Baptists and the American Civil War: April 20, 1862



In the South, the Virginia city of Fredericksburg is now living in the early days of what will prove to be a four month Union occupation. While the scene is peaceful on the surface, tension mingles with joy. White citizens are on edge, while liberated slaves receive food provisions from the U.S. commissary, the best food that many of them have ever eaten. In all, some 10,000 slaves in Fredericksburg and the surrounding areas are emancipated.

Local citizen Betty Herndon Maury describes the day, a Sabbath, as follows:

I was called out of church to day to see one of our scouts who was on the hill at Mr. Harts and would carry letters to Richmond for us. It was a pleasure to see him and give him the letters myself. He promised to deliver them in person.

We can see the Yankees and their tents across the river. They received a reinforcement of ten thousand last night.

One can scarcely realize that the enemy are so near and that we are in their hands. Every thing is quiet. The stores have been closed for the last three days and the streets are deserted except by negroes. They go by in parties of ten or twenty, with their baskets and bags, on their way to the different Commissary depots to get the provisions that are being distributed. I have seen some coming back laden with bacon and kicking a barrel of flour along.

I heard the Yankees this evening with their full brass band playing ‘Yankee Doodle’ and ‘the star spangled banner’. I could not realize that they were enemies and invaders. The old tunes brought back recollections of the old love for them. It was a sad and painful feeling.

At the same time, northward, some Baptist church services focus on God’s will for freedom for all American citizens. The sermons are timely in New Hampshire; two days ago state citizens observed a fast day. S. D. Phelps, pastor of New Haven’s First Baptist Church, preached on freedom in a sermon excerpted as follows:

A YEAR of civil war in our county we never expected to witness. But it is now a matter of experience and history. Twelve months ago the present week, were heard those first awful sounds that swept through a shuddering land, and stirred the hearts of the people as nothing else had ever done. Sumter bombarded — Sumter fallen — the President’s proclamation for seventy-five thousand volunteers to defend the Capital, and aid in suppressing the rebellion — the rush to arms of the patriots of the North — the insolent boasts of rebel leaders in the South — the bloody scene in the streets of Baltimore : — these events are all fresh in every memory, and can never fade. And what a year of history, of trial, of fear and hope, they ushered in ! Can it be that only a year has passed since those events startled us ! It seems sometimes, in the occurrences and changes intervening, that we must have lived almost an age since then. What volumes of history have been made in the meantime !

….we believe a New and brighter Day will spring from this National night of ours. Its symptoms already appear. Its streaks of dawn gild the horizon. The first anniversary of the war comes with events as startling as those that marked its beginning, and far more propitious.

….I recognize it in a newly awakened spirit of Patriotism. A beneficent government can truly live and prosper only in the respect and affections of the people. While the Revolutionary Fathers were with us, and we heard from them the story of the struggles, trials and sacrifices endured to establish our independence, the fire of our patriotism was fanned, and our love of liberty was strong. But with their departure, and our unparalleled national growth and wealth, and great facilities for personal advancement and profit, many had almost forgotten the cost and value of their civil privileges, and scarcely dreamed that they could ever be seriously endangered. The Government was too much left to itself, or rather to the management of designing and ambitious politicians. One point was yielded here and another there, rather than injure trade or party interests. But now all this is changed. When at length Treason struck down the Flag, the old slumbering spirit of patriotism inherited from our fathers was roused, and the people of the Free States, and at length many of the Border, rose in their majesty to defend the Constitution and the country. This wonderful uprising of united and earnest millions in support of their imperiled institutions is one of the grandest exhibitions in the history of nations. It was like an inspiration from God, and with His blessing, it will at length utterly crush the rebellion.

….Another favorable symptom was a wide sense of Humiliation and Dependence on God. Our pride was humbled — our prestige had waned — our boasting and vain-glorying had received a most decided check. At home and abroad, we were no longer what we had been, and the departing of our glory was most keenly felt. Yet we had erred and sinned against God by our arrogant spirit, and our self-importance and supposed invincibility. We had now a painful sense of our weakness, and the lesson was salutary. In a good degree our humiliation was that which precedes a better and more truly exalted spirit. We were led to look to God. Rulers and people humbled themselves before Him, and He has begun to lift us up. Our shame is passing away. Our enemies at home and abroad are better appreciating our character and purposes, and changing their tone in regard to us. To be led to feel our dependence on God, and to trust more implicitly in Him, and more earnestly seek His favor and merciful interposition, is a good and most valuable lesson, though learned in a school of self-abasement and severity. If God be on our side, we shall pass safely through the conflict, and even be blessed by it.

….Let us this day gratefully acknowledge His Hand and rule, and with humiliation, fasting and prayer prostrate ourselves before Him and beseech the pardon of our individual and national sins, and still implore His gracious and signal interposition in behalf of our beloved country. Let us be glad that the morning seems to be coming. The night of our trial and sorrow is passing, while the night of rebellion deepens in its abysmal gloom, and in which its leaders shall sink to rise no more. O blessed Day of death to Treason and Slavery, come ! O glorious Day of a brighter Liberty, and a freer Land, over all which the starry folds of our dear Banner shall wave in triumph and peace, come ! Come, O longed-for Day of Righteousness, and thou conquering Prince of Salvation, come !

Southerners, in short, have no monopoly on the employment of God-language on behalf of country.

Sources: The Diary of Betty Herndon Maury, April 20, 1862 (link); “National symptoms. A discourse preached in the First Baptist church, New Haven, on the day of the annual state fast, April 18, 1862” (link); image (link)