BOOK REVIEW by Randall M. Miller in The Catholic Historical Review (Spring 2017)

Pure Heart: The Faith of a Father and Son in the War for a More Perfect Union. By William F. Quigley, Jr. [Civil War in the North.] (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press. 2016. Pp. xxix, 381. $39.95. ISBN 978-1-60635-286-1.)

This book grew out of a providential rescue of archival materials that author William Quigley and several colleagues recovered from a flooded basement “sometwenty years ago” at the preparatory school in Massachusetts where Quigley still teaches. In them, Quigley found a scrapbook and correspondence between two prominent Philadelphians from the Civil War era—one, the Reverend Benjamin Dorr who was the rector at the prestigious Christ Church, and the other, his son Captain William White Dorr, of the celebrated 121st Pennsylvania Volunteers, who fought with the Army of the Potomac in many of its key battles before dying while advancing on a rebel line at Spotsylvania Court House in 1864. In reading the letters between father and son, and doing necessary research to place them in historical context, Quigley discovered a story larger than that of the faith and fealty of father and son, divided by distance during the war but bound together by their relentless Episcopalian beliefs and love for the Union.

In Quigley’s telling, the remarkable aspect of the story that emerges is not so much the relationship between father and son but the way(s) that the Reverend Dorr worked to keep a divided congregation together. Christ Church prided itself as being “the nation’s church” for its history as the church where George Washington and other Founding Fathers worshipped, and sought to be a vital center of Christian and civic unity as the nation divided over slavery and then fought a civil war. In his sermons and his ministry, Dorr pointed to the obligations of a common history though at the same time abjuring any millennialist conceits of America as God’s chosen people. He emphasized duty, humility, and charity rather than excess and zeal in his calls for Union and unity, but the self-interests of church members kept pulling the church apart. The church was home to some of Philadelphia’s most prominent Democrats and Republicans and one of America’s largest slaveholders and one of the city’s most determined abolitionists, and church members were deeply involved and even implicated in all the great issues of the day, such as arguments over federal power in wartime, the prosecution of the war, civil liberties and dissent, conscription, and especially emancipation and the recruitment of black troops. The vituperative politics of the streets regularly entered the church, much to the worry of Dorr and the disruption of the congregation. The church survived the war, but was partly remade by it as Dorr’s steadfast support for the Lincoln administration made the church, like the city, more Republican in interest and attachment.

Although Quigley pitches his book as the story of a father and son becoming more united in their Christian and political beliefs, in part because the son’s experience in war moved the father toward more vigorous support for the Union war effort, Pure Heart’s real value is what it reveals about the place of the church in the city and the ways the war affected the city. Quigley often loses the Dorrs in his deep description of historical context, but that emphasis on context offers instructive insights on city politics and the intellectual and social worlds that informed Democratic and Republican interests and actions. More particularly, though he does not acknowledge it, Quigley’s work also follows several recent studies of churches during the war in looking beyond denominational concerns generally to investigate particular churches and thereby to discover how and why those occupying the pulpits and pews within individual congregations were often pitted against one another. At Christ Church, as almost everywhere, there was no escaping the war, whatever the preferences of denominational leaders wanting to do so. And no pure hearts changed that there or elsewhere.

St. Joseph’s University