” Astute as you may be, you’re out of tune with the world you live in. ” (3:30)
Sherman’s Chaplain is an epistolary novel: a collection of letters dated during the American Civil War from a young regimental chaplain, Ellis Brentley, to his fiancee Elaine. Fifteen letters, spanning over one month, from the end of November 1864 to the new year, capture the pivotal events that drive him to a personal struggle and a humbling revelation about his Christian faith. The tragic lesson he learns really makes his experience being Sherman’s chaplain worthwhile.
Without you, the major had a military inquiry that let people know they had violated army directives and he was watching them. With you, he had a divine inquiry to let people know they had violated heavenly directives and God was watching them. (6:75)
Brentley, 21, was two years out of the seminary and preparing for his first sermon in the field, before established soldiers while he himself had never seen battle. When General William Tecumsch Sherman, commander of the Southern armies of the Union, sent word that he would be attending Sunday service and his own chaplain succumbed to a case of dysentery, Brentley became the man for the job. Despite a bout of nerves that he thought “the word of God was in terrified hands,” he conducted himself with a conviction that impressed Sherman, in whom he awed, and the general made Brentley his chaplain.
Was I truly reading God’s will or riding a self-image as some knight-errant, a Galahad to the rescue? (8:120)
Despite his love for the word and fervor for good deeds, the harsh realities of war, which has no room for mercy because a show of mercy could kill the chance of survival, challenge his faith. The novice chaplain is repeatedly confronted by predicaments inconceivable to his inexperienced mind. He has to choose between Godly duty and military duty. He may not preach war; he may not encourage fight, but the biggest and stickiest hurdle of all is how long a man of great faith could lock horns with such dynamic moral flux of war. How does one take side in a morally confused milieu?
In those churches, people pray for their safety. In these churches people pray for their death and damnation. How can God be pleased with such a place? So it’s God’s hand that’s taking it down and nothing you can say will change that. (1:12)
Sherman’s Chaplain is truly a gem of a book—compact, tough, and utterly beautiful. The epistolary format renders the story so real that almost every time I begin to read a new missive, I cannot help reflect: this cannot be fiction. Based on the true story of Sherman’s march from Atlanta to Savannah, the chaplain chronicles his musings and inner struggles, bringing to life the enormity of the task that Sherman’s army was facing. Every step of the way he has to bridge the gap between what his Church’s teachings were and what his commanders thought expedient. He’s inevitably caught in the eddy of contradicting military and moral directives. He preaches unconditional love, whereas conditional love is what help the soldiers survive. He defends his enemy, out of the same conviction, but yet breaching the line of duty, to the point that endangers his own kind. He is fearless, with the armour of his word and faith, and yet he is unaware of the danger. The tragic lesson at the end humbles him like nothing before in his life. Whether it is the vivid conversational exchange or contemplative narrative, this book captures the best (or worst) of humanity.
122 pp. Softcover. [Read/
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