In God’s Presence Cover

In God’s Presence

Chaplains, Missionaries, and Religious Space during the Civil War

Benjamin L. Miller

University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, 2019, 264 pages

Book Review published on: June 25, 2021

In God’s Presence: Chaplains, Missionaries, and Religious Space during the Civil War is a well-written and thought-provoking book about the lives of men and women who fought and served in the Civil War. Benjamin L. Miller takes an in-depth look at the spiritual lives of soldiers and clergy who served in places such as battlefields, military camps, and hospitals. The author elucidates the emotional, mental, and spiritual conditions of the fighting men on both sides of the conflict as well as the dispositions of the chaplains, missionaries, and the gatekeepers they had to contend with to allow for religious space.

Miller focuses on men of the cloth, Christian soldiers, and the construct of sacred space in the camps to allow for worship practices. He ends the book with the different practices of the clergy to care for the sick, dying, and wounded in hospitals and prisons. The driving question for his study was how people developed any sort of religious life in a wartime setting. He then sought to discover the clergy’s role in responding to wartime challenges. Which aspects of religiosity did the clergy abandon or develop that allowed soldiers to respond positively to the work chaplains and Christian organizations performed on their behalf?

The religious theoretical framework Miller uses to develop his study focuses on a term referred to as religious space. He defines it “as the place one confers with the divine, a physical site that offers spiritual guidance and fulfillment.” Besides the sacred aspect, we can look at this space as both “profane” and “contested.” Profane is where the chaplains have not had a positive influence and vices abound such as gambling, profanity, and drunkenness. The contested religious space is where a blurring occurs such as offering pre-battle religious services before soldiers would fight, kill, and die believing their side to be the just side. This religious space study allows scholars a better understanding of the Civil War era.

Miller does a great job of investigating the prewar backgrounds of the different characters he focuses on. From this investigation, one can see the type of worldview that clergy brought to the war. The wartime challenges forced the clergy to adapt their prewar beliefs and practices to new circumstances. Because of this adaptation, new clerical organizations and institutional structures like the chaplaincy corps and missionary organizations were developed. The clergy also adapted to their new surroundings by using information operations objectives through the use of religious tracts to convey a central message of sin, judgment, and salvation. Because most believed in an afterlife, the soldiers were more apt to listen as they lay dying in hospitals.

This book did a great job of analyzing the religious experiences of soldiers and clergy during the American Civil War. It showed the diversity of religious experience before the war and how wartime religiosity fostered changes in religious practices after the war. One frustrating omission is that Miller does not define what he means by “Evangelical Christianity.” He mentions it many times without really going into detail of its meaning and origin.

I highly recommend this book to all persons of religious faith, from atheists to Zoroastrianists, because whatever one’s faith, one is challenged to think about what one believes and why one believes it to be true. I also recommend it for all who have to think critically and creatively because there are many instances where the clergy were not allowed to visit the sick and dying but had to come up with ingenious ways to influence the gatekeepers specifically at hospitals and prisons in order to visit their spiritual patients.

Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Stephen S. Harvey, U.S. Army, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas