and the world would cease to exist.” Other pastors shared Cummings’s and Hoge’s belief of gloom and dread, one parishioner writing, “the clouds and darkness are round us; we are a deserted and smitten people.”
Other pastors told their flocks a different story. Reverend John B. Adger of South Carolina informed his congregation that God was unhappy with whites, not because of slavery, but because white churches had not done enough to evangelize slaves. Providing religious education to blacks had been a theme that Thornton Stringfellow had preached for decades. Soon white Baptists began discussing the idea of providing Sunday school for blacks.
The majority of pastors reluctantly accepted their loss as a sign of God’s condemnation of them. The war had caused the severing of relationships between sister churches of the North and South, and now Southern churches wanted those relationships to be reinstated. The Northern churches, however, insisted that Southerners first repent for their sins of slavery.
A Georgia pastor had the courage to tell his congregation that “we have sinned” and “we have all been mistaken” and finally “God has destroyed slavery because of our sins in connection with it as a system.” He was dismissed, however, by his church board. It is likely that many felt this way, but were just too afraid to publicly voice it so strongly.
As churches resolved their initial theological crisis they soon began to express humanitarian concerns about the newly freed blacks. It is impossible to know just how sincere these concerns were. Church paternalism was meant to be understood as an expression of love and concern. It could have been motivated by whites trying to prevent blacks from “causing” what they perceived as “trouble” in their society.
During the early years after the war Southern churches seemed to be stuck between the old and new arguments about blacks. Instead of fading with time, the influence of Thornton Stringfellow’s writings grew stronger. In the white community arguments about blacks rose to a higher level – apocalypse and visions of racial genocide. The animosity towards blacks grew while both races tried to live together in the new society.
One in five Southern white men had died in the war. With its main source of labor gone, the South was faced with severe poverty. By 1870 Southern households averaged less than half the income of Northern ones. Church ideology was shaped by the growing hostilities and tensions of Reconstruction, a well as the realties of poverty and the constant mourning of both their loved ones, and way of life.