The Third Great Awakening

Greetings, fellow eschatologists! It’s that time again when we take a break from studying what God is going to do in the future and take a look at what He’s done in the past. We’re going to look at the great revival that took place during the Civil War!

Leading up to the Civil War, the Third Great Awakening (a.k.a. the Prayer Revival, 1857–1858) was happening in the nation. During the Prayer Revival, there was an undercurrent of division simmering between the northern and southern states. The divide was caused by the issue of slavery! Some say the Prayer Revival prepared the nation as it headed into Civil War. The revival didn’t prevent the war from happening, but many believe that one of its fruits was that the nation did not split in two but, instead, stayed together. And, most importantly, slavery came to an end. One of the most astonishing aspects of the Prayer Revival is that it continued into the Civil War! With the soldiers! As the war raged on, both the Union and Confederate troops experienced revival! It was called the Soldiers Revival. Stop and think about that for a moment. While the north and south were at war with each other, both armies were experiencing revival in their camps. Keep reading to learn more about this very unique period in our nation’s history!

The Third Great Awakening

Third of a Four-Part Series
By Karen Thompson

A “Peculiar Institution”

Slavery: “The condition of a slave, bondage; the keeping of slaves as a practice or institution.”

The 1860 census said the United States population was 31,443,321. Out of those, nearly four million were people owned by other people. Slaves. The issue of slavery—or as it was called at the time, “a peculiar institution”— was tearing the nation apart. The nation was divided along the Mason-Dixon Line, the boundary separating the slave-owning states and the states where slavery was prohibited. The north wanted an end to slavery, but the south insisted on its continuance. Congress was deadlocked on what to do with this peculiar institution.

You would assume the churches nationwide would have the solution to this deep divide, uniting together to come against this great evil. But you would assume wrong. The very sad reality is that just as the north and south states were divided on this subject, so were the churches. Denominations in the north believed slavery was a sin and preached against it. Sadly, the southern denominations were able to find biblical justification for slavery.

A letter written in 1861 and signed by 100 southern ministers conveyed their thoughts on the justification of slavery. It talked about how slavery was not that bad. The letter expressed how they all grew up among slaves. As ministers, they taught them the Word and ministered to them the ordinances of the faith. The ministers expressed a sincere love for them. They professed an intimate knowledge of the slaves… in health and sickness… in labor and rest… from infancy to old age. The letter goes on and on about how vast their knowledge was on the subject of slavery. They stated that they deplored the abuses in the institution, but in itself, slavery was not “incompatible with our holy Christianity.” The way they saw it, the African should be grateful they were brought to “our land.” Claiming “Divine Providence” had brought them to America so ministers could proclaim to them the word of salvation. Then they made the claim, “The South has done more than any people on earth for the Christianization of the African race.” They said the north’s portrayal of the slaves’ condition was a fictional representation, claiming the condition of the slaves was prosperous and happy, and “would have been yet more so but for the mistaken zeal of abolitionists.” The ministers made it very clear how they felt about slavery, but what was conspicuously absent from their statement was how the slaves felt about being slaves. It was apparent the slaves’ point of view was not even a consideration.

The Simmering Pot Boiled Over

It was America’s acquisition of new territory that caused the issue of slavery to come to a head. The northern states did not want slavery to be legal in the new territories. The southern states strenuously objected to the restriction. They believed restricting slavery in the new territories would bring slavery to an end, which they did not want. The southern states threatened to secede if slavery was banned from the new territories. The issue had been simmering for a long time and was in danger of boiling over.

Everything did boil over when Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 presidential election. Lincoln was the candidate of the Republican Party, the party that was explicitly antislavery. Upon Lincoln’s election, seven southern states immediately seceded and formed the Confederate States of America. On April 12, 1861, the Civil War began when Confederate rebels opened fire on Ft. Sumter. This was the first battle in what is America’s bloodiest war in the history of the United States. The unusual thing about this battle is that neither side suffered any casualties. After the Confederates won the first battle, four more southern states joined the Confederacy. The Confederate States of America consisted of South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina.

The American Civil War took place between the years 1861–1865. After the 11 southern states seceded from the Union, the Union was left with 23 states. The north’s population was 21 million people as opposed to the south’s population of 9 million, and 4 million of them were slaves.

The Soldiers Revival

In the first year of the war, the soldiers weren’t even thinking about spiritual matters. In fact, the army camps were full of profanity, gambling, illicit sex, and drinking. Then various factors began to influence the troops toward spiritual matters. The primary influence was having to face the possibility of death every day. It had a sobering affect.

The first major spiritual influence on the soldiers were the colporteurs sent by the tract and Bible societies as missionaries to the troops; colporteurs traveled around making available Bibles, religious tracts, and the like. These unique missionaries distributed millions of tracts, pocket Bibles, and other religious reading materials to the troops. To both sides, in fact.

The General Association of Baptist churches spent a great deal of money producing tracts, testimonials, and camp hymns. The Methodist Episcopal Church distributed 800,000 pages of tracts. The Evangelical Tract Society in Virginia produced over 50,000,000 pages from 100 different tracts. The soldiers were hungry for spiritual literature, and the colporteurs were a welcome sight when they showed up in the camps. 

Another spiritual influence were the many men who enlisted as chaplains who desired to minister to the spiritual needs of the soldiers. Leadership from both the north and south supported the ministry of chaplains to the troops. One of the chaplains, James Marks, was so concerned about the soldiers’ depression that he used his own money to purchase a tent to hold worship services for the troops. Hundreds of men gave their lives to the Lord through his ministry.  

The greatest spiritual influence that led the soldiers to seek God was the war itself. The carnage produced at the battle at Antietam on September 17, 1862, set off intense spiritual fervor. The battle resulted in a total of 22,719 soldiers being killed or wounded. Reports stated that dead bodies lay strewn on the ground seven to eight deep high. After witnessing the carnage, the surviving soldiers sought God with all their hearts. As a result, revival broke out in camp after camp.

From that point on, the troops made God their priority. In every place they camped, the first thing they did was build log cabins in which to hold Christian services. One of the buildings they built was so large that it could accommodate 1,000 men. The meetings were so fervent that up to 500 men would be born again in just one meeting. One chaplain said his unit experienced 100 converts weekly. At times, prayer and preaching would be continuous for 24 hours a day.

The meetings took many forms; some consisted of just preaching while others were devoted solely to Bible reading. Sometimes the meetings were simply prayer meetings, while others were “experience meetings,” where the soldiers shared testimonies of what the Lord had done for them.

It was estimated that 10 percent or more of all civil war troops in both north and south became new converts. The Union army alone had between 100 and 200 thousand conversions. 11

If Both Sides Were Praying… Whose Prayers Get Answered?

Both the Union and Confederate armies were experiencing revival. And they were both praying to God to win the war. Whose prayers would God answer? The prayers of the north? Or the prayers of the south?

Actually, there were not just two groups praying. There were three. And for the third group, it was all very personal. I believe it was the heartfelt and fervent prayers of the slaves that had God’s ear.

The southern ministers had taught the slaves about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And they taught them well. The slaves were told of the many Old Testament stories about the Israelites. There was one story in particular with which they could identify. Like themselves, the Israelites in Egypt endured lives as slaves under a hard taskmaster. The passage of Exodus 2:23–25 was the cry of their hearts: “And the children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up unto God by reason of the bondage. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. And God looked upon the children of Israel, and God had respect unto them.” The slaves asked God to send them a Moses that would lead them out of their “Egypt.”

In order for their prayers to be answered, that meant the north had to win the war. But the north wasn’t winning. In fact, the north kept losing battle after battle to the south. This was unexpected as the Confederates were so much smaller in numbers. So the south attributed their success to God.

The Union’s constant losses in the war caused President Lincoln to do some soul searching. He turned to God for direction and revelation. Lincoln said he sensed God saying, “Let my people go.” He came away with the revelation that God wouldn’t bless the north with victory because the north did not reject slavery, never repented of it, and did not humble themselves before Him. Lincoln was against slavery, but he considered keeping the Union together to be the greater priority. So at the start of the war, Lincoln was willing to compromise on the issue of slavery in order to keep the Union intact. After his time in prayer, Lincoln flipped his priorities. The slaves being freed took priority. In response to the Lord’s request—“Let My people go”—Lincoln issued the Emancipation of Proclamation. On January 1, 1863, all slaves were declared to be free, in the north and south.

The next thing Lincoln did was to address the north’s problem of pride and lack of repentance. So on April 30, 1863, he called for a national day of fasting and prayer. It was to be a time when the nation acknowledged its sin and repent of it. The Proclamation for the National Day of Prayer is powerful. While reading it, one can’t help be reminded of Daniel’s prayer of repentance for the sins of Israel in Daniel chapter 9. Below is the most powerful portion of the Proclamation. It begins with President Lincoln stating that almighty God requested him, the President, to designate a national day of prayer and repentance. Just like Daniel acknowledged the sin of Israel, Lincoln also acknowledged the sin of America.  

The Proclamation

Almighty God, in all the affairs of men and of nations, has, by a resolution, requested the President to designate and set apart a day for National prayer and humiliation.

And whereas it is the duty of nations as well as of men, to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions, in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon; and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord.

And, insomuch as we know that, by His divine law, nations like individuals are subjected to punishments and chastisements in this world, may we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war, which now desolates the land, may be but a punishment, inflicted upon us, for our presumptuous sins, to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole People? We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven. We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us!

The Tides of War Shifted

After the National Day of Prayer, everything shifted in favor of the Union. Two days after the day of fasting and prayer, General Stonewall Jackson was killed by friendly fire. One of his own men accidently killed him. He was responsible for many of the Confederate’s great victories. With the loss of General Jackson, the Union was victorious at the Gettysburg battle. After Gettysburg, the tides of war changed toward the Union.

There is an extraordinary story about Lincoln with regard to Gettysburg. Someone asked President Lincoln if he had been worried about the Gettysburg battle. Surprisingly, Lincoln said “No.” When the battle began, he was full of worry so he went to his room and locked the door. He began to pray about the battle, asking the Lord for victory at Gettysburg. He pleaded his case with the Lord. He told the Lord that “this was His war” and “our cause was His cause.” Lincoln then made a vow that “if He would stand by our boys at Gettysburg, I would stand by Him.” Lincoln then said, though he couldn’t explain it, he experienced a sweet comfort wash over his soul, a knowing that God almighty had taken the business of war into His hands. Lincoln felt an inward knowing that everything would come out all right in favor of the north. After his time of prayer, he had no fears or worry.

The Purging of the Nation of Its National Sin

On April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Virginia. The news was not met with jubilant cheers, but rather solemnity. Lincoln suggested everyone drop to their knees and offer thanks to God for preserving the nation and helping them to rid the nation of the great sin of slavery.

America paid a heavy price for its national sin. The Union casualties were 110,000 combat deaths and over 250,000 from non-combat deaths. The Confederate casualties were 95,000 combat deaths and over 165,000 from non-combat deaths.

The Third Great Awakening and the Soldiers Revival were part of the process through which the Lord was able to purge the sin of slavery from America. Though the price was great, it was necessary in order for the nation to move forward.


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