Published August 12, 2010
GETTYSBURG, Pa. (RNS) From his Old Testament beard down to his scuffed boots and battered Bible, Alan Farley looks the perfect picture of a Civil War chaplain.
On a dusty field five miles from where the Battle of Gettysburg was fought 147 years ago, Farley acts the part as well, thundering sermons from his home-made pulpit, praying with bedraggled soldiers, and handing out tracts with titles like “Everlasting Punishment.”
The thousands of soldiers and spectators at the Gettysburg Civil War Battle Re-enactment in early July could be forgiven for swallowing the chaplain’s performance – the tracts look aged, the religion old time.
But it is no act, says Farley, it is a divine calling.
For 26 years, Farley has driven thousands of miles, distributed millions of pages of tracts, and delivered hundreds of sermons – all for one mission: bringing Civil War re-enactors to Jesus.
“No one was reaching them,” said the 59-year-old Virginian. “They are gone every weekend and most wouldn’t darken the door of a church, ordinarily. But they need to get saved.”
Farley’s Re-enactor’s Missions for Jesus Christ combines modern means with 1860s-style evangelism to reach the estimated 50,000 Civil War enthusiasts who live to relive famous battles like Bull Run, Antietam, and Shiloh year after year.
Pitching a cross-steepled tent beside the battlefields, Farley and a handful of volunteers in period dress pray with re-enactors, promote a Civil War chaplains’ museum in Lynchburg, Va., and preach as often as event organizers will allow. Farley estimates that 1,800 re-enactors have been led to Christianity through his ministry.
One day, he hopes, he’ll see an evangelical revival like those that blazed through Confederate camps during the Civil War.
In some ways, Farley and his family are typical Christian missionaries, albeit with an unusual mission field. They live in Appomattox, Va., where Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant in 1865. But the Farleys spend 40 weeks a year away from home, crisscrossing the country in an RV that carries Alan and his wife, Faith, to scores of Civil War re-enactments and events. Often their 20-something children – both re-enactors – come along.
Fifteen churches support the Farleys through their monthly mission budgets. “Just like missionaries going to Africa, or Ireland, or wherever,” Farley said. Farley was ordained by an independent Baptist church in 1994, at, of course, a Civil War re-enactment.
While many fellow re-enactors adopt a specific historical persona, Farley does not.
“I feel very strongly that if I portrayed somebody, and somebody realized I was not that person, they might think the message or Gospel I’m trying to share with them is also phony,” he said.
Re-enactors spend countless hours learning to dress, shoot, and speak like Civil War soldiers. But for all their historical high-mindedness and fastidious attention to period detail, re-enactments can be bawdy affairs, with modern-day enthusiasts assuming the role of dissolute soldiers on the eve of bloody battles. Then as now, drink and gambling are the biggest vices.
At a re-enactment two decades ago in North Carolina, where Farley was playing a Confederate soldier, he read the Bible in his tent as the moon rose. It was the Book of Ezekiel, where God warns that those who do not dissuade backsliders will be held accountable.
“I said, ‘Lord, are you speaking to me about these re-enactors?”‘ Farley recalled. “And the Lord said, ‘Look at them singing and carrying on around the campfire. My son died for them and no one is coming to them. If you go, I’ll give you the strength.’ From then on, my burden was for the re-enactors.”
Since re-enactments are often held on isolated farms, getting to church on Sunday and back by battle-time can be nearly impossible. Farley resolved to bring church to the men. He began with 15-minute sermons held in the shade of an oak tree between battles. At the recent Gettysburg re-enactment, Farley led two services packed with hundreds of soldiers and spectators in a tent beside the battlefield.
That’s where Williams Collins of Portland, Ind., heard him on July 4, just hours before he rushed into battle as the Color Sergeant in Pickett’s Charge. Three years ago, Collins said, Farley saved his life – eternal and temporal.
“I was going down the wrong road. He brought me back and gave me a new outlook,” he said.
Not everyone appreciates his ministry, Farley admits. Some chaplain re-enactors, turned off by his evangelism, turn tail when they see him coming. Some spectators and re-enactors turn up at his 1860s-style worship services expecting a show, only to find real conviction.
Farley’s preaching blends past and present – he keeps 200 period sermons in boxes in the RV – but they leave no room for middle ground: you are saved, or you are not. Each service closes with an altar call.
“It’s the same message men 150 years ago were preaching,” he said. “That never changes.”
The preacher has no patience for chaplain re-enactors who dress the part but lack the passion.
“I run across men out here who portray chaplains and have the mannerisms and the dress of a Civil War chaplain down to a ‘t,’” Farley said. “But when they preached I realized they were not genuine. They were just reading a sermon that someone else preached.”
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