Episcopal Church During and After the Civil War

The Episcopal Church, like the nation itself, faced significant challenges during the Civil War (1861-1865). The war divided the Church along regional and ideological lines, much like the rest of the country.  Southern dioceses formed the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States of America when the southern states seceded from the Union.  The Church existed from 1861 to 1865., ending within six months of the South’s surrender.

In the North, many Episcopalians supported the Union cause. Prominent bishops like Henry Whipple of Minnesota and William Augustus Muhlenberg of New York were vocal abolitionists and advocated for the end of slavery. Some Episcopal churches in the North, particularly in areas with strong abolitionist sentiments, were active in the Underground Railroad, assisting escaped slaves on their journey to freedom. The Church in the North continued to function relatively normally throughout the war, albeit with prayers and sermons focused on peace and reconciliation.

The Episcopal Church in the South was deeply entwined with the social and economic structure of the region, and many of its members were slaveholders. Several prominent Southern bishops, such as Leonidas Polk of Louisiana and Stephen Elliott of Georgia, supported secession and the Confederate cause. The war disrupted church life in the South, with many churches facing financial challenges due to the conflict’s economic impact. However, services often continued, with prayers for the Confederacy and its soldiers. The changes included:

  • Prayers for the Civil Authorities: Prior to the Civil War, the BCP included prayers for the President of the United States. During the war, Episcopal churches in the Confederacy substituted prayers for the President of the Confederate States of America. After the war, these prayers were modified once again to pray for the President of the United States as a sign of reconciliation.
  • Prayers for the Military: During the war, the Southern churches included specific prayers for the Confederate soldiers and leaders in their services. These prayers were intended to support the Confederate cause. After the war, these prayers transitioned to more general prayers for peace and for those who had suffered during the conflict.
  • Liturgical Colors:  Some churches in the South chose to emphasize certain colors or liturgical elements that aligned with the Confederate flag or symbolism during the war. After the war, they returned to the usual liturgical practices.
  • Hymn Selection: Episcopal churches in the South incorporated hymns with patriotic or Confederate themes during the war. After the war, hymnody returned to a more typical selection, emphasizing themes of unity and reconciliation.

While some adaptations occurred during and after the Civil War, they were generally within the framework of the Episcopal tradition and the Book of Common Prayer. The core liturgical texts and practices prescribed by the BCP were not significantly altered.