Chaplain William Wallace Bennett
By Chaplain H. Rondel Rumburg
© 2008 by SBSS
William Wallace Bennett, although a man serving God with many tasks, was the post chaplain in Confederate Richmond. He was one of the most prominent men in the Chaplain Corps. He was a faithful chronicler of the history of God’s presence in the armies of the Confederacy. He was a minister in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South when the South was invaded by what Bennett called “bands of butchers.”
Bennett was born in the city of Richmond, Virginia on February 24, 1821. He was said to have been “reared under the influence of Methodist teaching and preaching of the old school.” God was pleased to bring Bennett to a saving relationship with Himself under the ministry of Rev. Grease M. Keesee in Portsmouth, Virginia in 1839. He was a lad of seventeen when he made his profession of faith in Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Saviour. In November of 1842 Bennett, believing himself called to the ministry, was received on a trial basis in the Virginia Conference.
His life of service in the Kingdom of God had just begun. He was received in Louisa circuit as junior preacher with Rev. Francis S. Mitchell for 1843-44. Then he was on the Bedford circuit in 1845 as junior preacher with Rev. B. H. Johnson, and on the Powhatan circuit in 1846-47.
Bennett was stationed at Charlottesville 1848-49, and he became a student at the University of Virginia in 1850. He was graduated in several schools the same year. The Lord’s servant was stationed at Washington City in 1851, and he was the first Methodist preacher there in charge of the newly formed Southern Church.
W. W. Bennett was appointed chaplain to the University of Virginia in 1852. However, after only partial service he was compelled to resign because of failing health. Although, it does not appear that he allowed his physical condition to slow him down long. He was assigned to the Loudoun circuit 1851–55. From 1858 on he became a member of the General Conference.
During this time Bennett’s life drifted into the stream of love. Yes, he entered the realm of a fair maiden. His manly affection became concentrated on a certain young lady. Thus in the providence of God Virginia Lee Sangster was that young lady. William believed that God had set aside Virginia Lee to be his helpmeet. The lovely couple was married in 1855. At this time he was presiding Elder in the Washington district, where he ministered from 1855 to 1861, and he served at Centenary Methodist Episcopal Church, South from 1862-63.
During the conflict imposed on the South by Northern coercion the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, furnished more than 200 chaplains for the Confederate cause and some 32 army missionaries. There were also a sizable number of Southern Methodist preachers that served as ordinary soldiers or officers in the Confederate Army. The Virginia Conference of which Bennett was a part listed nine ministers serving in the army, and twenty-two serving as chaplains of which Bennett was one, along with two missionaries.
William Bennett became the superintendent of Soldiers’ Tract Association and chaplain in the Confederate States of America army, a task he performed until the close of the war. He was a very active chaplain as post chaplain. His conviction was that the men facing death needed to hear the good news of eternal salvation through the Lord Jesus Christ. His participation in the Lord’s work was varied, like most of the chaplains. His varied service included being chairman of the Chaplains’ Association. Also, he was involved in multifarious tasks. Bennett ran the blockade at Charleston Harbor in the winter of 1865 visiting England in order to purchase Bibles for the Confederate army. There were never enough Bibles to satisfy Southern soldiery. The Federals had made Bibles contraband of war, and today they have banned God’s Word from the public sector of America.
Bennett has explained via his pen that the Confederate army camps were often truly “a school of Christ.” Godly generals such as Stonewall Jackson, J. E. B. Stuart, Robert E. Lee and many others led their men both in fighting an invading enemy in blue, but also joined their men in prayer meetings to seek the face of the Lord. Time and eternity were brought into proper focus as men considered the brevity of life in the light of eternity.
God was pleased to use Chaplain Bennett to chronicle much of the grand work in the armies of the Confederacy. There were sweeping movements of the Spirit of God at various times, which he documented. The Confederate Chaplains Corps found that the fields were white unto harvest. Chaplain Bennett tells us about the great in-gathering of souls into the kingdom of God’s dear Son during the period of Federal invasion.
Dr. Bennett was very discerning as his words disclose,
There is a strongly marked difference between armies of invasion and armies of defense. The former are often mere bands of butchers following at the heels of some ambitious leader. But when men fight for country, kindred, and home, they bear a moral character that lifts them above mercenary motives.
He quoted a writer, who wrote in the midst of the war, “We cannot express our feelings while we think of them. Glorious fruits of the grace of God are these men that have been ‘born again’ on fields of blood….”
How wonderful to have such a grand account in The Great Revival which prevailed in the Southern Armies. Bennett’s pen captured the work of God, by way of example:
In the army of General Lee, while it lay on the upper Rappahannock, the revival flame swept through every corps, division, brigade, and regiment. (As one chaplain explained):
The whole army is a vast field, ready and ripe to the harvest…. The susceptibility of the soldiery to the gospel is wonderful, and, doubtful as the remark may appear, the military camp is most favorable to the work of revival. The soldiers, with the simplicity of little children, listen to and embrace the truth. Already over two thousand have professed conversion, and two thousand more are penitent…. Oh, it is affecting to see the soldiers crowd and press about the preacher for what of tracts, etc., he has to distribute, and it is sad to see hundreds retiring without being supplied!
There never seemed to be Biblical reading matter in sufficient supply to satisfy the demand of hungry souls in the trenches and on the fields of valor. The spiritual appetites of the men were great as a result of the visitation of the Lord. Bennett in his volume recorded many instances of the great work of God the Holy Spirit. At this point one such selection that he recorded from the Richmond Christian Advocate (the publication of Bennett’s denomination) will explain briefly this work,
Not for years has such a revival prevailed in the Confederate States. Its records gladden the columns of every religious journal. Its progress in the army is a spectacle of moral sublimity over which men and angels can rejoice. Such camp-meetings were never seen before in America. The bivouac of the soldier never witnessed such nights of glory and days of splendor. The Pentecostal fire lights the camp, and the hosts of armed men sleep beneath the wings of angels rejoicing over many sinners that have repented.
The people at home are beginning to feel the kindling of the same grace in their hearts. It is inspiring to read the correspondence … between converts in camp and friends at home, and to hear parents praise God for tidings from their absent sons who have lately given their hearts to the Lord.
“Father is converted,” says a bright-faced child of twelve years. “Momma got a letter today, and father says that there is a great revival in his regiment.” The child is too happy to keep her joy to herself. What glorious news from the army is this! This is victory—triumph—peace! This is the token of good which the great King gives to cheer his people. It is the best evidence that prayer is heard, and that the Lord is with us. Let us show ourselves grateful for such grace and “walk worthy of God who has called us to his kingdom and glory.” Let fervent prayer continue and patient faith wait on God, “who is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think.”
Immediately following the war Bennett did not miss a beat as he continued serving his Master. The suffering South needed as much as ever the Lord’s care as had the soldiers. Now he went from being a chaplain to being a pastor, which was only a difference in geography. His ministry would be indoors now rather than outside. The Nottoway circuit was where he ministered in 1866 as reconstruction began to rear its monstrous head.
W. W. Bennett was also a denominational leader and had been since before the war. “His active career in the Church had covered a span of 40 years and no one had served in so many different capacities.” These kind words were written after his passing. In 1866 the Virginia Conference sent eleven delegates to the General Conference. Seven of that group had been recognized leaders for years previous to the war, these included William W. Bennett, Leroy Lee, David S. Doggett, William A. Smith, James A. Duncan, John C. Granbery and Leonidas Rosser. In 1867 he was appointed editor of the bankrupt Richmond Christian Advocate, and continued in that office until 1877 when he was elected the sixth President of Randolph-Macon College. When he turned the paper back into the hands of the Conference it was debt free. President Bennett had been a member of the board of trustees for a number of years prior to his election as president, and had a familiarity with many of the problems faced by the institution. Randolph-Macon College is, according to the date of charter, the oldest Methodist related college founded by Methodists in continuous operation. Back in 1867 Bennett had received an honorary degree of D.D. from this college. Bennett’s tenure as president was to be a boon to the institution that had been strapped by the war, which had reduced its financial abilities.
One of the acts of President Bennett which was to have far-reaching results was the bringing to the faculty of William Waugh Smith as professor of Latin and Greek and later of mental and moral philosophy. Professor W. W. Smith was not only a stimulating teacher, but was a public relations man of the first order. He was one of the principal fund raisers in the campaign inaugurated by President Bennett to pay off the indebtedness of the college and to increase the endowment.
President Bennett out of necessity resigned the presidency of Randolph-Macon College in 1886 because of failing health. One writer noted that Bennett “impaired (his) health as a consequence of the heavy burdens…(he) was forced to carry, and…died the year following (his) resignation.”
An interesting observation, during this the celebration of Jefferson Davis’ two hundredth birthday, is that Randolph-Macon offered Davis the presidency hoping to replicate the success that R. E. Lee had at Washington College, but Davis declined.
Dr. Bennett was a highly reputed Methodist historian. His was the pen of a ready writer, he was the editor of the Methodist magazine Richmond Christian Advocate and he wrote the following books: in 1871 was published the Memorials of Methodism in Virginia considered one of the most reliable sources of Virginia Methodist history; and he wrote, what would become his magnum opus (kept in print today by Sprinkle Publications), A Narrative of the Great Revival which prevailed in the Southern Armies during the late Civil War between the States published in 1876. Many of the rare manuscript materials which he had collected for his first book, including the manuscript Journal of Stith Mead, were destroyed in the great fire which swept the city of Richmond after it was evacuated by the Confederate troops during the early days of April 1865. Fortunately Bennett had taken the manuscript of his Memorials to his home in a safer part of the city. His pen also produced A History of Methodism for our Young People.
After his resignation at Randolph-Macon he retired to his farm near Trevillian Depot and remained there until the Lord issued a call for him to enter into his eternal home. His death occurred at Trevillian on June 7, 1887 at fifteen minutes past one o’clock. William Wallace Bennett was a faithful minister of Christ, a Confederate chaplain greatly used of the Lord, a historian of some repute and a debater of the gospel of saving grace. He was a man esteemed for his character and fervent in the work of the Lord. Soli Deo Gloria
Ahlstrom, Sydney E., A Religious History of the American People, Vol. 2, New York: Image Books, 1975.
Bennett, W. W., Obituary, Richmond State.
Bennett, W. W., The Great Revival in the Southern Armies, Harrisonburg: Sprinkle Publications, 1976.
Jones, J. William, Christ in the Camp, Harrisonburg: Sprinkle Publications, 1986.
McTyeire, Holland N., A History of Methodism, Nashville: Southern Methodist Publishing House, 1884.
Pitts, Charles F., Chaplains in Gray, Nashville: Broadman Press, 1957.
Sweet, William Warren, Virginia Methodism: A History, 1955.