Baptists and the American Civil War: March 25, 1864

Kentucky Tennessee MapToday in the hotly-contested border state of Kentucky, a Confederate cavalry force led by Maj. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, captures Paducah, Kentucky with little resistance. The raid is an effort to capture Union supplies; Paducah is a considerable prize.

Meanwhile, the Union garrison, having retreated upon learning of the rebels’ approach, is garrisoned in the nearby stronghold of Fort Anderson, just west of town. To Forrest’s dismay, a contingent of his men attack the fort — without official authorization. The federals promptly decimate the attackers in what is known as the Battle of Paducah. Despite the failure to capture the fort, the Confederates emerge victorious this day.

On the propoganda front, today’s Richmond Daily Dispatch reprints a biting editorial from the Chicago Times (the mouthpiece of the Peace Democrats, or Copperheads, and the most anti-Lincoln paper in the North) mocking U. S. President Abraham Lincoln‘s recent decision to allow Northern ministers, including Baptists, to assume the pulpits of churches in Union-controlled areas of the South.

The Chicago Time, under the caption of “The and his Priestly Factotums,” have bitter article on the recent orders of Lincoln to Bishop Amer to take charge of the Methodist churches in the South. It says:

‘ The Generals commanding these departments, and officers commanding armies, detachments, and corps and posts, and all officers in the service of the United States in the above-mentioned departments, are directed to place at the disposal of Bishop Ames all bouses of worship belonging to the Methodist Episcopal Church South.

’ This is the language of the order, and the prelate upon such extraordinary powers are confected has entered span the duties of his hew and singular office. How unique and unprecedented it is may he infected from the fact that he, as a Christian Bishop, has taken upon himself the supreme jurisdiction of a religious denomination entirely disconnected with and foreign to his own. The “Methodist Episcopal Church South” is an organization entirely independent of the jurisdiction of the “Methodist Episcopal Church.” In May, 1845, at a convention in Lewisville, Ky, a separation was formally declared, and the jurisdiction of the General Conference over the conferences there represented was dissolved, and legally dissolved, as the Conits of the United States enforced a fair private division of the church property

The separation of the church was said by Mr. to have sundered one of the strongest bonds of Onion, and was justly regarded as preceding the speedy disruption of the majority of our religions organizations into separates sections bodies. A reference to these facts is relevant to this discussion, as they show that the Secretary of War is arbitrarily imposing upon the Methodist Episcopal Church South a jurisdiction it repudiated before this rebellion, and which repudiation our laws and courts sustained, and which the government and discipline of the church must have sanctioned, or our courts would not have recognized its validity.

Something of the tyranny exercised in the appointment of Bishop Ames, and the grant to him of authority se supreme, and his acceptance of and action in the office, may be imagined from the facts we have recited. If this were all, the proceeding might be permitted to pass, with slight comment, among the ordinary trespasses upon law and justice and custom habitual to the Administration. It the proceeding was a lawful one, its despotic character might be forgiven. But it is not more tyrannous than it is defiant of the Constitution and of the discipline and customs of the church. The Constitution declares:

“Congress shall make no laws respecting an establishment of religion, of prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Can it be imagined that these who incorporated such a restriction in the supreme law contemplated the establishment of a hierarchy, of which the Secretary of War should be chief? In what portion of the Methodist discipline, or by what rule of government in the church, do clergymen of that denomination derive appointments from civil officers! Where is it provided that Bishops of the Methodist Episcopal Church may connect themselves with and supervise churches beyond the jurisdiction of the General Conference, and yet retain their office and standing in the church?

Following fast upon the appointment of Bishop Ames comes the announcement that the “Baptist House Mission Society” have been empowered by the Secretary of War to take possession of the Baptist churches in the rebel States. The agents of the Home Mission Society, as is also the Bishop, are made judges of the “loyalty” which is to determine their rights of possession and property.” The order is somewhat vague upon this point, but we think the appointees of Stanton, the Hierarch, may designate the “disloyal” ministers, and our officers are required to cast them. Here the very pertinent inquiry arises asto the test of “loyalty.” Is the same rule to govern in these departments which was enforced in New Hampshire in the case of Edgerty”

With this rule as a criterion of judgment, and spoliators as judges of those whom they are to despoil, how many “loyal” clergymen can be found in these Departments? And the same measures are to be enforced against other denominations in the rebel States. According to the laws of war, church property is excepted from confiscation, and it is regarded as vandalizes throughout the Christian in Christian countries to interfere with the privileges of Christian denominations.

Our armies advance in the Southern States, the country is desolated. The people are denied the privilege of self-government, and the might of the nation is pledged to the destruction of the labor system in which all their material interests are involved. Confiscation drives them from their are directed to drive them from their alters. These are the inducements we extend for submission, and the authors of these measures profess to be “Unionists,” and “engaged in the interests of God and humanity.” Since the day Judas, professing Him, betrayed Jesus, there has not been blacker hypocrisy.

In Philadelphia, on the 16th, the “minister” appointed by Ames to take charge of all the Methodist churches in the city of New Crisans was publicly presented with a Yankee flag. In his speech accepting it he declared that he was for subjugation or “war forever.” As he don’t fight, and has got a snug berth “for the war,” his enthusiasm may be considered a very cheap arrangement.

From a Baptist perspective (whether South or North), the editorial has some merit due to the traditional Baptist commitment to church state separation. The circumstances of the present war, however, have, since the beginning of the conflict, plunged Baptists on both sides of the contest into unprecedented territory in terms of church state affairs.

Overarching this complexity of church state relations is the fact that  Baptist churches of the South have long denied religious freedom to blacks, whereas Northern Baptists are now working to restore religious freedom to Southern blacks.

Can white supremacists, in the name of freedom of religion, legitimately force their religious convictions upon those of other races, particularly blacks? Can religious liberty ever truly be possible in a world of white supremacy and black slavery? Much ink is spilled in the periphery of these questions.

Sources: “Battle Summary: Paducah, KY,” National Park Service (link); “A Northern Opinion of Lincoln’s ‘Running’ the Churches,” Richmond Daily Dispatch, March 25, 1864 (link)