Saturday, August 21, 2021

Booknotes: Our Comfort in Dying

New Arrival:
Our Comfort in Dying: Civil War Sermons by R. L. Dabney, Stonewall Jackson’s Chief-of-Staff transcribed and edited by Jonathan W. Peters (Sola Fide Pub, 2021).

Religious revivals were pretty common events in the Civil War camps of both sides, but the one that began in spring 1863 in the Army of Northern Virginia (before spreading to other armies) is sometimes viewed as another "Great Awakening." One individual who played a key role in that process was Robert Lewis Dabney, who was a Presbyterian pastor and Stonewall Jackson's chief of staff.

From the description: Dabney preached "in Confederate camps throughout the American Civil War, serving as the chaplain of the 18th Virginia in 1861 and the parson-adjutant to Stonewall Jackson during the Valley and Peninsula Campaigns of 1862. Poor health forced Dabney eventually to resign, but his "sturdy piety," gripping sermons, and fervent prayers were "a great impetus" to the religious awakening which later swept through the Army of Northern Virginia."

According to the Encyclopedia Virginia entry on the general topic of ACW revivals written by historian Steven Woodworth "the soldier revivals tended to be ecumenical and to cross class boundaries. They were often marked by frequent, fervent, and heavily attended religious ceremonies, including preaching services, organized prayer meetings, and “experience meetings,” or gatherings in which individual soldiers took turns sharing with the group how God had brought them to faith in Christ. They were also evidenced by much private Bible reading and small informal prayer meetings among the troops." This restored faith is often said to have sustained many southerners, soldiers and civilians alike, through the dual traumas of war and abject defeat.

More from the description: "In the 1880s, Dabney wrote out a number of his wartime sermons which "were formed indelibly impressed upon [his] memory," hoping to have them published under the title, Army Sermons, or Discourses." Since that time, the manuscript has been stored in the archives of Union Theological Seminary, where Dabney studied and graduated from in 1846. Edited by Jonathan Peters, the collection has now been published under the title Our Comfort in Dying: Civil War Sermons by R. L. Dabney, Stonewall Jackson’s Chief-of-Staff.

The twenty sermons collected in the book discuss a variety of topics, among them temptation, patriotism, prayer, dying (see the title), procrastination, mercy, grace, courage, faith, and sin. According to Dabney's own preface, the "primary object" of the hoped-for publication of his sermons was "to glorify God in Christ, and to bless the souls of men, by giving further currency, in the way, to the doctrines of redemption." He also intended that the text would comfort veterans in their faith and recollections of past service and comrades, while also serving as a defense of the cause under which they fought.

In addition to the full text of the sermons, the volume contains a "glossary and introduction, along with some additional sermons. Eyewitness accounts are also included to illuminate Dabney's effectiveness as a minister of the Protestant faith in the Confederate armies." The bibliography lists a range of both unpublished and published sources, and the explanatory endnotes are extensive. The appendix section houses additional Dabney writings, but also includes a "humorous anecdote" about Dabney at the Battle of Malvern Hill.

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