Baptists and the American Civil War: December 3, 1863

Civil War States MapAre some white Southern Baptists delusional regarding the war? Less than two months before war broke out between the South and the North, Georgia Baptist Christian Index editor Samuel Boykin, reflecting the excitement of Southern politicians heady with secession fever, envisioned unparalleled greatness for the new Confederate States of America:

Expansion, too will be its birthright – not the expansion of conquest, but of absorption and assimilation. We will absorb Central America and the contiguous States of Mexico, not by the bloody rescripts of war, but by the generous attractions of our superior civilization and purer religion. We will assimilate the half barbarous peoples of those States to us, by the tuneful paeans of our religion and the superior advantages of our laws. We will elevate and ennoble them in the scale of being, and fit them to be citizens of a pure Republican Government …. This is destiny, and God grant it may be accomplished without drawing the sword. But it must be accomplished, because Providence designs the spreading out of African slavery into regions congenial and suitable to its prosperity. Such regions are represented in Nicaragua, Honduras, Chihuahua, Tamaulipas, in which our omnipotent staples will flourish beneath the plastic hand of black labor. When these golden visions become realities, when we shall feed the nations, as well as supply their looms and spindles, with raw material, then will the wisdom and prescience of the founders of our new Government be vindicated – then will the proudest nations of the earth come to woo and worship at the shrine of our imperial Confederacy.

In the years of war since, Southern Baptist divines have held fast to their belief that the Confederate States of America, as God’s chosen nation, will prevail over the barbarous, ungodly abolitionist United States. Even in the face of the tremendous battlefield setbacks of the past five months, white Baptist leaders have maintained confidence in the Confederacy’s ultimate victory, albeit many are now hedging their bets by noting that spiritual victory–evident in recent and current revivals within the Confederate Army and among local churches of the South–is more important than earthly battles.

Periodical visions of a glorious post-war future, however, yet protrude from beneath the growing mountain of cautious confidence. Such is the case with an editorial in today’s Virginia Baptist Religious Herald that presumes Confederate victory over the United States, moving forward cautionary concerns to one hundred years following Confederate independence. The key to a bright post-war future is the faithfulness of the churches during the ultimately successful Confederate victory in the present war.

A hundred years to come, the impress of our great national struggle will be found, for good or evil, on the churches of Christ in the Confederate States. It is the prerogative of revolutions to send their own spirit forward into the ages that follow after. The halo of grateful remembrances sanctifies, to posterity, the excellencies and errors alike, of a generation that achieves the freedom of a people, and revivifies the effects or preserves the endangered institutions of a State. We shall be more than a name–we shall be a power among our children’s children; a power moulding them after our own image and likeness. Momentous responsibility! Do we feel, as we should, that we are living for the future of the country and the church! that what we are in the present is the seed from which that future grows, and grows–as the product of every other seed–“after its kind!”

It becomes a grave question, therefore, under what conditions an element of evil is likely to mingle with the influence of our religious belief and religious action–as that influence shall put itself forth when we pass into history? It is clear, we think, that this is apt to be the case.–

1, If we lapse into inactivity, and adjourn the vigorous prosecution of evangelistic and educational enterprises “until the war is over;”–

2, If we lower the standard of Christian character and loosen the bands of ecclesiastical disciplines; conforming to the world rather than striving the more to transform it;–

3, If the deposits of sacred truth committed into our hands is covered over, or hidden away, by departures from the order of the Lord’s house, on the plea that the pressure of the times demands or excuses them;–

4, If, like the masses of the unawakened around us, we prosecute the war for merely secular ends and in a merely secular spirit; forgetting that the true inspiration of the conflict, for us, is the connection it holds with the kingdom of Christ;–

5. If principles of integrity and benevolence are too imperfectly knit into our souls to bear up under the sore trial of suspended access to the markets of the world, and a depreciating currency, and the aggravated uncertainty of temporal possessions, amid the perils of war….

Glorious future visions aside, chances are that most Southern whites today are too concerned about merely winning the war to ponder the one hundred year future of the South. But if they could peer into the future a century from the present, the landscape would be that of a yet white-dominated  Deep South still stinging over the Confederacy’s defeat in the War Between the Slaveholding and Non-Slaveholding States, convinced as ever that blacks are inferior humans and determined as ever to keep “niggers” in submission and poverty. Central to the landscape would be the white churches of the South, who would be committed to maintaining racial apartheid, with many leading members having long resorted to terrorism against blacks to “keep the niggers in their place.”

The “seed” of white Christian supremacy and the self-serving biblical conviction that blacks are ordained of God to be slaves, a seed planted prior to the Civil War and for which the war had been fought, would still be growing. The war against human equality, in short, would still be raging in a defeated yet defiant white-led South, a war led by white Christians utilizing the secular and evil means that today’s editorial warns against.

Sources: “The State of the Country,” Christian Index, February 27, 1861; “Christian Fidelity in this War,” Religious Herald, December 3, 1863; see Wayne Greenhaw, Fighting the Devil in Dixie: How Civil Rights Activists Took on the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama, Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2011 (link) and Carolyn Renée Dupont, Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1975, New York: New York University Press, 2013 (link); see also a Google search for “keep the niggers in their place” (link)