Baptists and the American Civil War: September 26, 1861

Balloon View of Washington D.C. 1861

Balloon View of Washington D.C. 1861

Today is a national day of fasting and prayer in the United States. Requested by Congress and with the assent of President Lincoln, the declaration results in numerous war-focused sermons from northern pulpits, evidencing broad-based religious support of the Union cause.

Some Baptist preachers and congregations observe the day of fasting and prayer. Pastor James Simmons of First Baptist Church Indianapolis, Indiana, preaches from Isaiah 58:6: “Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?” Smith not only finds fault with the South for defending slavery, he also criticizes his home state of Indiana for constitutionally barring blacks from moving to the state. Calling upon America to repent from the sin of slavery, he insists that a refusal to accept “the work of emancipation” will result in “the destruction of the Republic.” Unlike many northern Baptist pastors, Simmons throws caution to the wind. Insisting upon his right to “infuse the eternal principles of righteousness from the pulpit into politics,” he hopes to inspire his listeners to be engaged “at the caucus and the polls, as at the prayer meeting and communion table.”

By way of contrast, some Baptist pastors observe the day of fasting and prayer but do not advocate for abolition. When one of the speakers at the E. Street Baptist Church  in Washington D.C. declares that slavery is an “abomination in the sight of God,” pastor George W. Samson rebukes the speaker. Washington politics play a role in this episode: the anti-slavery speaker is a close relative of vice-president Hannibal Hamlin, and Samson is a cautious abolitionist because of historically strong slavery sentiment in the nation’s capital.

More national days of fasting and prayer in the North take place during the war, as Baptists struggle with the overlapping themes of politics, morality, religion and church state separation.

Sources: James B. Simmons, The Cause and Cure of the Rebellion: Or, How Far the People of the Loyal States Are Responsible For the War. Indianapolis: Werden and Co., 1861, ii, 2-9, as cited in Sean A. Scott, A Visitation of God: Northern Civilians Interpret the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011, 40-42; Nicholas Guyatt, Providence and the Invention of the United States, 1607-1876. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007, p. 279; illustration, Harper’s Weekly, V (July 27, 1861), 476.