Hidden Persuasions – by Richard G. Williams, Jr.

Charles Pettit McIlvaine
Charles Pettit McIlvaine

One of the most striking things I found when researching the book I wrote about Stonewall Jackson and his black Sunday school class was the impact personal relationships have upon history. Even what may first appear as obscure and coincidental acquaintances often manifest themselves in profound ways regarding their impact on history.

Such is the case with Charles Pettit McIlvaine (1799-1873). Born the son of a senator in New Jersey, McIlvaine would eventually graduate from Princeton. While at Princeton, McIlvaine witnessed a campus wide revival that resulted in many conversions—including his own. He would later write:

“It was powerful and pervading and fruitful 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.”

Ordained in 1820, he would eventually preach to men such as Henry Clay and John Calhoun. After being chosen to serve as chaplain of the U.S. Senate, Calhoun was so impressed with McIlvaine that, as Secretary of War, Calhoun appointed him to be the chaplain at West Point. It was here that McIlvaine left perhaps his greatest mark on history, though at the time few were likely aware. Having been converted through a revival at Princeton, the new chaplain would now be the instrument for one coming to West Point. Francis H. Smith (Class of 1833 and the first superintendent of Virginia Military Institute) would later recount McIlvaine’s telling of the revival that took place from 1826-1827:

“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 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.”

Initially sparked by the conversion of Cadet Leonidas Polk, the revival would impact a number of other cadets as well, including Robert E. Lee, Albert Sydney Johnston, Joseph E. Johnson, and Jefferson Davis. The story has lots of fascinating twists and turns—too numerous and involved for a blog post—but one of the most interesting aspects of this revival was the conversion of a cadet by the name of Martin Parks.

Parks would return to West Point 14 years later and also serve as chaplain. While serving as chaplain, Parks would have an impact upon another notable cadet: Thomas J. Jackson. Jackson would also come under the influence of Parks while stationed at Fort Hamilton in New York after the Mexican War. As Jackson’s biographer James I. Robertson noted, “The . . . person who helped turn Jackson more strongly toward God was the Rev. Martin Philip Parks.”

Thus, McIlvaine had an impact on both Lee and Jackson (though indirect on the latter) who would later form what’s been referred to as a “model partnership” during the War Between the States.

So what became of McIlvaine during the Civil War? Interestingly enough, he travelled to England at the request of President Lincoln to persuade the British not to recognize the Confederacy—a move which sealed the doom of the Southern cause.

The story of McIlvaine and Parks, and the men they influenced, is illustrative of what George Grant has referred to as hidden persuasions:

“Though history is generally recorded as a series of individual achievements or corporate movements, more often than not momentous events are shaped by the hidden persuasions of interpersonal concerns.”

(Special thanks to Chaplain (Colonel) John Wesley Brinsfield, Jr., Retired, who is the Chaplain Corps Historian at the Army Chaplain School, Ft. Jackson, South Carolina. It was Colonel Brinsfield who first shared some of the details of this story with me. I am working on a much more detailed article regarding McIlvaine, Parks, and the impact they had on the men who fought during America’s bloodiest conflict.)

Bishop Charles Pettit McIlvaine
Bishop Charles Pettit McIlvaine

Richard G. Williams, Jr. is a Southern writer who specializes in the study of the War Between the States and the Christian faith. A regular contributor to the Washington Times’ Military History Column, he also maintains the wildly unpopular Old Virginia Blog at: http://oldvirginiablog.blogspot.com/

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  1. Dear Richard Williams Jr.

    I just stumbled on your piece about Charles Pettit McIlvaine and his connections as West Point chaplain with a number of Southern luminaries. You even included somje items I was unaware of when I wrote my A Born Again Episcopalian: The Evangelical Witness of Charles Pettit McIlvain. If you would like to read more about his period as chaplain, as well as other aspects of his life and thought, including the trip to Britain at President Lincoln’s behest, go to Solid Ground Christian Books to acquire my work. It is interesting that his influence at West Point turned the American officer corps into a body of men largely influenced by Christian principle (there are always exceptions, of course). Though he was a northerner, McIlvaine’s religious views – expressed in the most beautiful and learned theology – would resonate with the Southern mind, I think. Also, he was a great friend of Leonidas Polk (as mentioned in your article), a friendship that remained despite the war that separated them. All the best, Tom Isham

  2. Thank you for this wonderful article. Bishop McIlvaine is my great-grandfather. His son-in-law (my grandfather, William Bertrand Stevens) was the Bishop of the Los Angeles Diocese and his daughter (my mother, Emily McIlvaine Stevens Hall) was one of the first ten women ordained in the Episcopal Church. The tradition is quite strong in the family with other grand-sons-in-law and great-grand-sons who have been priests and suffragan bishops. Andrew McKenzie Hall

    1. Dear Mr. Hall – In case you are unaware of it, my A Born Again Episcopalian: The Evangelical Witness of Charles Pettit McIlvaine, is available on Amazon or from the publisher. A very interesting man indeed. Thank you for sharing some of the more recent family history. Best, Tom Isham

  3. Tom, Andrew – I’m just now seeing these comments. My apologies for such a belated response. Thank you both for the kind words. I’ll be purchasing the recommended book.

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