Baptists and the American Civil War: July 8, 1862

African SlaveryAmos C. Dayton (1811-1865), a popular Baptist pastor in the South and advocate of Landmarkism, continues his relentless apologetic for African slavery. The Baptist press of the South not infrequently publishes recently-preached sermons upholding slavery. This week, the Georgia Baptist Christian Index publishes a (lengthy) summary of a pro-slavery sermon preached one week earlier in Macon, Georgia (probably at the prominent First Baptist Church) by Dayton.

The sermon is a biblical and historical defense of slavery, and the writer summarizes it thus, in part:

Why has God afflicted us? He does not willingly grieve nor afflict the children of men. He has some worthy object worthy of his own great name. Who does not ask in the language of Job, “show us wherefore thou contendest with us.” What is the sin–the great national sin for which God has seen fit to punish us so fearfully? What can we do that we may take his heavy hand from us and turn his power against our enemies? To answer such questions as these is the object of the present discourse. The answer must be looked for only in the word of God[.] Our sin is a national sin, not the sin of individuals, but of the nation in its organized condition. We are to look for it not in the great deep of personal wickedness, but in the official action of the Government as the representative of the people. What is sin? Sin is the transgression of God’s law. where there is no law there is no transgression. Wherein, then, has our government–the government we love, and for which we are ready to die, has it dared to raise its puny arm in bold defiance of the great King of all earth’s Kings, and declare that it will not obey or permit its citizens to obey the laws of the God of heaven. If we can find any such case, we will have found our sin and know for what the nation must repent.

There are some who have believed, or at least have suspected, that this sin is to be found in connection with our peculiar institution. It is natural it should be so. Many have been taught to look on slavery as a sin from early childhood. This has been taught not only in the North, but in the South. It is taught to-day, not by spoken words, but by books in many a Southern home. [See Clarke’s Com. Barne’s Notes, &c.] If it is a sin, it is a national one; for our very Constitution is pledged to sustain and perpetuate it. If it is a sin, the preacher is not at liberty to decline the duty of denouncing it as such, even though his life should pay the forfeit. It has been sin in the ministers of the South that they have seemed to be afraid to speak about it: They have passed the subject by in silence. But it is the duty of every minister to preach the truth and the whole truth in regard to this as well as any other subject on which God has been pleased to give special instructions. Let us see then what God has said.–What is His law? If there is no law there is no transgression. But there is a law. The law is very plain. There is no excuse for any one who will not understand it. God began to teach his will on this subject in the first book of the Bible, and his teachings run all thro’ it to the end. When he taught human duty by example in the age of the Patriarchs, and pointed us to the greatest and best of men as models of what a man must be, those like Abraham and Job, were slaveholders. And then when he himself gave the first code of laws to man–the only secular code he ever gave–he made it a slave code. See Leviticus 25:44-46. But lest it might be suspected or alledged that this was to be limited to the nation of the Jews, he put a recognition of slavery in the great moral law intended for the race, both in the 4th and 10th commandment. Slavery was surely recognized by the law of the Old Testament as holy and right.

How was it in the New? Six different times it is recognized as equally holy in the New. But the speaker called special attention to but one–and one was enough; for the Bible is not like a politician, on both sides of any subject; that one was the 6th chap. 1st Timothy, where Timothy, as the representative minister, was instructed what preachers of the Gospel are to teach concerning this relation, “Servants be obedient to your masters, and they who have believing masters let them not despise or forsake them, but serve them all the more because they are believers.” And from those who teach otherwise, Timothy, and in him all Christian ministers, are commanded to disown as brethren. “From such withdraw thyself.” Hear, said the Preacher, was our sin, so far as the existence of this institution was concerned. God’s law commanded that no Christian minister should have any fellowship with an abolitionist. When they of the North taught first, by sermons, books or otherwise, that slaves were not to be subject, or that slavery was a sin against the Gospel, and hence no true “believer” could continue to be a “master” when the very first abolition sermon was preached every Christian minister in all the land was bound by God’s commandment, “From such withdraw thyself,” to utterly disown as a brother the man who preached it. But we did not do it. We did not obey God. We called those men our brethren. We continued to co-operate with them in works of Christian benevolence as equally with ourselves true ministers of Christ, though we knew they “taught otherwise.” We had a whole church of such teachers organized on Southern soil and all solemnly pledged to teach otherwise. That Church was formed in Baltimore in 1784, and every preacher in it was, at the very time of its organization pledged to “teach otherwise.” He went out from the meeting there as the avowed agent of abolitionism, and yet he was received both North and South as the minister of Christ.–Nor were the Methodists alone to blame for this. The Baptists were very slow to withdraw themselves; and when they did, it was not because God required it, but because the abolitionists would no longer permit them to co-operate with them on equal terms. The Presbyterians had been teaching otherwise since 1818, and Southern ministers of that connection had only recently, and very reluctantly, withdrawn themselves, when they could no longer do otherwise. Ah brethren, if Christians had but obeyed this short command, “From such withdraw thyself.” We should never have witnessed the scenes that are now around us.

The reference to “Clarke’s Com. Barnes Notes” is to Adam Clarke (Methodist) and Albert Barne (Presbyterian), biblical scholars of the early 19th century who were noted for their anti-slavery views.

The church referenced in Baltimore in 1784 is the Methodist Episcopal Church, organized on Christmas Eve that year. Membership in the MEC was open to all believers, including African slaves. Methodist founder John Wesley opposed slavery, and many in the MEC adopted Wesley’s views. Accordingly, from the beginning, MEC members were forbidden from owning slaves.

The reference to Presbyterians in 1818 is to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., which that year passed a resolution condemning slavery as a:

gross violation of the most precious and sacred rights of human nature; as utterly inconsistent with the law of God, which requires us to love our neighbors as ourselves, and as totally irreconcilable with the spirit and principles of the gospel of Christ it is manifestly the duty of all Christians who enjoy the light of the present day, when the inconsistency of slavery, both with the dictates of humanity and religion, has been demonstrated, and is generally seen and acknowledged, to use their honest, earnest, and unwearied endeavours, to correct the errors of former times, and as speedily as possible to efface this blot on our holy religion, and to obtain the complete abolition of slavery throughout Christendom, and if possible throughout the world

Interestingly, Dayton does not mention Virginia Baptists. Under the leadership of Baptist evangelist and religious liberty advocate John Leland, Virginia Baptists in 1789:

Resolved, that slavery is a violent deprivation of rights of nature and inconsistent with a republican government, and therefore, recommend it to our brethren to make use of every legal measure to extirpate this horrid evil from the land; and pray Almighty God that our honorable legislature may have it in their power to proclaim the great jubilee, consistent with the principles of good policy.”

Virginia Baptists’ denouncement of slavery took place against the backdrop of much southern Baptist opposition to, or in perhaps more instances ambivalence towards, African slavery prior to the turn of the 19th century.

Dayton fails to note that Baptists of the South did not generally assume a public pro-slavery position until about the 1820s, at which point Baptists were becoming more culturally-acclimated and upwardly mobile in a society and agricultural region increasingly dependent upon slave-based labor for the accumulation of wealth.

Tellingly, John Leland and Virginia Baptists embodied the pattern of anti-slavery sentiment in the late 19th century, followed by an evolution to ardent pro-slaver activism by the 1830s.

Sources: “Rev. A. C. Dayton,” Christian Index, July 8, 1862; Albert Barnes, An Inquiry Into the Scriptural Views of Slavery, Philadelphia: Perkins and Purves, 1846 (link); For a period history of the Methodist Episcopal Church, see Abel Stevens, History of the Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States of America, New York: Carlton and Porter, 1864 (link); “Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., 1818” (link); For more information on Virginia Baptists and John Leland in regards to slavery, see Bruce Gourley, “John Leland: Evolving Views of Slavery: 1789-1839,” Baptist History & Heritage Journal, Vol. 40, No. 1, Winter 2005 (link); For more information on Landmarkism, see Louis Keith Harper, “Old Landmarkism: A Historiographical Appraisal,”  Baptist History & Heritage Journal, Vol. 25, April 1990 (link)