Baptists and the American Civil War: April 15, 1865

lincoln_1863novAt 7:22 a.m. comes the pronouncement: President Abraham Lincoln is dead, the victim of an assassin’s bullet the evening previous. The body of Lincoln, the champion of liberty for all and first American president to be assassinated, is moved to the White House.

Still at large and now in hiding, the killer, John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate sympathizer and avowed white supremacist, is convinced that the United States will quickly embrace him as a hero for killing the man whom he believed to be a tyrant.

Instead, as word of Lincoln’s death spreads by telegraph, angry crowds gather in various cities of the North, the outrage mingling with mourning as church bells peal. In the days to come black crape is thickly draped in many northern cities, while many citizens wear black-ribboned badges bearing a small photograph of the president.

In Providence, Rhode Island, the birthplace of Baptists in America, retired Baptist divine Francis Wayland, formerly president of Brown University and pastor of the city’s First Baptist Church, declines, perhaps due to ill health, an invitation to address a city-wide public meeting in memory of Lincoln. Yet wanting to hear Wayland, the crowd of 1,500 walks to the Baptist minister’s house, “in the pouring rain, and went away comforted” after Wayland spoke to them.

The anger and mourning, however, is not universal throughout the North, as some–Southern-supporting Democrats and Radical (liberal) Republicans–are not particularly sorrowful to see Lincoln off the scene. Voicing such sentiments, on the other hand, proves lethal in some instances. James Walker of the 8th California Infantry and stationed in Washington publicly declares that Lincoln was a “Yankee son of a bitch” and “ought to have been killed long ago,” only to be court-martialed for his utterances and sentenced to death by firing squad.

Many towns in the Upper South also mourn, while in the Deep South there is a stark contrast as black citizens mourn and some whites celebrate. Many whites, however, keep their feelings to themselves, fearful that the South will be blamed for Lincoln’s death.

Alabama’s Demoplis Herald, harboring no reservations, shouts via its masthead, “Glorious News! Lincoln and Seward Assassinated!” (In reality, although an accomplice of Booth’s–Lewis Powell, the son of a Baptist minister–targeted and assaulted Seward as Booth made his move agaisnt Lincoln, Seward survived, albeit wounded.)

The Chattanooga Daily Herald trumpets, “Abe has gone to answer before the bar of God for the innocent blood which he has permitted to be shed, and his efforts to enslave a free [white southern] people.”

Despite the hatred of many Southern whites toward the president, Lincoln is destined to be remembered by many of the present and future generations as the greatest president ever.

For the moment, however, evening comes amidst a rising tide of mourning in the North. Tomorrow will be an Easter like no other as reminiscences of and praise for the slain president are sure to ring from many a pulpit, including those of the Baptist persuasion, the faith of the president’s youth.

Sources: “Timeline: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln,” PBS (link); “Remembering Lincoln: Detroit Mourns President Lincoln,” Ford’s Theatre Blog (link); Gerald Tebben, “Lincoln assassinated; city gathers to mourn,” Columbus Dispatch, April 15, 2012 (link); Martha Mitchell, “Francis Wayland,” Encyclopedia Brunoninia (link); Harold Holzer, “What the Newspapers Said When Lincoln Was Killed,” Smithsonian Magazine, March 2015 (link); “Biographical Sketch of Lewis Powell” (link); “William H. Seward, 1801-1872,” Mr. Lincoln’s White House (link); Thomas Reed Turner, Beware the People Weeping: Public Opinion and the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Louisiana State University Press, 1982 (link)