TTU history instructor makes groundbreaking study of Confederate soldiers' faith

How do Christian soldiers reconcile the glory of their faith with the horror of war?

With the war in Iraq, that question is as relevant today as ever, but historians have largely overlooked the topic, said Kent Dollar, assistant professor of history at Tennessee Tech University.

His book, Soldiers of the Cross, published in September by Mercer University Press, examines the impact of war on the religious faith of nine Confederate Christian soldiers from different denominations, military rankings, states and professions.

“What I found was that the war seemed to have a maturing effect on their faith,” he said. “Similar to Christians of today who suffer a crisis or loss and become closer to God as a result, the Civil War seemed to strengthen the faith of all nine of these men.”

Historians have generally assumed that Christian soldiers on both sides of the Civil War experienced an initial period of “back-sliding” when presented with the temptations of drinking, gambling, swearing, stealing and other vices that were often common in Army camps, and that they returned to their faith only toward or at the end of the war.

Dollar’s findings, however, indicate that many Christian soldiers not only remained firm in their beliefs — privately reading the Bible, praying, worshipping and communing with God even in the absence of organized religious services — but became even more committed to their faith as the war progressed.

“They felt that their lives and the safety of their families were in God’s hands, so they placed their trust in him and relied on him for protection,” he said. “As the Lord proved faithful to them, they acknowledged it with thanks and expressed a willingness to trust him further.”

Of the nine men Dollar studied, three were long-time Christians, three were recent Christians, and three experienced conversions during the war.

“And during the war, all these men grew in their emulation of Christ’s virtues,” Dollar continued. “Not only did they become more spiritually minded, but their worship became less denominational and more ecumenical and took on new significance. They exhibited more humility, and they sought to serve God more actively.”

In fact, the seven men Dollar studied who survived the war went on to fulfill formal roles in leadership positions of their local churches.

One of them, Giles Cooke, who worked on Gen. Robert E. Lee’s staff and experienced a wartime conversion, eventually even served as pastor of an African-American Episcopal church.

“The social aspect of religion in the Civil War is a developing field of study, and I’m still very intrigued by it and plan to research it further,” Dollar said. “My next project will be to study the faith of both Union and Confederate soldiers in the initial months of the Civil War.”

Soldiers of the Cross is available for $35 per copy from Mercer University Press.

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