Baptists and the American Civil War: April 16, 1865

A picture of Lincoln's face as his body lies in the coffin. Taken by John B. Bachelder in Washington on April 16, 1865.

A picture of Lincoln’s face as his body lies in the coffin. Taken by John B. Bachelder in Washington on April 16, 1865.

One day after President Abraham Lincoln‘s untimely death by the bullet of assassin John Wilkes Booth, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pulpits in the North and Union-occupied areas of the South address the president’s death.

Many Baptist preachers speak of Lincoln, often weaving the president into the Easter theme of sacrifice and renewal.

More common yet is a narrative of Christian nationalism, of a nation chosen by God to be a light to the world for democracy and freedom, and of a people who, through national tragedy, are now being reminded to trust in a God who is above all, rather than the frailty of even great men.

In Philadelphia’s First Baptist Church, pastor George Dana Boardman opens his sermon with words that reflect the shock and agony of recent hours.

WHAT a day, or rather night, is this, my countrymen! How intolerable the burden that crushes us! What! Abraham Lincoln dead? The idol of his countrymen, the true, the pure, the good, the loving, the heroic, the great-souled father of his people dead, murdered, gone away from us forevermore? O God! We cannot bear it! …. This morning I ask you to pass from the darkened chamber of a personal grief into a broader and serener temple, where the quivering chords of our hearts may lose somewhat of this painful tenseness, and where considerations of a more general and impersonal nature may raise the soul to loftier and calmer heights.

Following reflections on the inevitability of death–the sermon title is “Death, the Law of Life”–Boardman turns to the subject of the war.

Here, then, in this terrific war, in the desolations of our homesteads, in the occasional disasters and humiliations of the battle-field, and specially in this crushing blow which fell on us yesterday morning, do I discover evidences of the Father’s loving-kindness. For, I do not believe, what many persons seem to imagine, that all our disasters are wholly to be traced to human agency. Could we lift up the curtain which conceals God’s plan of guiding this nation, I believe that we should discover that He had employed a system of providential arrests and clogs, which should hamper and sometimes suddenly balk some of our best-laid schemes. I believe this, not because our national history is an exception to God’s general method of administering human affairs, but because it is in harmony with it. The observant reader, whether of biography or of history, must have been impressed with the fact that God not only governs the affairs of men and of nations, but also often advances their best interests by confounding their wisest counsels, and suddenly tripping up their most promising schemes. It is most unsagacious, then, to say the least of it, to conclude that every national disaster, whether in the cabinet, the Congress, or the field, is to be traced solely to human agency. To do this, is to take a practically atheistic view of the great campaign. No! God, as the Providential Disposer of incidents, can very easily find some method by which to defeat us, and yet we be utterly mistaken in assigning the cause of defeat. And this I believe He has repeatedly done in our national history, specially in the conduct of this war, our generals themselves being as much mistaken as to the source of the defeat as we were. And, however broad in statesmanship we may be, or energetic in purpose, or profound in strategy, or heroic in the field, I believe that God will continue, ever and anon, to balk suddenly, in some way for the present misunderstood by us, our most consummate schemes, till the national heart feels at its very core that the Lord God of Hosts is the real ruler of America, and that President, Secretary of State, general, soldier, citizen, is strong only as Almighty God stoops down from His throne, and helps him to be strong….

In Hartford, Connecticut’s South Baptist Church, pastor C. B. Crane’s sermon also begins with an acknowledgement of the deep, dark sadness that grips the nation.

The nation is weeping to-day; and its temples and homes and places of business and public edifices are draped in mourning. Strong men, who could endure the shock of personal calamity and the pangs of personal bereavement with uncomplaining fortitude, are shaken by the violence of their emotions, and their tears fall upon the pavement of the crowded street. Gentle women, secluding themselves at home, mourn as for a husband or a lover. The festivities of society are checked, and plans for future gayety are stopped in their process of relaxation. Over the whole American sky are clouds and thick darkness. Threnodies are sung by quivering lips and wail from melancholy organs. All sounds are dirges, and the countenance of sorrow is adorned with the jewelry of tears. Oh, friends, on the evening of Good Friday, the memorial day of the crucifixion of our Lord, our good, true-hearted, magnanimous, supremely loyal, great President was smitten down by the hand of the assassin; and yester morn, at twenty-two minutes past seven of the clock, his noble and holy soul went up from its shattered and desecrated tabernacle to its God.

The terrible tragedy is consummated, its heartrending denoument has transpired, there can be no revision of it, it stands the blackest page save one in the history of the world. It is the after-type of the tragedy which was accomplished on the first Good Friday, more than eighteen centuries ago, upon the eminence of Calvary in Judea.

Yes, it was meet that the martyrdom should occur on Good Friday. It is no blasphemy against the Son of God and the Savior of men that we declare the fitness of the slaying of the Second Father of our Republic on the anniversary of the day on which he was slain. Jesus Christ died for the world; Abraham Lincoln died for his country.

Crane recalls meeting the president in the White House the prior year, and asks his congregation to pray for the injured Secretary of State William Seward.

He also ventures into the realm of the meaning of Lincoln’s death.

Primarily responsible is the “accursed” Southern rebellion and the “barbarous institution of slavery.” Secondly are Northerners who sided with Southern whites in calling Lincoln a tyrant: “Blood is upon their souls. Wash they their hands never so much, as did Pontius Pilate, they can never be made clean.” And thirdly are all persons who placed their faith more in Lincoln than in God.

Now, “Abraham Lincoln’s work is done.” God’s providence is to be found in the president’s death. In this dark hour America’s “Moses” has passed, and now God raises up a “Joshua” in Andrew Johnson to finish the work Lincoln “so nobly commenced.”

And so, on this Easter Sunday, the anniversary of our Lord’s resurrection, we cross the threshold which introduces us as a nation to a career of unexampled victory and puissance and glory. And though the body of our late honored President reposes to-day in melancholy state, and we weep as we look upon it, yet as Christian men and women we will cry one to another, “Rejoice, for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth; and he will save the people whom he has redeemed with the precious blood of his only Son.”

God yet reigns, and His providential will for the United States is far from over.

These three preachers and so many others this day offer words of comfort and hope to salve the tearful, bitter sting of the loss of the man who in God’s providence and under God’s hand saved the Union.

As the nation mourns Lincoln’s death, an ember briefly flares in a war growing colder by the day. In the Deep South state of Georgia and bordering Alabama, the Battle of Columbus (in Alabama known as the Battle of Girard) unfolds as Union raiders, unaware of Lincoln’s assassination, attack the largest remaining supply city in the South. Following an intense and pitched skirmish that lasts through the afternoon and well into the evening, the Federals seize control of the city shortly before midnight. On the morrow Union forces destroy the city’s war-time infrastructure, sink the ironclad CSS Muscogee, and seize many Confederate prisoners. This battle proves to be the last of the war before the Confederate government, currently in exile, dissolves.

Sources: Rev. George Dana Boardman, “Death, the Law of Life, April 16, 1865, First Baptist Church of Philadelphia” (link); Rev. C. B. Crane, “Sermon on the Occasion of the Death of President Lincoln, Sunday, April 16th, 1865, South Baptist Church, Hartford, Conn.” (link); Battle of Columbus (link) and (link)