Emphasizing the courage required and the cost of dissent before and throughout the Civil War, David B. Chesebrough identifies dissenters among the southern clergy, tells their stories, and discusses the issues that caused these Christians to split from the majority
After an opening chapter in which he provides an overview of the role of the southern clergy in the antebellum and war years, Chesebrough turns to the South’s efforts to present a united proslavery front from 1830 to 1861. Clergy who could not support the "peculiar institution" kept silent, moved to the North, or suffered various consequences for their nonconformity.
Chesebrough then deals with the war years (1861–1865), when opposition to secession and the war was regarded as much more serious than opposition to slavery had been. Some members of the clergy who formally supported and justified slavery could not support secession and war. This was a dangerous stance, sometimes carrying a death sentence.
The final chapter, "The Creative Minority" stresses the important societal role of dissenters, who, history shows, often perceive events more clearly than the majority.
The dissenters Chesebrough discusses include John H. Aughey, a Presbyterian evangelist from Mississippi who was imprisoned and sentenced to death for his opposition to secession; William G. Brownlow, a Methodist cleric and newspaper publisher who, though he later became governor of Tennessee, was imprisoned and forced to leave the state because of his opposition to secession and the Civil War; John Gregg Fee, the founder of Berea College in Kentucky, who was denounced by his family and forced to leave the state because of his abolitionist views; and Melinda Rankin, a Presbyterian missionary worker in Brownsville, Texas, who was dismissed from her teaching responsibilities because of alleged northern sympathies.