Politics and Religion in Civil War Letters
Politics and Religion in Civil War Letters

Students analyze Civil War-era correspondence to better understand the relationship between religion and politics during the war.

Students analyze Civil War-era correspondence to better understand the relationship between religion and politics during the war.

Introduction

This exercise uses correspondence to reveal the connections between religion and politics during the Civil War. Students discover the role that religious beliefs played in dividing north and south. They also witness the pervasive influence of religion in the daily attitudes of nineteenth-century Americans.

Students ultimately reflect on the similarities and differences in religious and civic life during the Civil War era and today.

Objectives

Students should be able to:

  • Read handwritten primary sources
  • Recognize and articulate connections between religious belief and patriotism

Context

Prior to visiting the archives, students need context about the causes of the American Civil War and the role that religion played in these divisions. This can be provided through lectures, course readings, and films (see Further Reading below).

During the Fall 2012 semester, my course used the presidential race as a counterpoint to the documents they examined in the archives. Students followed the public debate around Governor Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith and the religious beliefs of President Barack Obama. Students read and listened to speeches from both candidates in which religious freedom and beliefs were invoked. They engaged in lively discussion about the relevance or appropriateness of a candidates’ real or perceived religious identity.

Current events can provide an excellent contemporary comparison to the nineteenth-century archival documents examined in this exercise.

Visit

Number of Visits: 1
Duration of Visit: 1 hour 10 minutes

Agenda

15 minutes


45 minutes
Document stations


10 minutes
Wrap up


In groups of 4 – 5, students are assigned to one of three stations:

  • Two letters from a devout mother inquiring about her deceased soldier son
  • A scrapbook of hate mail to a well-known abolitionist preacher
  • A congregant letter protesting the John Brown raids

Students remain at one station during the entire class visit. They read the correspondence at their station and hold a discussion based on questions in the handout.

Wrap Up

Students reconvene to reflect upon their analyses and their responses to the questions posed in the handout.

End Products

Blog Posts

After the visit, students respond to the following questions on a class blog:

  • What is the connection between religion and politics?
  • Does this connection transcend time or was it merely isolated at this period?
  • Do you see any links to religious attitudes and the attitudes of what it means to be an American that might correlate to a contemporary issue in America in the 21st century?

Students are required to make substantive comment (more than just, “I agree”) on at least two of the posts written by their colleagues.

Archival Materials Used

Group 1
Letter, Mary A. Herbert to Mr. Samuel, November 25, 1863; Bedell, Conklin, and Wahlberg families collection, 2005.021, box 1, folder 14; Brooklyn Historical Society. click for image

Letters to and from Mary Herbert, December 28, 1863 and February 7, 1864; Bedell, Conklin, and Wahlberg families collection, 2005.021, box 1, folder 14; Brooklyn Historical Society. click for image

Group 2
Letter, December 8, 1859, page 15

Scrapbook: clippings and correspondence to Henry Ward Beecher, 1858-1868; Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims and Henry Ward Beecher Collection, ARC.212, box 41; Brooklyn Historical Society. click for image

Group 3
Letter, G. Arthur Seaver to Trustees of the Second Unitarian Society, January 2, 1860; First Unitarian Congregational Society of Brooklyn records, ARC.109, box 101, folder 3; Brooklyn Historical Society. click for image

Further Reading

God in America: How Religious Liberty Shaped America. Film. Directed by David Belton, Greg Barker, and Sarah Colt. Boston: WGBH, Frontline, American Experience, 2010.

Lippy, Charles H. Introducing American Religion. New York: Routledge, 2009.

Orsi, Robert A., ed. Gods of the City. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.


To cite this page:
Alexandria M. Egler, “Politics and Religion in Civil War Letters,” TeachArchives.org, accessed [insert date here], http://wwww.teacharchives.org/exercises/politics-religion/.

Authors

Alexandria M. Egler
Adjunct Professor of Religious Studies
St. Francis College
view author bio >

Used In

REL 2102: The American Religious Experience

Required course in which students examine the different religious traditions that together make up the total picture of religion in America.

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