November 25, 2011

E.H.W.'s Epistle to the Lancasterians

Location: Camp Nevin, Hardin County, Kentucky
Header of the Church Advocate newspaper

In today's letter, Corp. Elias H. Witmer (bio) of Company E, 79th Pennsylvania, who had already written seven letters to the Lancaster Express, took a sharp religious turn in his writing by sending a letter to the Church Advocate.  Witmer's letter fits right into the distinctly American brand of evangelical Christianity that developed from the early 1700s to the late 1800s, with a special emphasis on the Second Great Awakening (early 1800s) and its intense fervor, conversions, revivals, and attempts to return to Christianity's primitive apostolic roots.  The Church Advocate was published in Lancaster as the organ of the Church of God (Winebrenner), a Baptist-like denomination active in southcentral Pennsylvania that split acrimoniously from the German Reformed Church a generation before the Civil War as part of this Awakening.

I don't know of any pre-war connections between the Church of God and Witmer, a merchant from Mountville who looks to have a good number of Lancaster County Mennonites in his family tree going all the way back to Hans Herr.  He might have belonged to one of Lancaster County's Church of God congregations, or he might have just written back to a newspaper whose message he supported regardless of denomination.  Anyway, it's interesting that he adopts such a heavy religious tone in this letter compared to his Express letters, as it shows a relatively modern division between appropriate styles of discourse when writing to the general public (the Express) versus writing for a religious forum (Church Advocate). 

A couple recent studies of religion among Civil War soldiers have just come to my attention while researching this post, and hopefully after more data gathering from the 79th Pennsylvania I can say something about how the regiment's story fits in with the broader story.  One enduring controversy is that Confederate soldiers were more pious than their Union counterparts, as some people can take this idea and run with it to make a variety of grand moral judgments.  However, some historians have lately argued evidence shows greater piety per capita in the ranks of Union armies, although the whole framing of the historical question is somewhat silly.  I'll be more interested in seeing what the mid-nineteenth century "marketplace" of religious ideas in Lancaster looked like, and how different soldiers 'and civilians' faith affected how they experienced the war and how they experienced the war affected their faith.

From the December 12, 1861, Church Advocate: (alternate link)

No comments:

Post a Comment