Baptists and the American Civil War: April 26, 1864

Jefferson DavisWhile the just-concluded annual meeting of the Georgia Baptist Convention focused primarily on supporting Confederate soldiers through the evangelistic efforts of army chaplains and missionaries, delegates, many of whom were well-to-do pastors of larger churches, made no formal mention of what is arguably the most pressing issue among the soldiery: that of desertion.

Baptist churches of the South, their membership comprised primarily of plain white folk and black slaves, are dealing with far more complex issues resulting from the war than the minutes of the Georgia Baptist Convention had let on. The desperate needs of plain white folks remained unaddressed by delegates, other than a resolution to encourage orphanages for deceased soldiers’ children. In a similar fashion, delegates had made no mention of blacks and slavery in such words, yet had firmly and directly defended black slavery in language that held plain meaning to white Southerners. Local churches typically do not have the luxury of ignoring the anguish of impoverished white members and overlooking the moral and societal tensions embodied in their enslaved members.

Confederate deserters, almost exclusively poor men driven by resentment for fighting on behalf of rich slave owners and/or concerned for the sufferings of their families on the home front, present perhaps the most difficult problem yet for Confederate military and civic leaders, as well as religious elites, including Baptists. Poor white men, for years assuaged by elites who preached the bond of white supremacy, had effectively been co-opted into fighting to preserve the wealth of large slaveholders, only to watch the rich deploy their economic and political influence to avoid bearing arms. The brotherhood of racial supremacy carried the day for awhile, but by now there is widespread realization that slavery-enriched elites have been taking advantage of plain white folk, even as the course of the war has turned against the South. Hence, a trickle of soldier desertions is now a tide.

For government and military leaders, the draining away of so many soldiers is catastrophic. In the decade prior to the war, many poor white men had moved out of the South due to the lack of decent paying jobs, a situation directly resulting from the abundance of slave, and hence free, labor. Now, there is no longer a pool of reserves to replenish army ranks. Teenagers and grizzled old men alike have already been drafted. Women and young children cannot be called upon (although a handful of women sneak into the ranks during the war). And slaves? The mere idea of arming slaves is frightening, for how could they be trusted to fight the abolitionist enemy unless promised freedom upon a Southern victory, a scenario that would by its very nature destroy the race-based culture, society and economy of the South.

Baptist churches of the South respond to crisis of Confederate desertions in different ways. Some express sympathy when soldier members desert and return home to support their family, while others, perhaps led by pastors whose livelihood is dependent upon wealth derived from slavery, are far from accommodating of deserters.

The Mt. Carmel Baptist Church of Seaboard in Northampton County, North Carolina, founded in 1821, falls into the latter category.

Since 1862, Mt. Carmel Baptist, like many but certainly not all Baptist churches of the South, has held multiple congregational prayer meetings on behalf of the hallowed Confederate States of America. The congregation has also reverently written obituaries for fallen soldier members, taken up offerings to send Christian literature to the army camps, and read government pro-Confederacy proclamations in their meeting house. Most recently, in March, against the backdrop of a growing likelihood that the South could lose the war, the congregation had resolved “that we in accordance with Jeff Davis, President of the Confederacy in his proclamation meet and on the 8th day of the next month in prayer and humiliation.”

In the midst of such fervent devotion to the Confederacy, a soldier church member, John H. Renfro, has deserted from the Confederate army and returned home.

Church records offer no insight into the difficult conversations, if any, that might have transpired between church leaders and Renfro and his family. This week a decision is made as to Renfro’s fate, recorded in terse wording that ignores the usual formality of referring to a male member as “Brother”:

Church members vote “that John H. Renfro be expelled from the fellowship of this church for the sin of desertion of the Southern Confederacy.”

The “sin” of desertion. No mention of Renfro’s responsibility to his family or respect for the moral and ethical complexities inherent in the act of desertion. Deserting the Confederate army is a sin, plain and simple, a sin that the church will not tolerate.

In addition to army desertion, runaway slaves receive no mercy from white church members. This year, four slave members are expelled for running away from their masters. White supremacy must be preserved.

Following the war, in October 1865 Renfro, asking for forgiveness and restoration, tries to explain to church members his conscientiousness reasons for deserting. Yet again, loyalty to the (now demolished) Confederacy is too strong as the church votes against restoring Renfro into fellowship.

The white supremacist loyalties of congregations such as the Mt. Carmel Baptist Church, convictions unbowed by moral complexities and Southern defeat, provide support for the creation and sustaining of the post-war Lost Cause mythology. This post-war narrative denies, contrary to all evidence, that the war was about African or black slavery, instead spinning a story of an innocent white-led South, a region protecting states’ rights and protective of hapless negro “servants,” a region that was victimized by militarily-superior Northern states who coveted the South’s riches.

John H. Renfro, like other plain folk whites who dare to waver in their loyalty to white supremacy, whether by word or action, are also victims of the racial hatred, sanctified by a literally-interpreted Bible, that descended upon the South in the decades prior to the war and covered the land for over a hundred years after Southern defeat and black “freedom.”

Source:  W. Spurgeon Clark and Audrey Long, A brief historical sketch of Mt. Carmel Baptist Church in Northampton County near Seaboard, North Carolina, 1947?, digitized by Eastern North Carolina Digital Library (link)