Baptized in Blood: An Interpretation and Critical Response

Nic Reagan

REL 490

Spring 2002

If one were to take a quick glance at the cover, with its bold Rebel cross and equally bold title, one might mistakenly think Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause to be the propaganda of a backwoods racist asserting that “The South will rise again.” On the contrary, Charles Reagan Wilson’s Baptized in Blood is not a book by an author seeking to glorify the mythical past of a falsely idealized Southern People. Rather, it is an account which seeks to explain historically why ideas such as these came to be in the first place. His answer is that the “Religion of the Lost Cause”—all of the myths, rituals, holy days, and the homogeneous conservative Civil Religion of the American South after the Civil War—was an attempt by the defeated southerners to deal with their loss and to assert their distinctive religious identity against the looming North. Baptized in Blood proves to be a useful source in helping one to understand the mechanisms of nationalism in the American South, however, as shall be seen later in this paper, it proves to be flawed and unclear on certain crucial aspects of the interaction between religion and culture in general.

The “Religion of the Lost Cause” and the Formation of a Southern National Identity

The southern civil religion, which Wilson classifies as a single, “multidimensional spiritual movement,” was composed of several related elements (Wilson 1980, 14). These included distinctive rituals, mythology, theology, imagery, and institutions. A closer look at each at each of the various dimensions of the so-called “Lost Cause” religion reveals how the south tried to come to terms with its loss and how a southern nationalism was created and used to assert the defeated people’s identity against their Northern adversaries.

Public rituals were used to create group cohesion among their participants (as do all public rituals) but also to promote and reinforce a Lost Cause mythology by linking them to an idealized past, thus promoting and maintaining a common “southern identity.” [Effective methods for promoting group cohesion included, among other things, the singing of religious hymns and communal emotional outbursts of participants (cheering, crying, etc…). See Wilson, 24.] Wilson gives the example of the gathering by Confederate veterans a decade after the war in Richmond, Virginia. The veterans “celebrated ritualistically the Confederate nation that still lived in their minds” (18). The gathering, whose main event was the dedication of a statue to Stonewall Jackson, was marked by the veterans’ wearing of their uniforms, tattered Confederate flags all around, and the use of Christian imagery both visually and verbally in the addresses given by the speakers. One could say that this was the official canonization of Jackson in the southern civil religion. He was eulogized in religious language as the ultimate “Christian warrior” (21) and the most pious of Christian souls (23). The sainthood of Jackson (and many other figures) reinforced the southern identity by giving southerners a common figure whom they could all claim as their own. The religious rhetoric within which the addresses were rooted served a useful purpose by helping to cast the figure of Jackson and others in absolute terms. Were the language to be merely secular, its effectiveness as a nation-making tool would be much limited in comparison.

Other public rituals mentioned by Wilson included “special days appointed by the denominations or the states for humiliation, fasting, prayer, or thanksgiving,” the Confederate Memorial Day, funerals for heroes of the war, and the “dedication of monuments to the Confederate heroes” (Wilson, 27-29). All of these public rituals and holidays represent, like the Jackson dedication, other attempts at identity-creation through common ritualistic observances. The “special” days of thanksgiving, however, also represent a technique by which southerners asserted their own identity against that of the north. It could be said that all of the observances serve such a purpose, but this case in particular was a conscious attempt by southerners to replace the Thanksgiving Day celebrated by northerners with one meant only for them. It can be seen how something as seemingly harmless as a special day for giving thanks can actually be a useful tool for identity creation, maintenance, and assertion against an opponent.

The ritual of the Lost Cause religion and its mythology usually went hand-in-hand. Wilson sees the most important myth of the south after the Civil War as being a religious one, what he calls “the myth of the Crusading Christian Confederates.” At its base, the myth said that the defeat of the South was not primarily a political, military, or economic one, but rather the defeat of an ideal society characterized by morality and virtue (Wilson, 36). Ministers elaborated on the myth, using it as a call for a return to the churches and to religion in general. The creation and retelling of a common southern sacred narrative was another way for southerners to reinforce an identity distinct from the rest of the country (38). There is some indication that ministers may have consciously recognized their ability to create and promote myths (39). Could it be that their call for a return to religion was, in fact, one way of attempting to gain authority? By basing their appeal in the absolutes of God-language and an idealized past, ministers proved to be extremely successful—with other powerful mechanisms—in strengthening their flocks. [Along with a religious climate in general which led to greater attendance as a result of exponized identity formation (Group rituals of revival, etc…)] Northerner society was depicted as chaotic and immoral while the idealized southern society was orderly and godly (40). It’s easy to see how such a depiction, by essentially demonizing the northern “other” (something we’ll see more of), reinforces a unique southern identity and can create a position of authority for clergy.

Confederate soldiers could be seen as fighting a moral and religious battle rather than a political one. The myth of the ideal Christian society—its destruction by the North and restoration by Confederate soldiers—was a useful mechanism for providing ready martyrs for the southern Cause. According to Wilson, “religion’s greatest role was in raising the morale of the soldiers, preparing them for holy combat” (Wilson, 44). Southern clergymen noted that “ ‘the militant Christian’ was the epitome of righteousness” (45). Religion’s role as soldier-maker should not be underestimated, and its role in the south as a mechanism for creating willing warriors is clear.

Prominent figures in the South were incorporated into the myth of the Lost Cause, Those who were canonized (along with Jackson as mentioned earlier) included Robert E. Lee, seen to be the embodiment of perfection and manhood, Jefferson Davis, who was depicted as the ultimate Christian martyr, and the Christ-like figure of Sam Davis (Wilson 48-53). All of these figures, being the embodiment of the mythical Christian society, were totem-figures for southerners to rally around in order to help promote their identity as a separate people. It could also be claimed that the depiction of these men in such terms is a way of dealing with their political and military defeat by making them martyrs for the ultimate just cause.

Alongside various myths rooted in an idealized history, theology—as one would expect—also played a large part in the religion of the Lost Cause. Ministers promoted the idea that Confederate soldiers would receive a “joyful resurrection” one day (Wilson 58). This was more than a means for southerners to “cope” with the death of their own kind, it was an assertion that they had God on their side and that He would one day incur his wrath on the evil North while giving salvation to the saint-like people of the South. Wilson even indicates that definite apocalyptic and millenarian religious language was used to warn of the impending judgement of the godless North (63-64). Such rhetoric is an obviously effective tool for asserting the identity of the South against their adversary’s, and in so doing strengthening ever more their own southern national identity.

The depiction of the North in negatively-charged religious terminology prevailed in southern pulpits. Northerners were seen in many cases to literally be under the direct influence of Satan himself (66). A less extreme, though equally effective rhetorical technique was for ministers to cast the North as being concerned with and defined by “matter,” as opposed to the more God-favored “spirit” of the South (70). Casting the battle in such absolute religious terms and satanizing the enemy justified the South’s position and helped to reinforce a southern national identity by defining the evil, chaotic “them” against the good, orderly “us.”

Clergy recast the defeat the defeat of the South in theological language so as to reassert its position as a holy nation separate from the wider United States. Defeat became depicted not as a military loss, but as a love-filled lesson from a God who was on the South’s side. Ministers cast the defeat as a prompting from God for southerners to be more religious (68). The true victor, many southerners convinced themselves, was not the North, who simply had a material victory, but the South, who would become more virtuous as the war’s result. They redefined victory by using theological reformulations, thus strengthening their unique identity by reasserting their superior place above the spiritually bankrupt North.

The demonization of the North and its blame for all their troubles was especially evident in the continuous jeremiads of the South. Southern clergy “warned of the dangers to traditional Confederate-Christian values from an industrial, commercial society” (80). Here we see the first of several schematic constructions which characterize North and South as societies embodying polar opposites: “industrial” and money-hungry versus agrarian and spiritual. Materialism became the trait with which many southerners associated the North most strongly. Clergy promoted and used the construction to call people to their churches in order to protect against the evils of northern greediness. What would soon be learned, however, was that materialistic pursuits resulted in much needed economic gains. Southerners were soon taught to serve as models of the North in seeking wealth while continuing to preserve some virtuous spiritual essence. Such a position was beneficial for the churches to promote, for “by the late 1800’s the churches were so dependent on money from the wealthy that they did not criticize the new order” (81). Since industrialism proved to be profitable for many southern rhetoric-makers, the jeremiad was a useful tool for generating wealth while at the same time helping to retain their position as true southerners. As such, the rhetoric worked not to discourage the use of northern economic methods but to encourage it by insisting that the economic domain could be kept separate from an underlying southern identity and could, in fact, be a weapon to use against their perceived northern enemy. This wasn’t just about making money while attacking the North, however, it was another way—by negotiating the boundaries between “us” and “them”—that southerners attempted to maintain an identity.

The jeremiads against the North played a part in more than the identity-creation of a southern people, it was a device used by the elite after the war who feared an end to their dominant position in the social hierarchy. Clergymen were especially active in spreading the word for this reason. industrialization was a threat to the high status they inhabited during the Civil War. They sought to keep in place a “hierarchical, paternalistic, moralistic” system by trumpeting the call for a return to an ideal society (90). When the economic benefit of industrialization to their churches—and thus to themselves—was discovered, both materialism and spirituality became conjoined as the ideal southern qualities, increasingly ensuring their places of power.

Organizations outside of—though usually with the blessings of—the churches used religious rhetoric to seek to maintain the pre-war hierarchy. The most obvious example of this was the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan used language and rituals steeped in the southern Lost Cause religion to promote an agenda of social hierarchical maintenance, especially the superiority of whites over the descendants of African slaves. Rhetoric was used to convince southerners that the inferiority of blacks was necessary for an ordered, virtuous society (100-106). Blacks weren’t necessarily unwanted, they just needed to be kept in their proper place if a separate southern nation was to remain undefeated.

The institutionalization of segregation was an attempt to insure the survival of the racial hierarchy supported by the Klan and the Lost Cause religion. By keeping blacks in a separate and inherently unequal position in society, the idealized, ordered slave-holding South was believed to continue. By partitioning blacks to their own, lesser social domain, whites maintained economic and political control (109). The pre-war racial hierarchy was able to continue well into the twentieth century as a result.

Educational institutions were also effective devices for promoting the religion of the Lost Cause. As Wilson points out, “Clergymen led the call for textbooks and historical monographs suitable for use by southern children, served on committees to canvass the books and determine their acceptability, and wrote history books themselves” (139). Textbooks promoted and reinforced the Lost Cause myth in the young and helped to create and maintain a distinct southern national identity.

Colleges run by religious denominations served the same function for older students. They were touted as places where southern virtue was instilled and “gentlemen” were created. They also proved to be effective in reinforcing a paternalistic hierarchy as a place for the white male elite to ensure political, economic, and social domination (139- 160). As such, the importance of higher educational institutions in southern nationbuilding after the Civil War cannot be underestimated.

In his final chapter, “Reconciliation and Vindication,” Wilson proposes that the Lost Cause became Americanized during the twentieth as the South facilitated itself to an identity which was expanded to include the larger United States. The South’s history became depicted as “quintessentially American” and the very epitome of the American ideal (167). During World War I, the rhetoric of the Lost Cause was universalized so that the South was no longer about military defeat and social hierarchy but represented the struggle for “human freedom” and dignity (180). Such a shift in language was useful in easing the existing tension with the North and helping to incorporate the southern nation into the larger society. Yet it wasn’t necessarily an attempt at weakening the southern Cause but a method by which to safeguard its continuation—just in a different, more acceptable form to the dominant culture. In a sense, the South had the last laugh by making sure the North took up its universalized cause, ensuring and further perpetuating the existence of a distinctive southern national identity which continues—in some form at least—even to this day.

All of the various outgrowths of the “Religion of the Lost Cause”—rituals, mythology, theology, imagery, and institutions—did their job to create and promote southern nationhood. It’s clear to the objective observer that they were not the results of some sui generis “southernness” outside of history but were methods—conscious or otherwise—by which a “southern identity” distinct from the rest of the U.S. was manufactured. Wilson, however, seems to be at odds with such an observation.

A Critical Response to Baptized in Blood

While Wilson offers many examples excellent examples of how a national identity was created in the South, he seems to fail to understand how the domains usually labeled “religion” and “society,” or “culture,” are related and how they actually interact. There’s no rational basis to categorize “religion” as being a unique and selfexisting entity apart from human “society.” Religion is a historically-created outgrowth dependent upon prevailing political, economic, and cultural factors. While it’s true that religion is used (a primary tool, maybe?) to reinforce a cultural identity and structure—as was the case in the American South—it does not do so originally and independently of the society. Religious rhetoric is used to reinforce an already existing or desired (which is itself the result of cultural conditions) societal structure, not to create a completely new structure and identity removed from human history.

In Baptized in Blood, the author promotes the idea that “religion” is a special, separate entity removed from human history which acts in exceptional, sui generis ways to create meaning and identity for turmoiled individuals. “The Lost Cause,” he says, “had symbols, myths, ritual, theology, and organization, all directed toward meeting the profound concerns of postwar Southerners” (My emphasis added) (11). The purpose of the “Religion of the Lost Cause,” for him, was a way of dealing with the existential—we might say “spiritual”—angst of a broken people (also see pages 13 and 38 for clear examples of this). Not even to mention the fact that he already assumes there is a definite “Southern People” to be concerned with. He gives, I think, to much emphasis to the beliefs and institutions of the Lost Cause as fixing a rift in some cosmological conceptual framework of the inhabitants of the southern portion of the U.S. in the mid-19th century. This emphasis on meaning-making is prevalent throughout the book and can all be seen, not as a way to repair a tear in a grand narrativization, but as a device by which “southerners” constructed an identity and asserted that identity—physically and conceptually—against the perceived northern “other.” As such, Wilson perpetuates the myth that religious belief serves a primary purpose as a beneficial, benevolent order-restoring chart for the human Mind (read, “Human Spirit”). In doing so, he is promoting a framework which is very much rooted in the fallacy of religion as sui generis and, in turn, promoting religion itself.

He further promotes the sui generis religious position by insisting on a clear disconnect between “religion” and “culture.” He states, most assuredly, that in the post Civil War American South, “one can see that the churches exploited southern culture, as well as vice versa. The culture was a captive of the churches” (12). I fail to see how it’s logically possible to assert that “culture” and “religion” are two distinctive, unique realms of the human domain so that one can be “captive” to the other, “as well as vice versa.” Religion is a product of culture which can then be used to promote an agenda and identity within that culture, but it is not a distinct domain which can eclipse or “hold captive” a whole “culture.”

Since Wilson makes quite extensive use of the terms “culture” and “society,” it would seem that he has a definite idea of what each actually is. The picture received from Baptized in the Blood, however, is not at all clearly defined. In his introduction, he states that “postbellum Southerners saw their culture, rather than their society, as enduring” (15). One could claim that here he distinguishes between the societal structure of the South—political, economic, etc—and the shared ways in which the southern people acted (e.g. the clothes they wore, how they talked, their shared myths), but it is not at all clear. Generally speaking, human society and culture are one and the same. Societal structures are part of their larger human cultures and the various, unique ways in which people behave are contained within and alongside that structure. Wilson seems to be positing, however, that “culture” is in fact a numinous essence which a “People” share. Not that that cultural identity is culturally constructed, but that it exists outside of history and cannot by proven or disproved. He admits that Durkheim proposed that sacredness “depends not on the item itself” but upon the projection of “sacredness” onto that item, but then claims that “The South was sacred to its citizens because they saw a sacred quality in it” (15). This circular logic is confusing. Is something sacred because people project “sacredness” onto it, or do people see something as sacred because it actually has some ethereal sacred, essence? Wilson’s lack of clarity on the exact nature of “culture” and “the sacred” make much of the rest of his book unclear and misleading. It can be seen, however, how this is a useful rhetorical device which the author himself implements for his own purposes. By depicting “culture,” “the southern people,” and the “sacred” as entities beyond history and quantifiable proof, he insulates himself from disproof by critics. This technique is quite common and evidenced even in reviews of the book (see the bibliography under “Book Reviews”) . Seemingly definite concepts which separate the “sacred”—religious and cultural—from other aspects of human existence.

If “southernness” is some kind of immeasurable and invisible “stuff” whose existence rests only on the faith of its perceiver, then it cannot be disproved. Granted, it can’t be proved either, but its lack of disproof alone is strong enough evidence by most to not dismiss it right out. Its usefulness as a rhetorical device is ingenious, but it remains delusive nonetheless. This is not to say that Wilson consciously attempts to mislead his reader. Indeed, he may not even recognize the tactics he himself employs. Even so, his technique unfortunately continues to carry out its rhetorical usefulness.

My critical response to Wilson’s approach concerning the separation of “religion” and “culture” might seem to render Baptized in Blood useless. I would agree that this critique makes null much of his interpretation of the “Religion of the Lost Cause” and its purpose primarily as a meaning-maker, however I continue to assert that this book—even with its major flaws in interpretation—can help one understand how a national identity is manufactured and the part religious institutions can play in creating that identity. What the historical accounts in this book teach us is that nation-making is a complicated, multifaceted—though extremely practical—process.

Works Cited

Primary Source

Wilson, Charles Reagan. 1980. Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865- 1920. Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press.

Book Reviews

Fraker, Anne T., ed. 1989. Religion and American Life. [Article from Journal of Southern History, v. 46 no. 2. 1980, May] 219-238. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Lippy, Charles H. and Peter W. Williams, eds. 1988. Encyclopedia of the American Religious Experience, v. III. [Article, “Civil and Public Religion” by Donald G. Jones] 1395. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.