Baptists and the American Civil War: February 3, 1865

lincoln_emancipationAboard the River Queen at Union-controlled Hampton Roads, Virginia, leaders of the United States and Confederate States meet to discuss the possibility of peace. Present areĀ U.S. president Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State William H. Seward for the Union, and for the Confederates, vice president Alexander H. Stephens, Assistant Secretary of War John A. Campbell, and Senator Robert M. T. Hunter of Virginia.

Although Lincoln and Stephens greet one another as the old friends they had once been before the war, the U.S. president and secretary of state quickly make clear to Confederate officials that peace will not be realized until the Confederacy surrenders their arms, acquiesces to the restoration of the Union and abolishes slavery in the South.

Confederate officials, however, refuse to entertain any discussion of the surrender of Southern independence or the abolishment of black slavery. The Hampton Roads Conference thus comes to a close in less than four hours, having accomplished nothing other than reiterating that the United States will accept nothing less than the total surrender of the Confederate States and the abolishment of slavery.

Freedmen, meanwhile, are seizing opportunities that their new-found freedom affords.

Among black Baptists rising to prominence is James Merilus Simms (1823-1912), Savannah native, former slave and longtime Baptist layman. A member of the First Bryan Baptist Church–the oldest African Baptist congregation in Savannah and perhaps the nation–Simms for the past year has been living in Boston, where he obtained ordination as a Baptist minister and became a Mason.

This week Simms returns to his home town. Soon becoming a leader among black Baptists of Savannah, Simms also establishes himself in the larger world of freedmen. As a Mason, in 1866 Simms organizes Eureka Lodge No. 11 (later known as Eureka No. 1) and becomes the District Deputy Grandmaster for the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Massachusetts, covering Georgia, Florida, and Alabama

Among Simms’ many other post-war accomplishments is the writing and publishing of the history of the First Bryan Baptist Church.

Sources: Hampton Roads Conference, Encyclopedia Virginia (link); “Our History: First Bryan Baptist Church” (link); History of Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge by way of ‘The Mother Lodge Eureka No.1’ (link)