Baptists and the American Civil War: March 17, 1863

Civil War States MapIn Culpeper County, Virginia, site of 18th century Baptist struggles for religious liberty against the Anglican state church, a cavalry battle erupts today as U.S. Brig. Gen. William W. Averell leads 2100 mounted troops across the Rappahannock River to attack Confederate cavalry. Conf. Brig. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee counter-attacks with 800 mounted men, not enough to prevent a Union victory. Having outfought the Confederates in the Battle of Kelly’s Ford, Averell and his cavalrymen withdraw back across the river to safety.

Meanwhile, a Southern Baptist newspaper editor skewers a northern writer for suggesting that Confederate president Jefferson Davis, who has recently proclaimed a national day of fasting and prayer, is despairing of the war effort.

President Davis’ proclamation, appointing the 27th as a day of fasting and prayer has been received at the North. The N. Y. Herald comments on it, and, after stating that these proclamations have always followed disaster, says:

“It is evident, therefore, that the chief of the rebellion is again in a despairing frame of mind, and feels it in his bones that his Confederacy is now in greater danger than ever before, and that terrible times of trial, and fire and brimstone, are coming, and no mistake.”

This language is not strange. It only shows that drowning men will catch at straws. The people of the United States have so often been deceived by promises to crush out the rebellion; have seen their armies go forth proud, confident, and boastful, and return defeated and disheartened; have looked for the close of the war and seen it no nearer than before, that they were becoming weary of strife and clamorous for peace. The Herald, willing to adopt any expedient to revive their drooping spirits, tells them that the chief of the rebellion, and of course, the rebels generally feel that their cause is desperate. It may be sincere on the part of the Herald, as it is not an uncommon mistake on the part of ungodly men. Recognizing no God themselves, they take any such recognition on the part of their opponents for panic or terror.

Well, let them laugh on. When their armies advance again, they will find, not a terrified rabble to oppose them, but the same stout hearts and strong arms, rendered more confident and efficient by their trust in God, that have so often driven back, in confusion and disarray, the plundering and infidel hordes that have come against us; and their laughter will be turned into mourning. The cause must surely be desperate that needs such supports.

In reality, while the United States constitution is secular (contrasted with the Confederate States constitution that proclaims a national Christian identity), both U.S. President Abraham Lincoln and Confederate President Jefferson Davis on a number of occasions proclaim national days of fasting and prayer for their respective countries. Lincoln, while raised as a Baptist and yet maintaining good rapport with prominent Northern Baptist ministers, is now only nominally religious himself. Davis, on the other hand, only later in his life had begun to think seriously about God and has recently been baptized in the Episcopal Church in May 1862. Despite the shrill voices of many Southern Baptist editors and preachers raised in criticism of Lincoln and the North, the U.S. president is already evidencing serious theological reflection concerning the great conflict. While Davis’ proclamation of national fast days are grounded upon a conviction of the Confederacy as God’s chosen nation that shall prevail over her enemies, the theology underlying Lincoln’s proclamations is less certain of the divine will and nature.

Nonetheless, the writer’s primary contention is correct: the Confederacy has much fight left in her, and the war is far from over.

Sources: The Battle of Kelly’s Ford, National Park Service (link); “Our Enemies and the Fast Day,” Biblical Recorder, March 18, 1863 (link); William J. Cooper, Jefferson Davis, American, New York: Vintage Books, 2000, p. 417 (link)