Baptists and the American Civil War: June 1, 1865

Lincoln lying in state, Springfield, Illinois, May 4, 1865

Lincoln laying in state, Springfield, Illinois, May 4, 1865

Some six weeks following the assassination of former president Abraham Lincoln, today has been set aside by president Andrew Johnson as a memorial to Lincoln, a “Day of Humiliation and Prayer.”

Hundreds of sermons are delivered this day, many in Baptist churches.

In the nation’s capital of Washington, the Calvary Baptist and E Street Baptist congregations gather at the latter to remember Lincoln. Calvary Baptist’s pastor, T. R. Howlett, delivers a discourse using Psalm 147:20 — “He hath not dealt so with any nation.”

Howlett extolls the uniqueness and specialness of America, a nation founded upon civil and religious liberties, and upon the principles of freedom and equality of all men. The Baptists’ leading role in ensuring the establishment of religious liberty for all, Howlett celebrates. The sin of slavery, however, had been a blot upon the land, to which Lincoln rose to vanquish.

“His deeds hath clothed him with an earthly immortality.” The “love of his country” and the “broken fetters” of millions he carried with him when “he ascended to the bosom of his God.” The “awful guilt and responsibility” for the death of Lincoln rests upon every “aider and better of the Rebellion,” including ministers. But now, “the rebellion has ended,” the “Lord’s doing” that is worthy of praise and joy.

In the Fourth Baptist Church Philadelphia, pastor R. Jeffrey speaks on “The Mission of Abraham Lincoln.”

The former president’s great character and virtues have for weeks been eulogized, Jeffery acknowledges. He is yet mourned by tens of millions, this man “called by the Providence of God to achieve an important mission” who ‘faithfully discharged the trust committed to him.” As to the mission of Lincoln, “The purpose of God has been fulfilled. ABRAHAM LINCOLN was called to the kingdom at such a time in order to perform it. God specially raised him up and qualified him for this self same purpose. He did not intend that he should die until his work was finished, and He did not intend that he should live after it was done.”

Jeffrey pays tribute to American Nationality, Republicanism and Emancipation. Yet unlike many abolitionists, he frames Emancipation not as an issue or race, but of labor, a theme woven into the discourse about slavery for many decades prior to the war. And in focusing on labor and economics, he speaks far more of new opportunities for white men than the future of freedmen.

It is to be regretted that in this Christian land there have been those who, without even the apology of self-interest, could argue for the righteousness of an institution which was based on the principle of ownership in the manhood of man, which sold him as a beast of the field, which denied him a right to the sanctities of marriage, which robbed woman of her chastity, and deprived mothers of their offspring. And even of those who deplored it as an evil, many were at a loss how to dispose of it. But it was so ordered in the Providence of God, that they who demanded concessions for the sake of slavery, inaugurated rebellion against the Government because it refused to grant them. So it came to pass, that in putting down the rebellion it was found necessary to destroy its cause. God himself put the trumpet of his Providence to the lips of the nation, and bade it “proclaim liberty throughout all the land, and to all the inhabitants thereof.” The sound went forth, and from that moment the smile of heaven rested upon our efforts. And to-day we rejoice that authority is restored, and that slavery is dead. Freedom has been given to four millions of human beings. We have vindicated our declaration of the equality of all men. The highway of liberty is cast up for the redeemed nation to walk in, our victorious soldiers are returning with joy upon their heads, and before all the people is opened up a pathway of unexampled prosperity. 

For after all, to speak of the destruction of slavery, though itself an institution cruel to the enslaved, is only to state the blessing in a negative form. The abolition of slavery was not only an act of justice to the slave, but, an act of justice to the freeman. For by reason of our sympathy with, or indifference to it, we were fostering amongst us an institution which came to us as the worst and most repugnant element of a barbarous feudalism, and sought to be perpetuated as an essential antagonism to the law of our own national development. Unable to maintain a conflict with the innate force of the principles of free labor, slavery was compelled to make special demands in its behalf And consequently, such was the illogical and suicidal policy it was inducing us to pursue, the Government was forced to make discriminations that were unjust to free labor and partial to slavery. Slaves exhausted territory, freemen cultivated it. Slavery must have more territory, freedom must have less. Slavery could not thrive by the side of free labor, free labor must not cross geographical lines except at its peril. To slavery must be guarantied the undisturbed possession of its prescribed territory, free labor must shift for itself. So that it happened, such evermore are the compensations of Providence, that slaves were the only class who held a first mortgage on the land, and whose homes and support were assured without effort and anxiety from themselves, by the provisions of the Government that enslaved them. 

Hence in destroying slavery, the nation really knocked off the chains from free labor, and broke down the middle wall of partition between free labor and the fairest portion of our vast domain. Now white men are free, free to traverse the length and breadth of the land, free to think, speak and act as becomes freemen without fear of lynch law, banishment or death, free to pursue any honorable avocation, without coming in contact with an institution that asserted an advantage which precluded the possibility of a business competition, or that pronounced the sweat of honest and requited toil, a brand of infamy. It is needless to speculate as to what a revolution of advantage and prosperity to trade, to intercourse and intelligence, this wondrous change must make. Already the advantages of free labor are beginning to be confessed by those who, only a short time ago, were in rebellion for the sake of perpetuating slavery. And only a few years will elapse before the wilderness of the South will be populated with a hardy, industrious and enlightened people. Their demands and necessities will react upon the North, to the quickening and enlarging of industry and commerce, to the increasing of wealth and the diffusion of knowledge, and to the elevating of all to that position of prosperity and intelligence, which shall constitute the high argument of the folly and sin of slavery, and the unanswerable illustration of the superiority of that civilization which gives every man “an equal chance” in life, and makes requited and unrestricted labor the birthright of all, and the precursor of individual well being and national greatness. And in view of these glorious results, the time is not far distant when the white and the black men of the South will join in mutual acknowledgements of gratitude and honor, to those who, by the sacrifice of their treasure and lives, disenthralled them both, and consecrated our entire domain to liberty, law and labor.

Bringing his message toward a conclusion, Jeffrey continues:

….On the fourteenth day of April, 1861, Slavery, vigorous and defiant, struck down the American flag; on the fourteenth day of April, 1865, Slavery, dying and damned, struck down the American President. But the rebellion was crushed, slavery destroyed, and the nation redeemed. The fifteenth day of April dawned upon a new era in our national existence. The sun as it rose that morning, gazed for the first time upon our nation radiant in its new-born liberty, joyous in its assured integrity, and jubilant in the prospects of its opening career of prosperity and peace….

….Let the death of our great and good President consecrate us, to the realization in ourselves of the spirit which animated him. Let us dedicate ourselves to keeping that which he has given us. Let us forget past differences. Let us hate slavery. Let us love freedom. Let us honor labor. Let us respect the rights of the humblest and weakest and meanest of God’s creatures. Let us go on to fulfill the mission to which God has called us of being the model of a pure and ennobling civilization. Let us prove worthy of ABRAHAM LINCOLN.

This day of memorial for Abraham Lincoln is also observed in the South, as mandated by U.S. President Andrew Johnson. In the capital of the recent Rebellion, Southern Baptist pastor John Lansing Burrows addresses his congregation at Richmond’s First Baptist Church.

Burrows decries the crime of murder that led to Lincoln’s death, even while acknowledging that the president was the man representative of the principles “we have been arrayed in known antagonism during the last four years.” Accepting the “providence of God” in regards to the outcome of the late war, Burrows with little conviction concedes “that it may prove best that the system of slavery should end.”

Most of Burrow’s message is a defense against accusations that the slaveholding South bears the guilt for Lincoln’s death, accusations voiced this day from many pulpits in the North, including that of the E Street Baptist Church of Washington. Disputing charges of guilt, the slaveholders of the South during the war, Burrows maintains, were neither traitors nor treasonous, much less responsible for the murder of Lincoln. Rather, many were men pure in spirit and “justified through the righteousness of Christ.”

With these words, the pastor of the most prominent Baptist church in the capital of the former Confederacy gives voice to the myth that many white Southerners will long tell themselves: while the North won the war on the battlefield, the white South, upholding God’s will of the enslavement of the black race, were the victors of righteousness. This unwavering commitment to white supremacy and black servitude, pervasive among white Southerners and too often finding resonance among many whites of the North in the decades to come, ensures that freedom and equality for all Americans will not truly be realized for many more years.

The fullness of the promises of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, in short, will have to wait for another one hundred years to find true, legal fulfillment.

Sources: Rev. T. R. Howlett, “The Dealings of God With Our Nation,” June 1, 1865, E. Street Baptist Church (link); R. Jeffery, “The Mission of Abraham Lincoln, Thursday Morning, June 1st, 1865, Fourth Baptist Church, Philadelphia” (link); John Lansing Burrows, Palliative and prejudiced judgments condemned : a discourse delivered in the First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va., June 1, 1865, the day appointed by the United States for humiliation and mourning on account of the assassination of President Lincoln, together with an extract from a sermon, preached on Sunday, April 23rd, 1865, upon the assassination of President Lincoln, Richmond, Va: Office Commercial Bulletin, 1865 (link) and (link)