Baptists and the American Civil War: October 8, 1861

Crawford H. Toy

Crawford H. Toy

This month a scholar-in-the-making, whose recent appointment as a Southern Baptist missionary to Japan has been rescinded by war-related financial difficulties, joins Virginia’s Norfolk Light Artillery Blues.

The new enrollee has an impressive pedigree: he is a graduate of the Norfolk Academy (a military school) and the University of Virginia, a student of John A. Broadus (who baptized him), a former professor and administrator at the Albermarle Female Institute, one of the first students of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a former professor of Greek at Richmond College. His interest in scholarly pursuits, and languages in particular, is the product of his upbringing by his father, a Baptist deacon and druggist who taught himself several languages.

Crawford H. Toy joins the Norfolk Light Artillery Blues as an ardent supporter of the Confederacy. An infantryman, Toy in time also becomes a chaplain in General Lee’s army. He serves in Longstreet’s Corps at Gettysburg. When the Confederates are forced to retreat, Toy remains on the front lines with the surgeons, a choice that leads to his wounding and capture by Union forces on July 4, 1863. Imprisoned at Fort McHenry, Toy is released in December in a prisoner exchange.

Prior to his capture at Gettysburg, a friend observes that Toy “is looking very well and seems to be enjoying himself. His Syriac books are in Norfolk and he has, therefore, been compelled to fall back on German for amusement.” While imprisoned at Fort McHenry, “The tedium of this confinement was relieved by the glee club, the daily mock dress parade with tin pans for drums, and the class in Italian, organized and taught by him.”

Toy’s love of books and languages is insatiable throughout the war. One chronicler writes, “In an interval of the suspension of hostilities at the Battle of Cold Harbor, a private soldier lies on the ground poring over an Arabic grammar – it is Crawford H. Toy, who is destined to become the famous professor of Oriental languages at Harvard University.” During a lull in the action at Seven Pines, Toy “tramped all the way from Seven Pines battlefield to Richmond to consult a Hebrew grammar.”

Toy survives the war and the world remembers him as an outstanding Harvard professor. Yet Toy’s journey from the battlefield to Harvard is firstly a Baptist story. After a post-war stint of study in Berlin, the trustees of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1869 hire the 33-year old Toy as a professor of Old Testament interpretation and oriental languages. A popular professor and top biblical scholar, Toy remains at SBTS until 1879, at which time his increasingly “liberal” views concerning the historical accuracy of the Old Testament lead to his firing, paving the way for his Harvard career.

Toy thus becomes representative of the next major salvo in the Southern Baptist war over biblical literalism. An approach to biblical interpretation that sanctioned African slavery then led the South to disunion from the North and the resulting Civil War to defend the righteousness of slavery, biblical literalism in the post-war years trained its guns upon modern science as represented by Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution. This war continues to the present day in Southern Baptist life, as 21st century Southern Baptist theologians and historians yet dismiss Toy as a heretic.

Sources: Dan Gentry Kent, “The Saint’s Suitor: Crawford H. Toy,” Baptist History & Heritage Journal, Vol. 38 No. 1, Winter 2003, pp. 6-18; “Crawford Howell Toy,” Harvard Divinity School (link); John Powell Clayton, “Crawford Howell Toy of Virginia,” The Baptist Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 2, April 1971, pp. 51 (link); Francis Trevelyan Miller and Robert Sampson Lanier, editors, The Photographic History of the Civil War: Soldier life, Secret Service, New York: The Review of Reviews, 1911, p. 115.