Corsicana Daily Sun, Corsicana, Texas

March 25, 2013

Religious writers in the south

By Gelene Simpson
Corsicana Daily Sun

— When I was growing up in Corsicana, I remember people going from door to door handing out religious tracts. During the War Between the States, the people who distributed religious tracts and books were referred to as “coporteurs.” And a good number of pastors and missionaries were being sent from the various denominations to minister to the Confederate troops beginning in 1863.

One of the peddlers was J.W. Jones, who described his job as one that the soldiers respected. When he would approach a camp with his saddlebags stuffed “With tracts and religious newspapers and with Bibles and Testaments” he could hear the excited shouts of the soldiers, ‘Yonder comes the Bible and Tract man,’ and they would actually surround him while he was still on his horse and divest him of all his goods before he ‘could even get into the camp.’

Some of the religious periodicals were “The Army and Navy Messenger,” published by the interdenominational southern Evangelical Tract Society, and another was the Presbyterian “Soldier’s Visitor.” The “Southern Christian Advocate” came from the Methodists, and the Baptists sent the “Soldier’s Friend.” Some other popular pamphlets were “A Mother’s Parting Words to her Soldier Son” and “How Do You Bear Your Troubles?” These may not sound too inviting to today’s readers but we must remember that these soldiers had very little else to read, and these tracts prepared the way for a widespread revival. According to one enthusiastic soldier, it was like ‘one great Methodist camp meeting.’ They would build huge campfires, sing and pray, would surge forward, ‘some falling on the ground and crying for mercy.’ Remember that in that day “mourners were those who were confessing their sins and their desire for salvation. These penitents would collect at the “mourners’ bench” near the front of the gathering.

The chaplains and missionaries often found that when they worked together, their efforts made more of an impact. So many times they would form Christian associations without specifying a denomination. Their main objective was to provide religious experiences for the troops. Of course there were some who disapproved of this “joining together.” But many of them eventually believed in the importance of these groups which led in handling the distribution of tracts and the organization of prayer groups. The following description by a soldier shows the irony in the situation: “We had a Presbyterian sermon, introduced by Baptist services under the direction of a Methodist chaplain, in an Episcopal church.”

However, most of the time, services were held in the open. One soldier’s description says that he attended preaching on a hillside. Trees were cut and logs rolled to the gathering place for seating. A rough pulpit was constructed and the area was lit at night by “chunks of light wood” in “wire baskets” placed on top of poles stuck in the ground. One diary by a Capt. A Fielder mentions prayer meetings scheduled almost every day in “the spring of 1863.” His diary entry for Sunday, April 19th reflects the participation of the various denominations: ‘Sunday, April 19th — preaching in our Regt. by the Rev. Mr. Millakin (Baptist) of the 13th text John 16 chapter 8 to 11 verses inclusive — Evening 3 1/2 o’clock preaching in our Brigade by the Rev. McFerring (Methodist) text John 3 chap. 14 and 15 vers. The Congregation was large and attentive and the sermon interesting and applicable to the times ... prayer meeting at night.’

Of course hymn singing was prominent at these meetings with “Amazing Grace” and “Rock of Ages” being requested regularly. But it was the coporteurs who handed out the tracts and actually struck the first spark.

(Dedicated to Col. Roger Q. Mills Chapter 2466, United Daughters of the Confederacy. Facts from Religious Revivals Among the Troops,” by Connie Walton Moretti in Aug. 2006 issue of UDC Magazine.)

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Gelene Simpson is a Daily Sun columnist. Her column appears on Thursdays. Want to “Soundoff” on this story? Email: soundoff@corsicanadailysun.com