Evangelicals, Guns, and Church and State in the Early Republic

The relationships between guns, church and state, and religion at large in the American order have become prominently debated topics in society and in American politics in the Twenty-First Century. Although it may seem strange to American Evangelicals in 2022, 19th Century ministers regularly preached to men carrying guns. Politicians and military figures in the Nineteenth Century United States publicly and enthusiastically committed to the so-called separation of church and state also regularly ordered government workers, soldiers, and militiamen to attend religious services. During the War of 1812 Andrew Jackson routinely commanded his soldiers to attend public worship, generally led by pastor-acquaintances of Jackson.

The presence of the commanding general at religious observances helped keep morale up among the soldiers. Jackson studiously attended divine services of all types. He carefully sponsored Christian devotion in camp while rejecting any sectarian sponsorship of a particular confessional or denominational background. His army eventually included Baptists, Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Roman Catholics. So long as ministers kept their messages devoted to saving souls—and extolling the cause of the United States—Jackson attended and lent his dignity to religious proceedings. When flatboats transported Jackson’s army on the Cumberland River in the winter of 1812/13, Jackson allowed a Methodist itinerant, Lerner Blackman, to construct a platform to serve as a pulpit on a flatboat. The army assembled on other boats, Jackson and his officers included, and listened as the minister preached: “Thirteen companies of infantry with officers, a general, his staff and, suite, were formed on the tops of a number of boats floating together. A minister of the Christian religion, stood upon a pulpit in the midst of them.” A member of Jackson’s force seemed awed that the “gospel morality of Christ was heard to resound upon the bosom of a river and upon the spot, where, within the memory of several present, the buffalo had come to drink.” More impressive to the soldier, Blackman preached in a place where “Indians ambushed solitary travelers, and where “the enterprising white man had cautiously crept along, in continual peril of his life.” [1]

Jackson’s belief in separation of church and state never led him to support removing religion from the civil or social sphere. Jackson allowed ministers of various denominations to address troops with minimal supervision. Reverend Blackman’s sermon received not only permission but support from Jackson. He called Blackman’s remarks “very appropriate” and sensible. Jackson also identified Blackman as chaplain to the army, a title at once unofficial but still formal. As long as a Christian minister remained committed to a non-sectarian message, he enjoyed General Jackson’s patronage. This did not mean that Jackson controlled his message, or his place in civil society. The state could not control Blackman’s message in his own church, or even in a public space. In the case of Jackson’s army, Blackman apparently enjoyed the support of the officers, men, and general. Blackman informed Jackson that as a minister of God, the former’s duty called him to minister the Word of God on Sunday and to “admonish those around him.” Jackson apparently enjoyed the cleric’s message. Blackman concluded his sermon with what Jackson called “a very affecting prayer for the success of the expedition, and for the individual happiness of the general, officers and men engaged in carrying it on.” [2]

[1] Andrew Jackson Edmondson, Journal When a Volunteer under General Andrew Jackson in 1812–1813, 3–4.

[2] “Departure from Nashville,” 11 January 1813, Correspondence of Andrew Jackson 1, 257.


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