Monday, April 25, 2011

The influence of Charles P. McIlvaine

Richard G. Williams, Jr., who usually writes on his Old Virginia blog, has written a piece over at Civil War Gazette on the impact personal relationships have had upon history. 

"Even what may first appear as obscure and coincidental acquaintances often manifest themselves in profound ways regarding their impact on history," writes Williams, who specializes in the history of the Uncivil War and the Christian faith.

He illustrates his point with the life of Charles Pettit McIlvaine (1799-1873), an Episcopal minister of the gospel who, as the chaplain at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, preached the Good News of Christ and discipled the young men who later fought in the War between the States. In turn several of them encouraged and led in the Great Revival in the Confederate Armies in the winters of 1862, 63, and 64 when over 100,000 Southern boys came to know Jesus as their Lord and Savior.

McIlvaine was the son of New Jersey senator and a Princeton graduate. While studying at Princeton, McIlvaine came to faith in Jesus Christ along with many others in a campus-wide revival. Years later he wrote about the revival: “It was powerful and pervading and fruitful [in] the conversion of young men to God. In that precious season of the power of God my religious life began. I had heard before; I began then to know.”
After being ordained in the Episcopal Church in 1820, McIlvaine years later found himself as Chaplain of the U.S. Senate, regularly preaching to such luminaries as Kentucky Senator Henry Clay and lion of the Senate, John C. Calhoun from South Carolina. As Secretary of War, Calhoun appointed McIlvaine Chaplain of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point

At West Point, McIlvaine did his greatest work. In the 1826-27 school year, the Holy Spirit moved among the cadets. Francis H. Smith (Class of 1833 and the first superintendent of Virginia Military Institute) recounted later McIlvaine's description of the academy's spiritual climate:
“He said, when he entered upon his duties at West Point, the spiritual condition of the Institution was deplorable — no sense of religious obligation — but few professors of religion [that is, believers] among the cadets — and not more than one, if one, among the professors. Skepticism, in its varied forms, was prevalent among officers and cadets, and his labors for some time seemed to be in vain. He finally determined he would combine, with his pulpit ministries, the distribution of religious tracts, leaving them in the rooms of the cadets while they were at drill. They would be as ‘bread cast upon the waters,’ and would return ‘after many days.’ The answer came sooner than he expected.”
Bishop Charles Pettit McIlvaine
Bishop C.P. McIlvaine
The first to come to Christ was Cadet Leonidas Polk, then other cadets including Robert E. Lee, Albert Sydney Johnston, Joseph E. Johnson, and Jefferson Davis. Another of those who came to faith was a cadet by the name of Martin Parks.

Parks would return to West Point fourteen years later as the academy's chaplain where he would impact another notable cadet: Thomas J. Jackson. Jackson would also be influenced by Parks while stationed at Fort Hamilton in New York after the Mexican War. Jackson’s biographer James I. Robertson notes, “The . . . person who helped turn Jackson more strongly toward God was the Rev. Martin Philip Parks.”

Thus, McIlvaine had a spiritual impact on both Lee and  Jackson. These two together would later encourage the Great Revival during the War Between the States.

As for Bishop McIlvaine, Richard Williams writes, he cast his lot with the Union in the War and on behalf of President Lincoln lobbied the British government not to recognize or materially support the Confederacy.