Baptists and the American Civil War: September 21, 1863

African SlaverySouthern hand-wringing over July’s losses at Gettysburg and Vicksburg continues. One common response by Baptist leaders of the South is to search for the sins of the Confederacy that have led to God’s disfavor upon his chosen nation.

There is, however, no consensus on what may be the primary sin of the Confederate nation, a fact on display in an editorial by Samuel Boykin in this week’s edition of the Georgia Baptist Christian Index. Boykin dares to suggest that African slavery is the sin of the South; or, more appropriately, Southern abuse of the divine institution of African slavery.

A. C. D. [Amos Cooper Dayton, Baptist minister], in the ‘Banner,’ mentions Sabbath breaking and calls it our “great national sin;” but we differ from him on that subject. Sabbath desecration is a fearful evil in the sight of the Lord, and one that invokes the outpouring of his anger, and which is peculiarly offensive to Him; but we question if, among all the nations of earth, (with, perhaps, the exception of England,) the Sabbath is more regarded and honored than in our Confederacy. And while, as a people, we do profane God’s holy day, yet we are not prepared to assert, that because our Government in a measure disregards this day, that therefore it is a national sin. We are not prepared to admit that the sins of the Government are national sins. While this peculiar sin may provoke the Almighty to punish us as a people, yet even that does not make the sin a national one. The nation, in general, reprehends this sin: time and again have the people who love God and honor his commandments sough government aid in abating Sabbath desecration in the mail department and in running Sabbath trains; and all this shows that corporations which are soulless bodies (and the Government is a corporation) and not the people generally, are guilty of these public sets of Sabbath profanation. Great is the number of those who will not participate in this sin–who will not travel on Sabbath, who will not send to the post office on Sabbath, and who will continually protest against these sinful practices by the sinful and hard hearted. And, because those in power oblige a few men to dishonor the day, God has blessed and set apart for his own use, shall we call that “our national sin?” And that, too, when it notoriously stands out as a great fact that the South, as far as external observances goes, honors God’s day more than any nation on earth?


But what is a national sin? It must be a sin of which we, as a nation–a mass of people are generally and individually guilty–a sin of which we are guilty at heart, in a most heaven-daring manner.

And of what sin are we thus guilty?–We are tempted to exclaim AVARICE–“greed of gain.” Heaven knows, this is a general and a particular sin of our people–a sin the strength of whose hold upon the people’s hearts has but been manifested, not developed, by this war. O how we gloried in the negro, the source of our wealth!–And oh, how we enthroned Cotton, the symbol of our monetary power, as King, and vainly thought that all nations and peoples must bow down and worship him! Why? Because cotton was money; and money was a God who swayed all hearts. The average wealth of our people surpassed that of all others; and we gloried in displaying our opulence in expensive journies, costly furniture and equipages, and in pampering our pride in every conceivable way. The one great thought of the nation was to own “land and negroes” and “raise cotton.” Far too forgetful of God, we ranged ourselves under the banner of Mammon, forgetful that we “cannot serve God and mammon.” The pursuit of wealth through one great channel–Cotton–became the all-absorbing idea of the South; and when circumstances–namely, war and hard times–brought out the strength of this passion in our hearts and showed its true color, lo! the nation stands aghast at the moral turpitude of the “speculator” and the “extortioner.” And when we endeavor to discover who the “speculators and extortioners” are, we are still more astounded to find that all are–that our very best men are so classed. The merchant accuses the farmer and the farmer accuses the merchant, of so being: the tradesman, the marketman, the woodseller, the artisan, the sutler, the broker, all, all are accused of extortion, thus showing how strong a hold the desire for gain had obtained upon every heart. Even ministers dabble in speculation to the neglect of Zion. Our whole nation has apparently gone crazy over one idea–the desire to amass gain. Is not this covetousness–the “love of money,” which “is the root of all evil?” And what evils have followed?

Why, great and foremost beyond all others, lest the value of our “peculiar institution” diminish, we neglect our moral duties to our slaves.

Short-sighted man! Vainly will he ever contend against the will of Deity!

God, doubtless, placed the black man in our midst for some grand special purpose, and we have sought to turn him solely to our own selfish advantage, regardless, in a great degree, of his moral rights and the inscrutable decrees of Providence.

What christian slaveholder can lay his hand on his heart and say he has done his whole duty to his slaves? Have we not slighted their moral and religious education? Have we not, by penal statutes, deprived them of God-given rights? Have we not failed, by legislation, to protect them in their marriage relation? Have we not inflicted untold distress in separating families? We rightly claim divine sanction for the institution; but have we not, in the sight of heaven, abused that institution? And may it not be that, in the sight of God these heaven-reaching sins, growing primarily out of avarice or covetousness, are the cause of our present sufferings? Can we, as a sensible people, shut our eyes to the great fact that slavery is the cause of the war, and that God, whether as retribution for dereliction or not, seems to be depriving us of those very beings, whom we so conscientiously believe He has placed here in accordance with the righteousness of his own moral government? Because of conviction or prejudice, shall we, after all, and notwithstanding all, blindly shut our eyes to what may be “our great national sin?” Does not the finger of Providence seem unmistakably to be pointing at this dependent race, and indicating that in some way or other, in our duty towards that race, we are guilty of a sin for which He is afflicting us, and seeking to bring usĀ  into the line of march of his own grand Providence?

Southerners may talk of Sabbath breaking, and they may talk of right and justice: they may proudly vaunt their bravery and determination: they may fast and pray, and denounce the extortioner; but it may be that in neither nor in all of these is to be found [our national sin]. There are still other sins that may offend the eyes of Him who reigns in heaven; and it may be–who dare affirm that they do not–grow out of our abuse of the divine institution of slavery! Let us calmly and solemnly examine the matter; and if we can discover the gangrenous excresence, let us apply the knife, at any cost, and remove that whose offensive odors “go reeking up to heaven.”

In addition to defending slavery if practiced appropriately, Boykin’s discourse marks a dramatic turn from earlier Baptists who, committed to church state separation, insisted that Sunday mail delivery (and other Sunday commercial and government activities) should not be curtailed.

Source: “A Great National Sin,” Christian Index, September 18, 1863; Bruce Gourley, “Robert M. Johnson (1780-1850): Sunday Mail Delivery” (link)