Baptists and the American Civil War: April 10, 1864

Thomas J. "Stonewall" JacksonEven as the clouds over the Confederacy grow ever darker–or perhaps because the future of the South looks so bleak–the veneration of the deceased Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson as a Southern saint is well underway. Having died less than a year ago, Jackson’s image is the subject of much debate among those who vie to shape the public memories of the great man.

White Southern Baptists are surpassed by none in their love of Jackson as a Christian warrior. The beloved general attended a Baptist congregation in his youth, and on numerous occasions during the war wrote or spoke favorably of Southern Baptists, whether as a whole or in reference to a given individual.

Perhaps, then, white Baptists of the South might be surprised if they could know of private correspondence this week between William Brown and Robert Lewis Dabney, the latter the author of an upcoming history of the life of Jackson.

Dabney’s biography of his friend Jackson, according to the author, has one overriding purpose, a purpose reflective of the larger effort by white supremacists to present the Confederate States as God’s holy nation and her defenders as God’s saints:

My prime object has been to portray and vindicate his Christian character, that his countrymen may possess it as a precious example, and may honor that God in it, whom he so delighted to honor.

Brown, asked to review a draft copy of the manuscript-now-in-progress, suggests that Dabney edit out Jackson’s disparaging private reflections on Baptists and Methodists.

Brown writes:

Speaking of Gen. Jacksons Early religious advantage, and of the kind of preachers he heard, you say they were the “most uncultivated members of the Baptist Communion, or of the itinerant fraternity of the Methodist” I would have it worded in such a way as to leave out Baptist & Methodist by name: for though it is true, yet offense will be taken.

It is quite likely that the reference is to Jackson’s youthful days when he was attending a Baptist congregation. Both Baptists and Methodists in antebellum days were largely present in small and frontier towns, with ministers of such congregations often lacking the education and polish of First Baptist congregations in large towns and cities.

Dabney, however, declines to delete the quote which, when the book–Life and campaigns of Lieut.-Gen. Thomas J. Jackson, (Stonewall Jackson)–is published in 1866, is the volume’s one reference to Baptists. Dabney is Presbyterian, as was Jackson, and serves as a chaplain during the war. Perhaps he also personally experienced the backwoods image of Baptists as did Jackson.

Brown also offers a second editorial suggestion regarding Dabney’s attempt to craft Jackson as the model Christian warrior and gentlemen:

“Reciting all these aggravations, the people of the Confederate State believe that no blacker natinial crime has challenged the lighting of heavens wrath, since the crucifixion of Jesus Christ” I would certainly alter that. It may be a belief entertained and justly founded, but I am persuaded expression would be severely criticised. There is an unwillingness to allow any other crime to brought either into Comparison with, or proximity to the crucifixion of our Savr. Seward did the former, by comparing his sufferings on account of the rebellion to those of our Savior in the garden. Your statement, though far removed from his, will still not escape something of the same objective. The English journals lashed him unsparingly.

On this matter Dabney apparently listens to Brown, as the reference equating the United States’ opposition to the Confederacy as criminal as the crucifixion of Jesus does not appear in the published manuscript.

While Brown and Dabney debate the shaping of Stonewall Jackson’s Christian legacy in the future minds of white Southerners, many American (Northern) Baptists are working to extend the kingdom of Christ into the Confederate states in the form of freedom, education, land, jobs and human rights for formerly enslaved blacks.

Among these Northern missionaries is Charles Henry Corey, former Baptist pastor of First Baptist Church of Seabrook, New Hampshire, who resigns his position on January 1 to serve with the United States Christian Commission (a non-denominational religious and social services organization). In employment of the Commission, he arrives at Port Hudson, Louisiana, this month.

Corey’s duty with the Commission is “to preach the gospel, to distribute religious reading matter, and to render such other services to the soldiers as might be needed.”

Of his early days at Port Hudson, Corey later recollects:

At this place systematic work had been commenced for the education of the large number of colored soldiers stationed at the Post. Captain Pease was in charge of the work of instruction of the Corps d’Afrique. Chaplain Wheeler, of the 80th United States Colored Infantry, had built in January, 1864, a school-house. Lieutenant R. G. Seymour, of the 79th Regiment of United States Colored Infantry, built a school-house for his regiment which was dedicated February 6th, 1864. It is recorded in Chaplain Wheeler’s private diary, April 10th, 1864: “Brother C. H. Corey, of the Christian Commission, preached in the camp of the 3d Massachusetts Cavalry, and visited the School.” Associated with Mr. Wheeler and Captain Pease in loyal service for the country, and incidentally in behalf of those colored veterans, were some wellknown ministers of the Baptist denomination—Dr. Chase, of Philadelphia; Dr. Seymour, of Lowell, and Dr. Brouner, of New York.

Corey, re-assigned to Charleston, South Carolina following the fall of the Confederate port city in early 1865, afterward becomes a long-time missionary among blacks of the South, advocating a different kingdom of God than that of the South’s white supremacist society.

Jackson yet lives on as a seemingly eternal hero in the public memory in much of the white South, while the collective stories of Corey and his fellow Northern missionaries, their names and the details of their lives and ministries largely forgotten, retain the underlying appreciation of black Southerners.

Sources: “T.J. ‘Stonewall’ Jackson,” Civil War Trust (link); Letter from William Brown to Robert Lewis Dabney, April 7, 1864, from the Lewis Round Wilson Special Collections Library, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill (link); R. L. Dabney, Life and campaigns of Lieut.-Gen. Thomas J. Jackson, (Stonewall Jackson), New York: Blelock and Company, 1866, p. vi, 24 (link); Henry M. Woods, “Robert Lewis Dabney 1820-1898: Prince Among Theologians and Men. A Memorial Address delivered before West Hanover Presbytery At its Fall Meeting, 1936. in Stonewall Church, Appomattox County, Virginia, Celebrating the Jubilee Year of the FOUNDING of the SOUTHERN PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH in 1861” (link); “Robert Lewis Dabney” (link); Wallace Hettle, Inventing Stonewall Jackson: A Civil War Hero in History and Memory, Louisiana State University Press, 2011 (link); Charles Henry Corey, A History of the Richmond Theological Seminary: With With Reminiscences of Thirty Years’ Work Among the Colored People of the South, Richmond: J. W. Randolph, 1895, p. 16, 28 (link); “United States Christian Commission” (link)