Baptists and the American Civil War: November 24, 1862

African SlaveryThis week, readers of the Georgia Baptist Christian Index receive a good dose of commentary concerning the need to allow African slaves to read the Bible. The argument takes place against the backdrop of some laws in the Confederate states that disallow the practice, growing out of a suspicion that reading skills will further foster slaves’ desire for freedom. The author of the editorial is Samuel K. Talmage (1798-1865), Northern-born and an ordained Presbyterian minister and president of Oglethorpe University in Georgia, a Presbyterian school.

I understand, on good authority, that there will be an application at the approaching Session of the Georgia Legislature from a source entitled to distinguished consideration, for a repeal of the law prohibiting the right to teach our negroes to read the Sacred Scriptures.

This is a grave question, worthy of thoughtful inquiry. Is the law in question a righteous law? And if so, would it be wise and sound policy to repeal it?

The origin of the law as it now stands, is obviously traceable to the rash and wicked appeals of abolition essayests and tract distributors. But for this, the law would never have been passed. In the early history of Georgia a similar law was enacted which was never enforced, but became obsolete, from public sentiment against it.

It was not until the Tappans of New York, with their miserable crew of fanatics, began to load the Southern mails with their inflammatory documents, that the Southern Legislatures, as a precautionary measure, reenacted the law. Still it may be questioned whether any good has resulted, nay, whether positive harm has not resulted from this legislation.

The Decalogue, thundered from the mouth of Jehovah himself on Mount Sinai, and the Epistles of the New Testament, beside other portions of Sacred Scripture, so unequivocally recognize and justify slavery, that there is certainly no danger in entrusting those records to the eye of the slave. Ignorance and superstition, and not religious light, are to be dreaded; and it would be a libel on the word of God to assert the contrary.

It was by no means a desire to keep the slave from reading the Bible that dictated the action of our legislature. The legislation was well meant, and the abolitionist must take the responsibility of all such laws, notwithstanding their violent abuse of their authors.

We are, however, strongly inclined to the opinion that the legislation, though wisely designed, was indiscreet, and should be abrogated. The very prohibition leads the ignorant to a suspicion that the Inspired Word is against us, and that there is something there which we would fain conceal from them. The legislation in question has been used as a tool in the hands of the abolitionists, productive of mischief.

But is it right in an enlightened, Christian and Protestant land, to withhold the revealed will of God, by law, from any human being; when the plain command of Heaven to all inhabitants of Christendom is,–“Teach the Scriptures?”

I am not sure but this very law is one of the many reasons why God is withholding, in a degree, his smiles from the righteous struggle which we are waging with our cruel foes “Let justice be done though the Heavens fall,” is a true maxim. If our cause is right, it will prevail, if we put away all our sins.

The truest and best friend to Africa is the Southern christian slaveholder, and the war between the North and the South, is on our part emphatically a war of humanity in behalf of Africa. So low had heathenism reduced the African tribes, that the whole man–intellect, conscience and body–was debased, stupified, and as it were, brutalized by long and constant contact with its withering curse–and that process unbroken by a long series of generations. Recovery, without a miracle, must be slow. It requires servitude of generations in civilized and christian families, to relieve their moral and physical state from the habits of indolence, filth, and sensuality, and ignorance, and stupidity, and vice, which paganism has branded deeply into their nature. It is that, that makes the conscience owner deserving of sympathy–but this is entirely misapprehended by the North–this they do not, or will not, understand.

Let the 200,000 christian converts among us from degraded Africa, many of them truly and devotedly pious, bear witness to what Southern planters have effected, beyond all the efforts of the Foreign Missionary Societies of all christian lands united, for the conversion of Africa. Let us then not hesitate to do our whole duty to the slave, fearlessly and faithfully.

The South is fighting a battle for Africa as well as for the general cause of regulated liberty. The “stars and the bars” of our Southern Confederacy are the rallying point of all the best interests of humanity for both the white man and the black. Our cause is the cause of God and of truth, and of all the rich blood sacrificed on its altars and hecatombs more if the offering should be demanded.

But we must humble ourselves as a people before God, and confess and mourn over and abandon all our sins.

Let our slave laws be amended and fixed on high christian principles. Let profanity and Sabbath breaking, and intemperance, and demagogueism, and all our national sins be put away. Let a correct public sentiment, and not bungling legislation or mob law, put a stern eye on the cruel extortioner and the heartless monied monopolist, and the selfish corporation, who crush the soldier’s widow and orphan, and disgrace the land.–Let our brave and suffering soldiers be clothed and shod without delay. And let us look up with humility and prayer to God to bless our righteous cause and then we need not fear our foes.

“If our God be for us who can be against us?” But if He frown, vain is the help of man.–He has but to look upon the most numerous and well appointed army; and he can send a panic into the bravest hearts, and dash all their hopes to atoms.

Touching the laws regulating the religious privileges of the slave, let the different branches of the christian church unite in doing their duty, and I will guarantee that the Legislature of Georgia will do all that is wise and safe on that subject. Let the Baptist and Methodist brethren take a proper stand, with the influences of their members, and christian zeal and intelligence and wealth. Let the Presbyterians and Episcopalians come forward with the prestige of their learning. And let the smaller bodies of christians not hold back on their influence. And let the various philanthropic friends of humanity that are in no church, help on the cause, and with God’s blessings on their united action the work is done.

We are surrounded by formidable hosts of foes. “But the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong.” “It is not of him that willeth nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.” “He that is for us is greater than they that are against us.”

We are blessed with brave soldiers and skillful and pious leaders of our armies. The valour of our soldiers has wrung an unwilling tribute of admiration from their Northern foes, and elicited the warm sympathies of all civilized Europe; whilst London and Paris are said to be in a blaze of enthusiasm over our brilliant victories. Let us put all our trust in the Lord, and do our whole duty, and all will be well. “Some trust in horses and some in chariots, but we will remember the name of the Lord our God.”

Talmage’s letter published in the Baptist paper (and previously published in Milledgeville’s Confederate Union newspaper) is one of a myriad of examples of white Baptists of the Confederacy uniting with other white Southern Protestants in the holy cause of preserving African slavery. The issue of allowing slaves to read is one angle which many white Southern Christians seize upon in arguing that slavery, if practiced with compassion, is clearly God’s will for the African race in both the Confederacy and the world. Accompanying this calling of God is a vibrant Confederate nationalism that evidences itself in Talmage’s editorial.

Source: Samuel K. Talmage, “Should the Law be Repealed Prohibiting Teaching our Slaves to Read the Bible?”, Christian Index, November 25, 1862; “Biography of Samuel Kennedy Talmage” (link)