Durwood Dunn’s “The Civil War in Southern Appalachian Methodism”

“that when I shall have made up my mind to go to Hell, I will cut my throat and go direct, and not travel by way of the Southern Confederacy.”  ~ Parson Brownlow, Knoxville Whig

I am reading my way through the late Durwood Dunn’s final book, The Civil War in Southern Appalachian Methodism.  It took me one sitting to read through half of the book and I am thoroughly enjoying it. Dunn did an incredible job running down obscure sources in order to recreate the environment of the Holston Conference during the Civil War. He set forth a simple argument, that the Civil War unveiled an internal civil war within the conference that had been waged for five decades prior to the war (p. xi). In addition to this, Dunn made it obvious through primary source documentation that the central issue that tore the country (and denomination) apart prior to the war, also played a part in tearing the conference apart. 

One issue of strife that Dunn points out was between local preachers and itinerant ministers on numerous issues. During the war, itinerant ministers came out in overwhelming support of the Confederacy.  On pages 94-95, Dunn elaborates on that sentiment.

The culmination of the melding of Southern nationalism and Holston Methodism occurred in the infamous annual conference held October 15-23, 1862 in Athens, Tennessee, a town midway between Chattanooga and Knoxville. The fire-eating Bishop John Early presided and completely dominated the proceedings. Later reports said that the assembled itinerants were surrounded by rebel soldiers and that no Union minister dared make the slightest protest against these obvious threats and blatant intimidation. The first order of business was to appoint a committee to investigate the political status of every suspicious character within this [Holston] conference to determine their absolute loyalty to the Confederate cause….

First, they argued that the 1844 split in the Methodist Church had in fact been necessary to protect not just the Southern people but the slaves themselves from attacks from the “unholy and anti-scriptural crusade of abolition fanaticism and higher-law infidelity” coming from Northern Methodism. In this light, secession in 1861 of the Southern states had not been merely to protect their own civil rights and freedom. It was also necessary because to the Confederate nation had been “committed, in a sense true of no other people on the face of the globe, the guardianship and moral intellectual culture of the African race.” The Methodist Episcopal Church, South, was thus, ” to a great extent, charged, in the Providence of God, with the religious destiny of the colored race.” The old federal government therefore was making war not only to “eventuate the utter destruction of Southern Methodism, as well as of true republican liberty,” but also to prevent the continuing Christianizing of the blacks in their midst. Any Holston itinerant thus “invested with the spiritual oversight of a flock of perhaps fifty thousand souls” who was subsequently disloyal to the Confederacy was guilty not only of treason but also of heresy against his own church and violated thereby a sacred trust to his black congregants as well. In a caveat designed to protect themselves from charges of being spiritual inquisitors, the committee members hastened to omit from scrutiny complaints arising from “former or present opinions touching the abstract political questions of secession and revolution.” Indeed, they righteously argued, any future representation of their actions as contrary to such liberty of conscience or freedom of expression “would be false and malicious.”

It is interesting to note that the committee and annual conference featured primarily itinerant ministers and other higher-ups in the Conference. Most of these men represented a Confederate support structure.  Notice that they recognized slavery as a ‘positive good.’ They also acknowledge indirectly that the North’s supposed attacks on slavery is what led to both secession and war, and that both responses were appropriate. Local ministers were left out of the annual conference by design.  Years of conflict and internal dispute between local preachers and itinerant ministers evolved over the years and left layer upon layer of tension within the conference. When the Civil War broke out, that internal strife exploded with the majority of local preachers coming out in support of the Union.

Anyways, this is an incredible work of scholarship and I highly recommend it to those interested in Civil War history, Appalachian history, and of course, Methodism.


  1. Yes, but it sounded like they tried to whip up support for the Confederate cause by claiming, and these are Dunn’s words rather than the words of Conference leaders, “The old federal government therefore was making war not only to “eventuate the utter destruction of Southern Methodism, as well as of true republican liberty.”

    If you want to bring people over to your side, what better way to do it than claim, justified or not, that your faith is at stake?

    • Dunn is actually paraphrasing the prelude of the report of the committee organized to investigate “the political of every suspicious character.” This prelude would have been given at the annual conference in 1862 which did not include local preachers or other Methodist laity. However, it is likely that pro-Confederate Methodist newspapers and pamphlets would have issued such messages. It’s most likely that they did considering the actions of Parson Brownlow and his “Knoxville Whig.”

      Dunn’s initial premise, I think, hold true when he states that the Civil War that began in 1861 unveiled an existing civil war within the conference. In 1860, there were 127 itinerant preachers and 425 local preachers. You were likely to find more slaveowners in the former. In the schism of 1844-1845, itinerant preachers were in favor of the split over slavery and local preachers were mostly against. A caste system developed as time marched with an aristocratic itinerant at the top and local preachers at the bottom. Those local preachers, overwhelmingly unionist, were embedded in the community and were hard to touch. The committee focused on the more important unionist itinerants like Parson Brownlow.

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