Today in Georgia, Sherman‘s army burns the Washington County courthouse as they march eastward to the coast. As is the case each day of the march, white citizens alternately remain out of sight or express great anger as the invaders plunder and destroy. Many black slaves, on the other hand, flee from their masters and to the safety of Union lines, trudging along with the Federals as they march ever forward, rejoicing in their new found freedom. Thus depending upon one’s perspective, Sherman is either a war criminal or a great liberator.
Among the newly-freed slaves are many Baptists, with that denomination favored among black Christians of the South.
Not all Baptist slaves, however, are as fortunate as those living along Sherman’s marching route. Matthew Gaines (1840-1900), born into slavery in Louisiana, twice ran away–in 1850 and again in 1863–but in both cases was caught and returned to his master. Today he lives in bondage in Fredericksburg, Virginia, looking forward to the day when the United States will emerge victorious over the Confederacy and he will experience the freedom he has only briefly glimpsed in years before. A freedman after the war, Gaines settles in Texas, where he serves as a Baptist preacher and a state senator, advocating for and helping legislate on behalf of the rights of African-Americans.
Many white Baptists serving in the Union Army make possible the liberation of black slaves this day and upon the conclusion of the war. Some serve in Sherman’s army, while others serve elsewhere. John Carver (1832-1904), an Indiana farmer, Baptist layman and Private in the 13th Indiana Cavalry, is today admitted to Dennison General Hospital at Camp Dennison, Ohio with chronic hepatitis. Carver survives the war and lives a long life afterward.
Yet other Baptist experiences this day are unrelated to the war, at least directly. Sarah Francis Radford of the Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church in Choctaw County, Alabama was three months ago charged with the sin of adultery. In many rural communities in the South, churches effectively serve as community judge and jury of morality. Expulsion from a church is the equivalent of conviction of a crime, the offender becoming an outcast in his or her own community. Any given day, hundreds if not thousands of Baptist men and women throughout the South, charged with some manner of personal sin (whether adultery, gambling, dancing, drunkenness, being absent from Sunday services or some other matter perceived as a egregious offense) fret over whether or not their fellow church members will convict or acquit them.
After much discussion and several votes among Mt. Pisgah’s members, today Radford receives good news: the charges against her have been dismissed.
The experiences of these Baptists this day are representative of countless others whose names have long been forgotten.
Sources: “Georgia History Timeline, 1864,” Our Georgia History (link); “Gaines, Matthews,” Texas State Historical Association (link); “John Carver (1832-1904),” Find a Grave Memorial (link); “Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church Records, Choctaw County, Alabama” (link)