Baptists and the American Civil War: April 22, 1863

Confederate Soldiers

Confederate Soldiers

Comprised of many Christians of differing denominations who are thrown together in military service, the Confederate Army at times harbors within its ranks a variety of religious tensions. One particular religious practice is a flash point of controversy: communion.

Each denomination’s way of doing communion is a bit different, and Baptists are no exception (other than the fact that within the Baptist family, there are differences regarding communion, due to the autonomous nature of Baptist congregations; nonetheless, closed communion is most commonly practiced by Baptists). And while revivals in the Confederate camps are a cause of rejoicing among Baptists of the home front, there is also concern that communion is properly observed, as editorials in Southern Baptist newspapers are noting.

Says the Richmond correspondent of the Christian Index:

“Indications thicken of a purpose, on the part of certain military chaplains, to press the exigencies of the army into the service of Pedo-Baptist open communion. At a recent meeting of the chaplains belonging to one of the brigades on the line of the Rappahannock, ‘a good Methodist brother introduced a resolution on the importance of a frequent administration of the Lord’s Supper, and expatiated at some length on the beauties of christians around the table of the Lord.’ Fortunately, our denomination was represented in that meeting by two brethren, who advocated the views which have descended to us from what Gratian calls the ‘ecclesia primo-primitiva’–that first church of ours existing in apostolic times, before the first churches of our opponents; and the obnoxious resolution ‘was quietly withdrawn.’

We publish this statement with reluctance. We deeply regret to know that such things are occurring, and we have no hesitation in saying that the men who perpetuate them are utterly unfit for the chaplaincy.–The Baptists are as largely represented in the army as any other religious denomination whatever; their position on the question of communion is well known; and he who, claiming to be a minister of Jesus Christ and holding the office of chaplain, can grossly insult them by seeking to induce them to depart from their established usage, based, as they believe, on the teachings of God’s word, is wanting in christian courtesy, and in the sense of propriety which is so important in one who preaches to men of different religious opinions. For such chaplains we have no respect; and we rejoice in the belief that there are but few of them in the army. They may be loud-mouthed and boastful in their professions of charity, but they have it not.

It is needless for us to warn our brethren in the army against the exhortations and entreaties of such men. Few of them will be drawn away from the ancient custom of the Baptists. Founded, as it is, on the teachings of the Bible, it has stood the test of argument and controversy for centuries, and they will not depart from it now.

The writer of this piece evidences a hint of some Baptists’ belief, popular especially in the rural South, that Baptist congregations date back to the days of the New Testament. The context of such a claim is that the nineteenth century has witnessed escalating competition among some leaders of Christian denominations in America to stake a claim of historical primacy for their respective denominations.

Founded in the early seventeenth century and from the beginning of the conviction that they are a New Testament church in doctrine and practice, Baptists have always focused on the New Testament. From such convictions it is perhaps but a small step to argue for an actual lineage to the New Testament, historical reality aside.

Finally, while Baptists contribute many soldiers to the Confederate war effort, they contribute relatively few chaplains, in part due to the Baptist insistence that their chaplains be volunteers paid for by church contributions, rather than salaried by the government (a stance unique among Confederate denominations). As such, many Baptist soldiers are not chaplained by like-minded ministers.

Source: “Open Communion in the Army”, Biblical Recorder, April 22, 1863 (link);