Baptists and the American Civil War: June 29, 1864

Georgia MapIn Virginia, Union cavalry raiders continue their retreat to safety following several weeks of partially successful attempts to disrupt Confederate rail lines. Today they are surprised yet again by an unexpected encounter with a contingent of Confederate forces in what becomes known as the First Battle of Ream’s Station. Outnumbered about 7,000 to 4,000, Federal forces lose the battle. Split in two by the attacking Confederates, the Union defenders hastily retreat. Not all manage to reach the safety of Union lines until July 2.

Thus once again, Confederates win a minor skirmish some distance from the Siege of Petersburg. While satisfactory, however, the Rebel victory does nothing to change the fading fortunes of the South.

Even as the war consumes the public mind of the Confederacy, in some corners of the Southern Baptist world far away from the fields of battle life carries on apart from the war. One such place is the Deep South town of Columbus, Georgia.

Judge Marhshall J. Wellborn has been a member of the First Baptist Church of Columbus since 1858. Born in Putnam County, Georgia on May 29, 1808, Wellborn, following graduation from the State University at Athens, began practicing law at the tender age of 19. While practicing law in Hamilton County, “the foundation of his fortune and success in afterlife was laid. He was a powerful debater and a thrilling orator, and many of his extempore speeches … [were] masterpieces of forensic eloquence.”

Success led Wellborn to move to Columbus, where his stature grew all the greater:

[H]e rose rapidly to prominence in his profession, and, without a stain upon his character, accumulated an ample fortune. At twenty-one he was elected to the State Legislature, and in 1842, at thirty-four, he became judge of the Superior Court of the Chattahoochee circuit.

As a judicial officer, his career was eminently distinguished for professional learning, faithfulness, and uprightness. Subsequently, after a prolonged European tour, with characteristic ability and purity, he filled one term in the lower house of Congress. Declining a re-election, he returned to the practice of his profession, which he followed with leading success.

At the height of Wellborn’s career, a religious revival swept through Columbus, in which the prominent lawyer became captivated by the Gospel and accepted the call of Christ.

His conversion was almost Paul-like in its wonderful transformation; his conviction of sin was peculiarly pungent, and his evidences of regeneration and pardon were most remarkable. Divine grace has seldom made a more signal triumph than in his case, where the exceeding lustre of holy thought, feeling, speech, and conduct profoundly eclipsed the brightest light of human morality. From the moment that he accepted Jesus he became an enthusiastic advocate of the Saviour’s cause.

Joining the First Baptist Church of Columbus, Wellborn was soon struggling with whether or not he should continue his legal career. Following six years of seeking to find his calling as a Christian, today marks a major turning point in the judge’s life, changing his life hereafter and impacting Baptist life, both black and white, in southwest Georgia for years to come.

After a long struggle to know his duty, be accepted a license to preach the gospel, and June 29, 1864, he was ordained at Columbus. He accepted the charge of the Hamilton Baptist church and of the Bethesda church, in Harris County, preaching twice a month at each place until his death, and declining to receive any compensation from either; a great mistake, as results show. Ardently desirous of doing all in his power for Jesus, and assured that his period for ministerial service must be short, he abounded in the multitude of his labors. For ten years he preached in the pulpit, by the fireside, on the highways—everywhere, and to everybody, white and black—with a tenderness which nothing could inspire but an overflowing benevolence and a profound conviction of the truths of the gospel. He not only received no compensation for his ministerial services, but with open hands distributed his own private fortune to the poor, to the aid of the churches, to the support of other ministers, and to the various evangelical enterprises of the day.

His work was signally blessed. He baptized an uncommon number of converts under his own ministry. He was greatly beloved by the people among whom he moved, and in hundreds of homes in Western and Southwestern Georgia. and in the adjoining parts of Alabama, his name will abide till this generation is gone, a synonym of all that is good and noble. From youth he was the subject of constant and distressing ill health. The activity of his uncommonly busy life was astonishing. There were times when, sick almost unto death and scarcely able to move a limb, he would be aroused by some call for exertion, and he would go on the Master’s business immediately.

As a preacher, he had superior ability, his sermons being well prepared, and delivered earnestly and eloquently. In doctrine he was incorrupt. As a pastor, he was untiringly devoted, and eminently successful in comforting believers and in winning souls to Jesus. He delighted to assist young men, whether it was to give them a start in business or in preparing for the ministry. He manifested great interest in plans for the education and spiritual advancement of our colored population, contributing largely to build houses of worship for them, and constantly preaching to those of them within the bounds of his charges. Worn out by incessant toil, he suddenly fell asleep in Jesus on Saturday. Oct. 16, 1874. By his death a whole community was stirred to its depths, and devout men carried him to his burial and made great lamentation over him.

Sources: First Battle of Ream’s Station (link) and (link); “Wellborn, Judge Marshall J.”, in William Cathcart, The Baptist Encyclopedia, Vol 2., Philadelphia: Louis H. Everts, 1883, pp. 1226-1227 (link)