Baptists and the American Civil War: April 6, 1864

Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi Map 1861The reconstruction of Southern states takes another step forward today when Louisiana delegates assemble in New Orleans to debate the wording of a new constitution that will abolish slavery and restore the state to the Union.

Although prior to the war Louisiana claimed some of the richest counties in the nation due to the presence of large plantations worked by thousands of black slaves, a new day is dawning in the state, as the debates today and in the weeks ahead testify.

One delegate at the Louisiana constitutional convention captures the larger significance of what is at stake:

Sir, the eyes of the civilized world are upon us. This is a struggle between freedom and slavery, involving the salvation or the ruin of this country. In accordance with divine wisdom honest Abe Lincoln has been called to preside over the nation, and his name will be blessed not only by the American people but by the persecuted throughout the whole world. He will be known as the friend of the oppressed of every nationality, of all grades, and of all races and all colors.

Those assembled are Union men, and thus not representative of all white Louisianans. Many have changed their views of slavery during the course of the war. Following months of constitutional debate over the issue of slavery (both in terms of the institution itself and the manner in which, and by whom, slaveholders should be compensated, or not), in which is generally evidenced, with some notable but minority dissenting voices, the need to forever end slavery in the regions of the state yet under Confederate rule (delegates being unable to speak for Union-controlled areas of Louisiana), one delegate offers a resolution summarizing the feelings of many of the assembled:

Whereas. The perpetuity of our national government is now imperiled by a stupendous rebellion against the constitution and laws of our common country, originated, supported and carried on by wicked and designing men, for ‘the purpose of establishing a despotic oligarchy, based upon human slavery, an institution reprobated and abhorred by the civilized world and common humanity ;

And whereas. The stability of republican institutions as well as the liberty of the people, requires that the government of the United States should be preserved intact, and its laws executed throughout the whole domain;

And whereas. The period of election for president and vice-president of the United Slates is now approaching and near at hand ; therefore be it

Resolved, That owing to the existing rebellion and the present condition of our national affairs, any change in the policy of the executive department of the government will embarrass and delay the vigorous prosecution of the war, and be productive of the most disastrous results.

Be it further resolved. That we recognize in Abraham Lincoln a wise president, true patriot and able statesman, who has been tried in the scales and not found wanting, whose past administration is a credit to himself and an honor to the country, and whose policy for the suppression of the rebellion meets our entire approbation. That we also recognize in Andrew Johnson a wise statesman, endowed with wisdom, patriotism and integrity, and in every way most worthy of the full confidence of the people…

While Louisianans thus start down the road of black emancipation, many white Southern Baptists remain full-fledged supporters of black slavery and white supremacy, clinging to their views of the matter as biblical and as God’s will for humanity. The ordination of a black “Brother” in a leading Baptist church in the heart of the Deep South provides a stark glimpse into the Confederate world of freedom for whites only, as noted in a brief newspaper entry concerning the ordination:

Brother Isaac Williamson, colored, of the Macon Baptist church, was ordained in this city lately, having passed, a very creditable examination, in which he strongly coincided with the Bible view of slavery. The sermon was presented by E. W. Warren, charge by G. F. Cooper, presentation of the Bible by S. Boykin.

Macon First Baptist Church pastor Ebenezer W. Warren, famous in Georgia for preaching a fiery defense of the biblical nature of black slavery in January 1861, has by all indications not changed his mind one iota. Warren’s views are yet weekly echoed in the Georgia Baptist Christian Index, edited by Samuel Boykin, a member of Warren’s congregation.

The acquiescence of Williamson to a forced verbalization of slavery as “the Bible view” is certainly lip service only, a reassuring of the church’s white members that the black minister will not criticize the racial structures of the South. This suppression of free speech and religious liberty is a renunciation of Baptists’ heritage of freedom, but necessary for the glory of God’s Confederacy. Under the spotlight, Williamson plays the game for now, knowing that freedom is drawing nigh, and hoping that his interrogators will soon be powerless over his life and his faith.

Collectively, the stories of Louisiana and First Baptist Macon, Georgia reveal the chasm that has developed in the Confederacy as the war moves into its fourth year. The future of the Confederacy is clearly playing out in this contest between between freedom for whites only or freedom for all, a contest in which there is no longer any viable middle ground.

Sources: “Debates in the Convention for the revision and amendment of the constitution of the state of Louisiana. Assembled at Liberty hall, New Orleans, April 6, 1864” (link); 1864 Constitution of Louisiana (link); “Personal,” Christian Index, April 8, 1864