Baptists and other white Americans North and South during the Civil War-era were unequivocal: secession, the existence of the Confederate States of America, and the Civil War were all the result of slavery, the immoral (or moral, depending on one’s race, political persuasion and/or geographic location) institution that served as the economic engine of the South.
As one historian summarized, “slave labor was the foundation of a prosperous economic system in the South.” Yet that Southern “economic system” truly benefited only a small percentage of elite white southerners–plantation owners–as Bruce Levine’s The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South so aptly documents. Paradoxically, the creation of the South upon the practice of African slavery ensured the destruction of the region.
How did African slavery arrive at a point where it led to the bloodiest war in American history?
African slavery had been a part of America since early colonial days, but by the nineteenth century was increasingly controversial and largely concentrated in the agricultural-driven southern states.
In the early years of the nineteenth century, cotton became the leading cash crop of the South and black slavery became necessary to sustain the cotton economy. The northern industrial economy in turn was partially dependent upon slave-produced cotton, even as northern anti-slavery sentiment mounted on two fronts: a growing number of northerners considered slavery sinful, while many newly-arrived European immigrants and western-bound pioneers, seeking new economic opportunities, viewed as a threat to their jobs and livelihoods the potential expansion of slavery outside the South.
Meanwhile, by the 1840s, enough prominent white Baptists in the South had moved up the social ladder and into the ranks of slaveholders to merit a public, aggressive, systematic apology of black slavery on biblical grounds. The corollary to black slavery was white supremacy, and Baptists joined white Southern Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopals and others in defending the growing, Southern caste system of white supremacy and black slavery.
From the advocacy of white supremacy and black slavery a new Baptist denomination was born. Foreshadowing the Civil War, white Baptists in the South withdrew fellowship from their northern counterparts on May 10, 1845, forming the Southern Baptist Convention in order to better defend the South’s practice of and dependency upon black slavery.
By this time, Southern white elites’ defense of slavery was fully developed, led by South Carolina. South Carolina’s Baptists were the most influential in the South, while the state as a whole served as the heart of the slave aristocracy, its massive plantation and slave populated coastal area among the richest counties in the entire American nation. In 1845, former South Carolina governor James Hammond spoke on behalf of his fellow slave lords when he declared that free societies were the problem. Slave societies, by way of contrast, maintaining a caste system that kept inferior humans in check, ensured the “foundation of every well-designed and durable” republic. Thomas Jefferson’s belief that “all men are created equal” was “ridiculously absurd.” Hammond went so far to say that not only were blacks unfit for freedom, but the white working class should also be enslaved for their own “emancipation.” Aristocrats’ views of the unworthiness of working whites, however, would be publicly toned down by the war years as rhetoric of white solidarity came to serve the more useful purpose of rallying poor whites to secession from the United States.
While white Southern Baptist elites of 1845 agreed that human equality was wrongheaded and black slavery morally pure (most probably did not condone the enslavement of working class whites), they had not always believed thus. To be certain, the birthing of the pro-slavery Southern Baptist Convention in 1845 did not happen in a vacuum, nor was it necessarily inevitable.
Prior to the 1820s, many Baptists North and South were anti-slavery, reflective of larger views in the South at that time, a legacy of a pre-cotton economy. But by the mid-1840s Baptist sentiment in the South – at least as expressed in denominational leadership – was of the consensus that the enslavement of blacks was ordained of God and must be defended.
The transformation of the thought of the prominent Baptist minister John Leland (who ministered first in Virginia and then in the Northeast) in regards to slavery illustrates the change that took place among white Baptists of the South. As Leland’s views transitioned from anti-slavery to pro-slavery, renowned Baptist preacher and denominational leader Richard Furman, while president of the South Carolina State Convention of Baptists in 1822, wrote on behalf of South Carolina Baptists to the governor of South Carolina about slavery. His letter, a response to the attempted slave insurrection led by free black Denmark Vesey months earlier, is considered a watershed event in the beginning of a movement toward consolidation of white Baptists in the South to the pro-slavery position.
… because certain writers on politics, morals and religion, and some of them highly respectable, have advanced positions, and inculcated sentiments, very unfriendly to the principle and practice of holding slaves;.…These sentiments, the Convention, on whose behalf I address your Excellency, cannot think just, or well founded; for the right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example. (read the entire document)
While nearly two more decades would pass before the sentiments of white South Carolina Baptists were fully realized among Baptists of the South at large, the die had been cast: Baptists in America were on the road to formal division over the issue of slavery. The General Missionary Convention formed in 1814 by Baptists North and South was clearly unraveling by the early 1840s, as American (Northern) Baptists became increasingly hostile to slavery and many white Baptists of the South, desiring to be insiders rather than outsiders in Southern culture and society, became ever more defensive of their region’s “peculiar institution.”
When the rendering came, Baptists in the South made certain the world knew why. Differences over missionary strategy and funding were highlighted at length, but were not the primary causation of the split. Largely comprised of slaveholders, the gathering at the First Baptist Church of Augusta, Georgia, in May 1845 publicly pled their case. Slavery was biblical. Therefore abolition was sinful, and Baptists of the North were wrong to oppose slavery. Abolitionists of the North were responsible for the Baptist division; southern Baptists had been patient with the agitators, but enough was enough. Pledging allegiance to slavery, they vowed “we will never interfere with what is Caesar’s” (a biblical allusion implying it was their moral and legal responsibility to uphold the legal institution of slavery). And for good measure, delegates expressed outrage that a northern Baptist missionary had “actually remitted money to the United States to aid in the assisting of slaves to ‘run away from their masters.'” (Proceedings of the Southern Baptist Convention, 1845.)
From this point forward, white Baptist leaders in the South through the end of the Civil War openly and insistently championed and defended white supremacy and black slavery, along the way migrating into a form of Christian nationalism heretofore foreign to the very Christian denomination that had been the most vocal advocate, since the seventeenth century, of the separation of church and state.
In Alabama, one Baptist news editor in 1850 said of slavery, “As a question of morals, it is between us and God … as a question of political economy, it is with us alone, as free and independent states.” The same year, Alabama’s Bethel Baptist Association, reflecting Calvinistic theology, insisted the master-slave relationship was the product of God’s providence. In 1856 an Alabama Baptist labeled slavery “as much an institution of Heaven as marriage.” And in 1860 another declared, “The best defense of slavery … is slavery as it is.” (See Wayne Flynt, Alabama Baptists in the Heart of Dixie, p. 108)
White Baptists merely echoed what other Southern whites were saying. Alabama Presbyterian minister Rev. Fred A. Ross wrote a book defending slavery in 1857. Entitled Slavery Ordained of God, Ross declared: “Slavery is of God, and [should] continue for the good of the slave, the good of the master, the good of the whole American family.”
With the Republican Party in 1860 united in resisting the expansion (and hence future) of slavery, the preservation and expansion of slavery lay with the Democratic Party. Yet Democrats in their 1860 convention were split over the issue, with the Deep South’s delegates (all slave lords or allies of slaveholders) determined to trump the Unionist commitments of other Democratic delegates. The Democratic convention, meeting in Charleston, the epicenter of the South’s slavocracy, split over the issue of slavery. South Carolinian slave lord John S. Preston, as he led his fellow slave lords out of the convention hall and ultimately toward secession, summed up the Deep South elites’ unwavering commitment to slavery by declaring: “Slavery is our king; Slavery is our truth; Slavery is our Divine Right.”
Meanwhile, Virginia slaveholder and aristocrat George Fitzhugh spilled a great deal of ink defending black slavery and condemning human equality and free societies. Fitzhugh declared that he was “quite as intent on abolishing Free Society” as Northerners were on “abolishing slavery.” When war broke out, Fitzhugh framed the conflict as a war “between Christians and infidels.”
On March 21, 1861 newly-elected Confederate vice-president Alexander Stephens, formerly a U.S. Senator from Georgia, while speaking in Savannah summarized the singular ideology of the newly-formed Confederate States. Condemning the United States’ ideal of “all men are created equal,” Stephens declared:
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.
Yet many Southern non-slaveholders, including Baptists, resisted secession. Prior to 1861, some Baptist leaders in the South, while ardent defenders of slavery, advised against secession. As the secession movement grew and the Confederacy formed in the spring of 1861, the South’s politicians and influential men echoed Stephens in openly acknowledging that slavery was the motivation for rebelling from the United States. Baptist leaders, even those initially apprehensive regarding secession, echoed this message from pulpit and political platform alike. Baptist congressmen from southern states resigned their seats, and prominent Baptist slaveholders helped lead their states to secede from the Union and craft new constitutions.
Throughout the war, Southern Baptist leaders consistently identified slavery as the cause of the war. Specifically, the North’s attempts to abolish God’s institution of African slavery caused the war, and the Confederacy was left with no recourse other than to turn to war to preserve God’s wills for the races.
Two Baptist sermons – one delivered three months before the war began, and the other delivered midway through the war – serve to illustrate the dedication and devotion of white Baptists in the South to white supremacy and black slavery.
On January 27, 1861, before a standing room only audience Ebenezer W. Warren, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Macon, Georgia, delivered a sermon entitled “Scriptural Vindication of Slavery,” here partially quoted:
Slavery forms a vital element of the Divine Revelation to man. Its institution, regulation, and perpetuity, constitute a part of many of the books of the Bible …. The public mind needs enlightening from the sacred teachings of inspiration on this subject …. We of the South have been passive, hoping the storm would subside …. Our passiveness has been our sin. We have not come to the vindication of God and of truth, as duty demanded …. it is necessary for ministers of the gospel … to teach slavery from the pulpit, as it was taught by the holy men of old, who spake as moved by the holy Spirit …. Both Christianity and Slavery are from heaven; both are blessings to humanity; both are to be perpetuated to the end of time …. Because Slavery is right; and because the condition of the slaves affords them all those privileges which would prove substantial blessings to them; and, too, because their Maker has decreed their bondage, and has given them, as a race, capacities and aspirations suited alone to this condition of life ….
On August 21, 1863, Isaac Taylor Tichenor, arguably the most influential Baptist minister in Alabama and known as the “fighting chaplain” for his service in the Confederate Army, stood before the Alabama Legislature and delivered a “Fast Day” sermon (such days were periodically called by government leaders North and South as a way of invoking God’s blessing). The South was weary, Tichenor acknowledged, but defending slavery and the Confederacy from the evil abolitionist North was a holy task, and God’s hand remained upon his faithful people. Tichenor then declared:
Two weary years of war have wrung this question from the agonized heart of our bleeding country. “Oh! That we could have peace!” exclaims the statesman, as he ponders the problems that demand solution at his hands. “Peace,” sighs the soldier, as he wraps his blanket around him and lies down to sleep upon the open field. “Peace!” moans the widow, as she reads the fatal news of her heroic husband fallen on some bloody field, and bitterly thinks of the darkened future in store for herself and her orphaned children. The prayer of the land is for peace. You may hear it in the sanctuary, at the fireside, around the family altar, in the silent chamber, on the tented field. When will it come? …. If God governs the world, then his hand is in this war in which we are engaged. It matters not that the wickedness of man brought it upon us, that it was caused by the mad attempts of fanaticism to deprive us of our rights, overthrow our institutions [African slavery], and impose upon us a yoke which, as freemen, we had resolved never to bear. (read the entire document)
The Southern Baptist Convention, represented by slaveholding elites, repeatedly pledged loyalty to the Confederate nation that God had entrusted with keeping Africans in bondage. South Carolina Baptists lauded a May 1863 SBC affirmation of slavery as the cause of the war and God’s will for blacks:
… the war which has been forced upon us by our assailants, is grounded in opposition to an institution which is sustained by the sanctions of religion. They [Northerners] assume that slavery is a sin and therefore ought to be abolished. We contend that it is a Scriptural institution. The very nature of the contest takes the point in dispute out of the category of politics, and delegates it to the sphere of Christianity. We are really contending for the precepts of religion, against the devices of the wisdom of this world, and it is, therefore, not only the policy, but the duty of religious bodies to define their position in this great contest. The [SBC] convention has done well in giving unambiguous utterance to its sentiments on this subject.
Never did it seemingly occur to Warren and Tichenor and most other white southern Baptists that God would want freedom extended to slaves. Whites were God’s chosen people, and blacks were destined to forever be enslaved to God’s chosen ones. Resistance to God’s plan for humanity had led the North to start the war. Now at the very time that black slavery was receding around the globe in the name of God’s love for all people, God’s true will of racial subjugation on earth rested with the South. Freedom was the right of whites; slavery was the lot of blacks. For the great cause of upholding God’s will for the races, war – and the deaths of hundreds of thousands – was warranted.
In January 1864, against the backdrop of the declining fortunes of the Confederacy, the editor of the Virginia Baptist Religious Herald put the matter succinctly: “Abolition,” he declared, is “the Final Antichrist.”
While vividly disagreeing with their Southern counterparts over the nature of abolitionism, Baptists of the North echoed their Southern brethrens’ insistence that the war was about slavery, the one war-related issue of which Baptists of both regions were in full agreement. Most Baptist state conventions of the North issued condemnations of the treasonous southern slavocracy. A brief statement by Illinois Baptists in June 1863 represented the convictions of most Baptists throughout the North:
We recognize human slavery now, as we have heretofore done, to be the cause of the war and its kindred evils, and we reiterate our convictions that there can be no peace and prosperity in the nation until it is destroyed.
Following the war, many white southerners, including Baptists, publicly denied their earlier insistence that slavery was the cause of the war. Rather than slavery, “states rights” became the new cause of the war “between the slaveholding states and the non-slaveholding states.”
This denial remains widespread today among many white southerners of the twenty-first century. Yet the record is clear. Slavery was the publicly acknowledged cause of the American Civil War, South and North. If slavery had not existed in Antebellum America, the American Civil War would never have occurred.
Baptists and the American Civil War: Crucible of Faith and Freedom by Bruce T. Gourley (Macon, Ga.: Nurturing Faith, 2015) is a month-to-month summary of the online digital Baptists and the American Civil War: In Their Own Words project.
Originally appearing as a series of articles in Baptists Today, this volume includes updated articles plus an introductory essay on “The War Long Coming.”
The book is available in print and digital formats. Click here to buy your copy. Use discount code (AUTHOR15) to receive a discount of 15% of your purchase.
From the book:
Suspended precariously in the middle of this epic struggle is freedom itself. Yet only one God can prevail: either the creator of a new future envisioned by an enslaved people and their Northern allies, or the lord of a dark past to which white Southerners are fiercely devoted. For Baptists, the dividing line runs right through the Bible. Southern biblical conservatism is firmly rooted in America’s racist past, while a future of racial equality hinges upon a newer understanding of scriptural interpretation unfettered by the chains of biblical literalism.
Diverging Loyalties: Baptists in Middle Georgia During the Civil War by Bruce T. Gourley (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2011) is an examination of the varying views of Baptists of Georgia regarding slavery and the Confederacy.
Baptists in the South, rapidly rising to challenge Methodists numerically, helped align Southern religion with the South’s culture of white supremacy and black slavery. The birth of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845, formed in order to preserve God’s eternal will of African slavery, signaled the inevitability of war.
During the war, Baptists in local church and associations responded to the Confederacy in a myriad of ways. Patterns of responses emerged and evolved as the war progressed, while differences between Southern and Primitive Baptists stood out.