Baptists and the American Civil War: September 18, 1865

Civil War States MapToday’s New York Times publishes an editorial suggesting that the time has come, for the sake of the nation, that the four denominations that split prior to the war, reunite.

The four denominations in question are:

Old-School Presbyertians

New-School Presbyterians



The article treats the organizations in aggregate, as well as offering some comments directed at specific groups.

The national organizations of the churches were the first to split. It seems now as if they would be the last to unite again. Not one of the four largest denominations, which dissolved North and South before the rebellion, have yet made the first movement toward a new junction. Nor, indeed, is there the least sign yet of such a disposition, unless it be among the newspapers of the Old-School Presbyterians. A certain vague yearning for a reconciliation manifests itself there, but it shapes itself into no propositions, nor ever makes the attempt. The organs of the New-School Presbyterians, the Methodists and the Baptists, Northern and Southern, advert to the subject only to make it manifest that they disagree as much as ever.

Now, this is of vast consequence even in its civil bearings. The government is engaged in the effort to restore the Southern States to their old position in the Union, and to heal the wounds made by the war. This cannot be done by political measures simply, or even mainly. Moral influences must be the prime agency, and for these influences the government must depend largely upon the better classes of the population in each section; those to whom education has given breadth of view, and whom moral principle has lifted above all spite and malice. These denominations were, in the aggregate, three millions and a half of members. Their moral power is immense, and it is of mighty concern whether it is to operate for concord or discord.

The great difficulty is that the Northern churches have taken ground in respect to slavery and secession to which the Southern churches cannot come without a confession of past wrong and a profession of repentance. They have all, by direct resolution, declared slavery to be a sin (the Old-School Presbyterians with some qualifications) and rebellion to be a crime; and excluded from church-fellowship all who have given support to the rebel government. The condition of a reception back, as declared by the Old-School General Assembly at Pittsburgh, last May, is that “they properly acknowledge and repudiate their errors” — of the New-School General Assembly at Brooklyn, held the same month, that “they give satisfactory evidence that they have repented of their sins.” The Methodists and Baptists are equally strong in their requirements.

This prerequisite to a reunion differs essentially from that prescribed by the national government. The President has simply required an oath of submission to emancipation and of future obedience to the constitution. He asks neither repentance, nor any professions of it. He concerns himself about future conduct alone. A Southern man may believe ever so firmly that secession at will was a reserved State right, and that the late attempt to apply it was in every respect justifiable; he may mourn with his whole soul that the attempt was not successful, and yet for all that may none the less obtain absolute amnesty. In the view of the government it is enough that he acquiesces practically in the actual situation.

These Northern churches, on the other hand, feel that they must not only insure good conduct for the future, but obtain purgation for the past. It is not enough for them that slavery is forever dead, and that the rebellion is annihilated beyond every possibility of a return; they insist upon a penitential abjuration of both. It is hardly in human nature that this should be made so suddenly, and thus the influence of the churches, North and South, which might contribute vastly to the harmonizing of the country, is worse than lost — it actually goes to perpetuate discord.

This is a public misfortune. Perhaps it cannot be avoided. The case certainly has difficulties. It is a great deal to ask a Christian church, or even any association of men who are governed by moral principles, to fraternize to-day with a body which it but yesterday declared to be a set of criminals, while the alleged crime is still unrepented. There is, we understand perfectly, a wide field for argument against this. But we still believe that the way may be made clear for a practical reconcilement. There is at least this much to be said — that the crime imputed here, in the first place, whether repented of or not, cannot be committed again; and, in the second place, that it is not one of those misdeeds which prove a person to be an unchristian and bad man.

For all practical purposes, the question whether secession was a State right now belongs to the past as much as the question whether George III. had a right to tax the colonies, or the question whether England had a right to force British seamen from American ships. It is a question which has been settled forever by something infinitely more cogent than human logic — the irresistible logic of events. A man’s opinion of the theory of JOHN C. CALHOUN is of no more practical importance now to either State or Church than his opinion of the theory of TIBERIUS GRACCHUS.

Again, some distinction must be made between a political and moral offence. The one may come from an error of the head simply; the other must proceed, if the author is sane, from badness of heart. The one may be committed conscintiously; the other cannot. A rebel may mean to do right; a thief or murderer cannot. A Christian [???] “the North would not [???] to withhold spiritual consolation from a dying Southerner, simply for failing to express repentance for supporting the Confederacy; and yet he would give no such consolation to an unrepentant thief or murderer. The assumption that every man of the six millions who have participated in this rebellion acted against his convictions of duty, and voluntarily committed what he knew to be a crime, is monstrous. It would prove a moral depravity in the Southern people beyond anything known to human history — a depravity which would as much forbid us to have political as religious associations with them. Were it true, it would be an eternal disgrace to restore them to American citizenship. Nobody believes it. The great body of the Southern people who sustained the Confederacy did so on honest, though, as we say, mistaken convictions of duty. It is because we have this belief that they are freely welcomed back to the Union. What is there in religious principle that disallows a similar recognition, and corresponding action? What is there that requires the churches to be more implacable and relentless toward a crime against the government than is the government itself? Cannot Christian charity yield as much as political justice?

We make no indication of the way in which the Northern and Southern churches might be brought again into connection and cooperation. That is not our province. But we are confident that, with the right spirit, some way can be found, and that both the interests of the republic, and the honor of American Christianity itself, urge that it should be found. The great necessity of the time is the extinction of all sectional resentments; the advent of universal harmony and good will; the coworking of all good men, North and South, in retrieving the losses of the war, and meeting all the new duties toward the emancipated race. True patriotism surely cannot stand in the way of this. Can true religion?

Source: Ecclesiastical Reconstruction Its Great Importance, New York Times, September 18, 1865 (link)