Baptists and the American Civil War: October 20, 1865

African SlaverySouthern Baptist leaders are busy at work rewriting the history of slavery as a kind, benevolent, godly institution. Today’s Virginia Baptist Religious Herald sketches the argument, a narrative of the past that is blatantly false and self-serving, married to a trajectory of a racially-unequal future that is decidedly deceitful and disingenuous.

In addition, the fanciful narrative is inherently incoherent, arguing that slaves were contented and happy in bondage, yet do not want to return to slavery.

“Slavery, as it recently existed in the Southern States, to a great extent, identified the interests of masters and slaves. It was the duty, the interest, and generally the pleasure, of the master to seek the welfare of the slave. The master, viewing him as an inferior and subordinate, provided for his support and comfort, nursed him in sickness, exercised a salutary discipline over his morals, and promoted his religious instruction. The slaves usually perceived that their interests were identical with those of their masters. They were fed and clothed, and their comforts were supplied, from a common stock. The prosperity of the master increased the supplies and comforts of the slave. In most cases, kindly feelings were cherished between them as members of a common family; and their children grew up, played and toiled together. It may well be questioned, whether any combination of capital and labor ever produced greater freedom from want and suffering, and a higher degree of contentment and cheerfulness among the laboring classes, than did Southern slavery. It had its evils; some were inherent in the system, and some were superintended upon it; but what social system is without its evils? Every relation in life is abused by the selfishness, caprice or malignity of man.

The duties growing out of the relation of master and slave were generally well understood, and cheerfully acknowledged; and if they were neglected, the delinquent knew his guilt, and was amenable to public sentiment or public law. But the sudden and violent change of this relation has given rise to many perplexing questions of duty and expediency. Where there were once common interests, there is now rivalry; where there was once mutual confidence, there is now suspicion. Sad forebodings are entertained by the Christian and the philanthropist, concerning the destiny of the negro on this continent. The Indian, a hardy and adventurous race, has generally faded and disappeared before the civilization, enterprise and aggressions of the white man. Will the fate of the negro, in all climes an indolent, thriftless race, be more fortunate? We fear not; but sincerely hope that our apprehensions may prove groundless. We are solemnly bound to abstain from doing aught that might tend to the accomplishment of our gloomy prediction. We propose to consider briefly the line of conduct, which, under our changed and trying circumstances, we should pursue towards the colored people among us.We should cherish no unkind feelings toward them.

1. We should cherish no unkind feelings toward them. [Considering the] loss of property, and the rudeness to which emancipation has, in some cases, given rise, we are under strong temptation to indulge such feelings. Against this temptation we should carefully guard. They are our fellow creatures, and were, until recently, and many of them still are, members of our families. They are not to blame for the present unhappy condition of society. Their emancipation is not the result of their own schemes, and so far as they co-operated in securing it, they were influenced and guided by others. That they accepted freedom was natural, and, in no degree, blamable. They received the boon with as much moderation, and with as little manifestation of ill will to their former owners, as could reasonably have been expected. They are poor, and, under the most favorable circumstances, must be subject to much suffering. The desire of change, the want of experience, their improvidence, the dissipations and vices, stimulated by sudden liberty, and the diseases contracted by new habits, will prove a terrible scourge to them. In view of these considerations, they are entitled to our forbearance, sympathy and kindness.

2.  We should seek their physical welfare. It is inseparably connected with our own. They are among us, and must, for a long time, at least, remain among us. If they are industrious, economical, honest and prosperous, they will be a benefit to our community.

If, on the other hand, they are idle, vicious and wasteful, they will prove a curse on it. If they are not supported by their labors, they will be supported by their robberies; or failing in this, they must be supported by private charities, or public taxes. To prevent, if possible, these evils, we should furnish them suitable employments, give them fair wages, and encourage them to form habits of sobriety, industry, economy and forethought. Much may be done by kind attention and counsel to inspire them with self-respect, and to guide and encourage them in profitable pursuits.

3.  We should endeavor to promote their mental improvement. As a general thing, the productiveness of their labor will be in proportion to their intelligence. Whatever increases their knowledge, increases in the same ratio their efficiency and value as laborers. We have never approved the legal restriction imposed in some of the States on their instruction in letters; not believing that it was demanded by the safety of the whites, or the welfare of the blacks. We have thought and said, if slavery cannot be sustained, without defending ignorance by a law, in the name of God, let slavery perish. The negroes have minds susceptible of cultivation; they should be initiated into the mysteries of learning, and encouraged to master them as far as their genius, taste and circumstances may enable them to do it. Let them be taught, in Sunday-schools and day schools, the rudiments of learning, and then let them be furnished with tracts and books, and other facilities for the improvement of their minds, and the augmentation of their knowledge. We need cherish no jealousy of their improvement. The Anglo-Saxons can have no cause to fear competition, in any department or enterprise, with any race of men; and certainly not with the African race.

4.  We should labor the advancement of their spiritual interests. The importance of this object, and our obligations to promote it, no Christian will deny. This responsibility rests with peculiar weight on the Baptists of the South, as a large proportion of the negroes who make any religious profession are connected with their churches. We have recently visited several Associations at which the subject of their religious instruction was carefully and anxiously considered, and resolutions were adopted, with great unanimity, favoring the object. In most places, the colored members in connection with the churches were to few and poor to organize independent churches, with any prospect of maintaining religious worship; and where this class of persons is more numerous, they have not the intelligence and self control demanded in conducting the business and discipline of a church. The Associations recommended, in substance, that, for the present, the colored members be counselled and encouraged to remain in connection with the white churches, and that the pastors and lay teachers be urged to continue, and if practicable, to increase their efforts, for their religious instruction and improvement. If, however, they prefer to form independent churches, it is advised that they be aided in the accomplishment of their purpose, by granting them letters of dismission, assisting in their organization, contributing towards furnishing them houses of worship, and securing for them competent religious instructors. In the cities, and in many of the larger towns of Virginia, African churches had been formed, and were in a prosperous condition, before the emancipation of the slaves; and these churches, having been freed from all the restrictions imposed on them in consequence of slavery, will, no doubt, be the models after which churches in the country will be formed, and the nucleus around which they will gather into Associations, and missionary Conventions.

At present the freedmen are predisposed to look with suspicion on all professions of kindness, and all proffers of assistance, from their former masters. The feeling is not unnatural, and should not be severely censured. It originates in a persuasion that those who were opposed to their emancipation cannot be their friends; and an apprehension that all protestations of friendship from such persons, are designed to allure them back into slavery. We must patiently wait for our time to restore their confidence in their old friends. So far as their new [Northern] friends prove to be true, generous and enduring, we will rejoice in their good fortune, but, we doubt not, the hot-bed philanthropy of many of them will wither and perish with the excitement of the times, and opportunity of gaining a coveted notoriety….

Meanwhile, northward in Cleveland, Ohio, learned and capable African Americans gather for the first annual meeting of the National Equal Rights League. The future envisioned for freedmen by white Southern Baptist leaders, and the future envisioned for African Americans by African Americans, cannot provide a more stark contrast.

Source: “Our Relations to the Freedmen,” Religious Herald, October 20, 1865; “Proceedings of the First Annual Meeting of the National Equal Rights League, Held in Cleveland, Ohio, October 19, 20, and 21, 1865” (link)