Baptists and the American Civil War: April 16, 1864

African SlaveryReligion, long woven into the fabric of the South prior to the war, was used an ideological weapon against the abolitionist North decades before the war began. More to the point, white religion is that which has served to uphold the moral and biblical righteousness of white supremacy and African slavery while creating a Christian nationalist identity that buttresses a society and culture of stark inequality among blacks and whites alike. Wealthy slaveholders, prior to the war enabling the South to boast the ten richest counties in America, are the Southern aristocracy. Religion serves their cause by focusing the attention of poor whites on the ideology of white supremacy, the mirage of earthly liberty and the promise of heavenly rewards.

Three years following Fort Sumter, the war remains a poor man’s fight and rich man’s war even as the pillars of inequality upon which the Confederate States were established are now crumbling.

Many Southern aristocrats effectively live in exile, their plantations under Union control and their slaves reveling in freedom. Those who yet retain their plantations awake each day wondering how much longer they will be able to hold onto their social standing and financial wealth, both of which are dependent upon the enslavement of blacks. Already, many of their slaves have escaped to freedom, some of whom are now in the service of the abolitionist enemy, fighting against the poor white Southern soldiers who are doing the bloody bidding of the aristocratic class.

And yet even this is an optimistic assessment, for many of those tricked into fighting in a rich man’s war have left the army and returned to their homes, the desertions collectively turning from a trickle to a roaring tide within the past year. Adding insult to injury, the discontent now is such that Southern states bordering the Deep South–the heart of the slave empire–are setting up governments loyal to the United States, with more and more citizens taking an oath of loyalty to the abolitionist enemy.

The slave-based South, in short, is collapsing from within, its foundations shaken by the moral suasion, economic muscle and military might of a nation devoted to freedom for all.

Religious elites, however, refuse to concede defeat, having sanctioned black slavery as holy and biblical for far too long to give up the fight for white supremacy and aristocratic governance. For Southern Baptists, the irony–one of many–is that their leaders depend upon the wealth that slaveholders have effectively stolen from common folk whites and enslaved blacks, the very constituency that yet comprises the majority of persons in attendance on any given Sunday in most Southern Baptist congregations.

An editorial by editor Samuel Boykin in this week’s Georgia Baptist Christian Index is the latest in that publication to employ a bastardized version (compared to that of Baptists historically) of “religious liberty” (i.e. for ideologically and doctrinally-correct whites only). The intent is to whip up common Baptist white folk into a frenzy against their own interests in defense of wealth and racial inequality, the “we” thus employed in an effort to maintain the fragile white alliance against abolitionism:

If no other watchword could stir the blood of Southerners, that which indicates destruction to the right held most dear to every christian–our religious liberty is in danger–would animate them to a struggle compared with which the past will be but child’s play; and that it is most true that, not only all our civil, but all our religious rights immuni- [?] are endangered, we have such positive proofs that the veriest skeptic need no longer doubt.

For his secession principles an Episcopal minister is sentenced to sweep the streets of Norfolk, and afterwards is banished to confinement in a Federal fortification. Another minister who takes the oath of allegiance is deposed and sent to Fortress Monroe, because he is not sufficiently loyal: all religious gatherings are compelled to take a most stringent oath of loyalty, or else be dispersed by the military: the Methodist Bishop Ames, is in New Orleans, and by the authority of Secretary Staunton is offering to his brethren there the alternative of the oath of allegiance to the Lincoln Government or the abandonment of their pastoral charges; but the most outrageous evidence of this persecuting and liberty-defying spirit is contained in the following extract from the New York Examiner, a leading Baptist paper of the North. Many of our readers have seen this extract already, but it will be well for them to ponder it more carefully:

The Baptist Meeting Houses South to be Confiscated–“We are marching on” with a tread that is shaking the very foundation of things. The Secretary of our Home Mission Board has just received, from the Secretary of War, full and frontal authority for the American Baptist Home Mission Society to take possession of every abandoned Baptist meeting house within the limits of what have been known as the rebel States, and of every other Baptist meeting house now in the hands of the rebels. This great authorization was obtained thro’ the agency of the Home Mission Secretary¬† and Senator Harris, and the Home Mission Board will need pre eminent wisdom and energy, besides many men and much means, adequately to meet their new responsibilities.–The Baptist population of he seceding States is probably larger than that of any other denomination, and hundreds of abandoned Baptist pulpits will be open to loyal Baptist ministers of the North. The government will give them every practical protection in their new fields of labor, and corresponding facilities for reaching them–things which it can well afford to do, for every minister sent South by the Home Mission Board will be, in fact, an agent for the suppression of slavery and treason, and for the promotion of freedom and loyalty.

What shall we say to this? and what shall we do in view of such prospective robbery and spoliation and under the manifestation of a spirit so diabolical? Surely, our enemies are given over to a blindness of spirit! And well does it become us to invoke the favor of God, lest we be abandoned to the tender mercies of such moral insanity and devilish fanaticism!

“Fanaticism” is a common word employed by white Southern elites to describe abolitionism. The devotees of freedom and liberty for whites only are to resist their immoral, devilish Northern Baptist brethren who are descending upon the South to preach freedom and liberty for all.

Within this swirling vortex of dueling “liberty” and racial conflict a possible new future for the South glimmers, a future of equality that many whites, including Baptists, find abhorrent.

Source: “Religious Liberty,” Christian Index, April 15, 1864