Baptists and the American Civil War: March 18, 1865

Ulysses L. Houston, Pastor, First Bryan Baptist Church, Savannah

Ulysses L. Houston, Pastor, First Bryan Baptist Church, Savannah

Savannah, Georgia, a plantation-driven city of the Deep South of which Baptists have long claimed a formal dominance among slaves of religious persuasions, continues to undergo radical transformation almost three months after Union capture of the city.

Many remaining white citizens are far from happy with the freedom now enjoyed by former slaves, freedom unimaginable before the occupation, and freedom that some complain impinges upon the white population.

One eyewitness account from a white resident this month estimates that some 75,000 Union troops are in the city, not merely policing the new racial arrangement, but also recruiting new black soldiers to serve in the U.S. Army and as local policeman.

Complaints from white residents continue to mount in the weeks to come. The city is destroyed and desolate, some say. African Americans are “better off than white folks.” The change is such that “such times nobody never before saw or thought could exist in the city.”

Former slaves, however, see things in a somewhat different light. The city’s first black schools are up and running, new black churches are springing up. By late spring, four of the city’s six black congregations are Baptists, and a new African Methodist Episcopal congregation joins one a bit older, both assisted by the city’s black congregation in forming, to complete the roster of African American churches.

“These black congregations constituted a beacon of hope,” writes historian Whittington Bernard Johnson. They were also “a training center for future community leaders, as well as a cultural melting pot.” In addition, the churches “constituted the foremost religious institution of its kind in the South and the utmost exemplification of self-help.”

Looking beyond this month, many trials and tribulations stretch into the distant future, yet the self-determined worship and social uplift now being birthed among African American Christians, with Baptists leading the way, prepares the way for exciting new opportunities in the lives of blacks persons life throughout the South.

Source: Whittington Bernard Johnson, Black Savannah, 1788-1864, p. 175-177 (link)