Benjamin L. Miller Discusses His New Book “In God’s Presence”

Now available: In God’s Presence; Chaplains, Missionaries, and Religious Space during the American Civil War

When thousands of young men in the North and South marched off to fight in the Civil War, another army of men accompanied them to care for these soldiers spiritual needs. In God’s Presence explores how these two cohorts of men, Northern and Southern and mostly Christian, navigated the challenges of the Civil War on battlefields and in military camps, hospitals, and prisons.

  1. 1. What’s your elevator pitch for In God’s Presence? How would you describe the book in two or three sentences?

This book highlights the extraordinary work of chaplains and missionaries, who promoted ecumenism within religious spaces during the American Civil War. Coming from a sectarian antebellum religious world, these individuals created a sense of spiritual community within different wartime spaces (camps, battlefields, hospitals, and prisons). In the wake of this work, they gained converts, expanded African American access to Christianity, and promoted civil religion.

2. What was your inspiration to research and write about the role religious figures played in the American Civil War?

I have always been intrigued by religious figures and religious studies more generally. Throughout college and graduate school, I have taken numerous courses covering several major religious traditions. Within each tradition, I was drawn to the leaders, trying to make sense of how they kept the faith of their flocks alive during tough times. Plus, I have been fascinated by the American Civil War ever since middle school. The study of clergy during the Civil War seemed like a perfect fit for my educational background and scholarly interests.

3. What was the most challenging aspect of researching and writing the book?

The most challenging aspect of this book was conceiving of and applying my concept of religious space to the American Civil War. This frame has gone through many iterations and been expounded upon through a number of conference papers. Each time I received comments, I used them to enhance the analytical frame. I am happy with the final result.

4. Your book examines, among other things, the evolution of religious ceremony through the duration of the war. Was there a significant change in the desire for religious ceremonies and figures from the start of the war to the end?

I would say that desire for religious ceremony and access to spiritual leaders does not change over the course of the war. Soldiers were interested throughout the conflict. However, there are points when soldiers demonstrated heightened interest in spiritual matters. For example, these situations occur when soldiers are actively campaigning and being exposed to high casualty rates or in winter camps or hospitals, with ample spare time to devote to religion.

5. Can you discuss the lasting effects chaplains & missionaries returning from the war had on their congregations?

I argue that chaplains and missionaries promoted civil religion, brought many men back to the church, and helped enable independent African American churches to form. However, these post-bellum topics deserve a much more in-depth scholarly treatment. My book is a stepping stone for more analysis and discussion.

6. What is one thing you would like readers to take from your work?

I hope readers see that sectarian divides can be bridged. Civil War era chaplains and missionaries ministered to any men who desired spiritual aid. They were true leaders who tried to unify individuals under a shared belief in Christianity even while the nation was torn apart by the War.

7. If you could have any one person read your book, who would it be and why?

I can’t think of any one person. However, I would like individuals training to join the U.S. military chaplaincy to read my book. It provides insight into how spiritual leaders dealt with the challenges of ministering to troops during warfare. In the end, my book depicts successful chaplains and missionaries as leaders who promoted a strong sense of mission and dedication to their flocks. I believe the best military chaplains today would have these same characteristics.

Benjamin L. Miller is an adjunct instructor of history at Howard Community College in Columbia, Maryland. His work has appeared in the New York Times’ Disunion: The Civil War blog, The World of the Civil War: A Daily Life Encyclopedia, and American Civil War, a part of the Gale Library of Daily Life series.