Baptists and the American Civil War: October 29, 1862

Civil War States MapIn the wake of U. S. President Abraham Lincoln‘s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, and from the context of a firm commitment to God’s willing of the enslavement of the African race, Baptists in the Confederacy continue searching for some other acceptable reason for God not yet leading His chosen nation to victory over the evil United States.

Today, Samuel Boykin, editor of Georgia Baptists’ Christian Index, takes a stab at identifying the sins of the Confederate States of America. In the process, he sanctifies the Confederate government and restricts God’s scriptural blessing to the Anglo-Saxon race.

Much attention of late has been directed to the [national sins] topic, both in the pulpit and in the discussions of the newspaper press. At one time, in particular, when the cause of the Confederacy was subjected to a long series of reverses and disasters, it was anxiously inquired, what might be the offences which had provoked against us these tokens of divine displeasure? Some of the speculation indulged in on this important question, and some of the answers confidently given to it, have seemed to us not only unsound but positively mischievous. Amongst these is the position that a national sin is exclusively the sin of Government as such–a sin sanctioned by the Constitution or by formal legislation. It has been affirmed that individual transgression, however prevalent they may become, cannot justly be regarded as national; and the legitimate inference from this doctrine has been accepted and promulgated, that individual offenses never provoke national judgment.

Whatever may be the merits of the above definition of a national sin, it strikes me as at least altogether novel. It is quite starling and involves an entire departure from the accustomed and familiar method of popular instruction. It has always been common, if we mistake not, to represent the prevailing and characteristic sins of a people as their national sins. Preachers, when expatiating on great and solemn occasions, on the causes which afflicted a country with calamitous visitations, have been at special pains to warn their hearers against ascribing these evils to the errors and delinquencies of Government alone. They have perceived and felt that at this point there is a fallacy into which the human heart is exceedingly prone to slide, and where it is apt to find a comfortable refuge from its own shortcomings and misdemeanors. At such awful moments they have enlarged on prevailing popular offences, in which their immediate hearers might be guilty sharers–such as infidelity, pride, licentiousness, lawlessness, devotion to money, and the like.

But granting that the above definition, tho’ novel, is still logically correct, what is the advantage of insisting upon it when seeking to account for the tokens of God’s displeasure, and to find the way to remove that displeasure? Is it seriously affirmed that a national sin alone–i.e. a sin of Government in its legislative action–can excite the chastising vengeance of God against a country? This would be a most astounding assertion, it seems to us, and one unsupported alike by reason, by Scripture and by history, that record of God’s providential dealings with our race. Will not popular and pervading sins, wide-spread iniquities, social vices that infect the body politic and ulcerate the great heart of the nation, crimes that stalk abroad with a front of brass and with conscious impunity, arouse the wrath of heaven just as certainly as laws that contravene the Decalogue? Suppose government by its legislation breaks the Sabbath, while the people at large respect it; or, suppose that government observe the Sabbath, while people practically violate it. In such case the question arises, on which supposition is the sin more truly national–when Government makes a bad law in which the people do not virtually obey, or when it makes a just law that the people practically disregard? But waiving this question, which after all involves little more than a verbal quibble, it is of much more consequence to ask, on which supposition is a country most endangered and exposed to the wrath of God? For our part we have no hesitation in saying that it is in greatest peril when, however right the legislation, the people are corrupt and guilty. It is conceivable that a Government may restrain its hand from formal infractions of God’s laws, and yet the people at large may be sceptical and practically Atheists–involved in the crime of idolatry, if not in the literal worship of graven images, at least in the worship of Mammon–devoured by the unscrupulous greed of gain which displays itself in the cruelties of extortion and the hardening of the heart against the imploring appeals of distress. Will not God visit a country for such sins as these, call them national, or what you will? After all that has been said about the sin of Sunday raids, Sunday drills, and Sunday battles, we seriously question whether, in the light of heaven, this is so grievous a sin as the failure to sanctify the Sabbath on the part of those who are remaining quietly at home.

It must have been discovered and felt already that the worst thing about this doctrine of national sins is, the repose and comfort which it ministers to the conscience of the individual sinner. The predispositions of the human heart to shift responsibility is the strongest possible; and when we are told that for our personal offences we must account to God, without apprehending that they may curse our country, what a soothing doctrine is enunciated! The self-indulged patriot–much more solicitous not to harm his country than his God–flatters himself that his individual transgressions, his blasphemy, his intemperance, his extortions, can excite no judgments against the land he loves. The offence at Richmond alone can do that–and he is content. If assured that criminal indulgences will not jeopardize the success of Confederate arms, he is willing to risk the consequences personal to himself. If a national sin is a sin of government alone, and if a national sin alone can produce a national judgment, “what,” he may well ask, “have I to do with the painful business beyond making an effort to reform the legislation at Richmond!” And having subscribed his name to a petition contemplating this end, he returns to his transgressions with the complacent emotions of a virtuous patriot who has done his duty to his country.

Source: “National Sins–What Are They?”, Christian Index, October 29, 1862