Baptists and the American Civil War: December 10, 1863

Civil War States MapToday is a day of fasting, humiliation and prayer in the Confederate States of America. A brief commentary in the North Carolina Baptist Biblical Recorder, in anticipation of this day, places the occasion in context.

…The proclamation is timely, and we hope the day will be generally observed. Our affairs have reached a crisis. Bragg defeated at Chattanooga, and Longstreet in a critical condition at Knoxville, Meade threatening Lee in Virginia, our currency steadily depreciating, and the prices of all the necessaries of life enormously high, we certainly need Divine interposition now, if ever. Let us all humbly invoke it and earnestly implore that the evils which now threaten us may be averted…

In many Baptist churches anguished prayer does take place this day. Yet much rhetoric by Christian leaders is far from humble.

In South Carolina, one of the leading Presbyterian theologians and ministers of the South–Benjamin M. Palmer, South Carolina native and now pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of New Orleans–addresses the state’s legislature. Echoing the thinking of leading Southern Baptists of the South (many of whom were trained in Presbyterian theological institutions), Palmer insists that the republican-governed Confederacy is one of the greatest nations on earth and under the guidance of the “great Ruler of the earth.”

Democracy, by contrast, is to be despised. Of the United States Palmer declares:

The Northern people, from the commencement of American history, have failed to seize the true idea of a republic. They have confounded it with democracy, from which it is as generically distinct as from monarchy itself. Republicanism, with them, is only democracy writ small — a merely mechanical device for condensing the masses, and rendering practicable the government of the mob. They have pushed the doctrine to the verge of ungodliness and atheism, in making the voice of the people the voice of God; in exalting the will of a numerical majority above the force of constitution and covenants, and creating in the despotism of the mob the vilest and most irresponsible tyranny known in the annals of mankind … no class exists with them, which stands forth the representative and guardian of the conservative element in human society. This is sufficient to explain the rupture between the two portions of the old confederation. The conservative element existed only at the South. Long and patiently it battled against the usurpations of an aggressive and unprincipled democracy ; but overpowered at length, its only resource was separation from a lawless power, which could not even be held in check. This withdrawal leaves the North hopelessly destitute of that conservative influence, which must always be proportioned with the aggressive forces at work — or the nation drives recklessly forward to its own destruction….

God has chosen the Confederacy to carry forth the holy principles of government rejected by the North:

Say I not well, that the banner given us to be displayed is in defence of a pure republican government upon this American continent ? It is my unwavering conviction that God has rent the old nation by this terrible schism, not only because it had grown too great to be good, and to prevent its becoming the scourge and pest of the world, but also to afford in this Confederacy, a last asylum for the genius of republicanism to work out, if possible, its promised blessings to the nations of the earth.’

African slavery is the economic, cultural and godly foundation of the non-democratic, aristocratic South, and Palmer is as passionate an advocate of the peculiar institution as any Southern Baptist divine:

…a solemn duty is imposed upon us to protect the slave, peculiarly dependent upon our guardianship, from the schemes of a false philanthropy which threaten his early and inevitable extermination. It is not my purpose here to discuss the institution of domestic servitude existing amongst us. The argument has long since been exhausted upon both sides of this disputed topic; and those who have given it their attention have long since reached, upon the one side or the other, probably an unchangeable conviction. Some facts have, however, been grievously overlooked by the fanatical assailants of slavery, which, it seems to us, have much to do with a correct interpretation of God’s providence in reference to this entire subject. The negro race, for example, has never in any period of history been able to lift itself above its native condition of fetishism and barbarism; and except as it has indirectly contributed by servile labor to human progress, might well be discounted, according to Schlegel’s view, in the general estimate of the world’s inhabitants. Often as they have been brought in contact with other and superior races, they have never been stimulated to become a self-supporting people, under well regulated institutions and laws; but have invariably relapsed from a partial civilization into their original state of degradation and imbecility. It is moreover notoriously true that the highest type of character, ever developed among them, has been in the condition of servitude; and that, in the fairest portions of the earth, after the advantage of a long discipline to systematic toil, emancipation has converted them instantly from productive laborers into the most indolent and squalid wretches to be found upon the globe. Whilst too, as by the force of a universal law, an inferior race melts away in the presence of a superior civilization, a few thousand Africans have expanded under this system pf domestic slavery into four millions of people; constituting, at this moment, the best conditioned, the happiest, and I will, add, in the essential import of the word, the freest operative glass to be found in Christendom….

Palmer furthermore declares his belief that enslavement “is the alloted destiny” of the black race and “clearly ordained of God,” while abolitionism is “misdirected religious zeal.” Should God, for an unfathomable reason, in His providence decide that enslaved blacks should be set free, He will do so without the help of humans, and Southern whites will respond with “a most cheerful amen.”

Having effectively rejected future freedom for blacks by declaring human efforts to free slaves as evil, Palmer explains why blacks cannot be freed:

We do insist further, that in the present posture of the two races, the African Cannot cease to be a bondman without bringing utter ruin upon both: and especially that our subjugation, in the present struggle, will be the signal for the extirpation of the negro, now cast by God upon the protection of the white master. The truth of this, alas! there is no room to doubt. All history attests the impossibility of two unequal races living side by side with mutual advantage. The inferior gives way before the energy and resources of the superior; nor would it be difficult to trace the causes which necessitate the direful catastrophe. Does any one dream, that the fairest portion of this continent will be abandoned to the fate of the West India islands, and suffered to grow up into a wilderness merely to furnish a home for a lot of indolent barbarians? The lean and hungry vandals, now hoping to appropriate our broad and fertile fields, will be restrained by no such romantic sentiment from swarming upon the land which their own arms have subjugated. Beneath that fearful invasion the negro will be buried. Mocked with a delusive freedom which exists for him only in name, task-masters, more unrelenting than those of Egypt, will exact for scanty wages a degree of toil which the bondman never knew. Precisely here his ruin will begin. Among the proofs of the negro’s fitness for servitude is the striking fact that he cannot easily be overtasked. The white man may be induced to labor beyond his power of endurance, until nature gives way beneath the protracted effort. But the negro reaches his natural limit, and becomes at once incapable of toil, which no compulsion will prompt him to achieve. What hope has he of competing with the hardy and aggressive race who shall then be masters of the soil? Can he thrive as the slave of capital, which has no bowels of mercy for the aching limbs and overstrained nerves which are bending and breaking beneath the scourge of starvation? Yielding to his constitutional revulsion from undue labor, and emancipated from that mild constraint which now exacts of him a moderate industry, he will sink back into his native indolence — melting away at last through filth, disease and vice, until not a vestige of his existence will remain….

Northern Baptists and enslaved Baptists of the South, not surprisingly, dispute the white supremacist ideology that underpins the Confederacy. While some of the former certainly view blacks as somewhat inferior to whites, the Southern argument that blacks are incapable of being free persons is viewed by most as nonsense.

The Confederate defiance on display this day and sanctified by the will of God cannot mask the larger reality that Christianity, in its public evidences, is collapsing in the South. Despite revivals in the Confederate Army and in churches in portions of the South not yet reached by the Union Army, many, perhaps most, churches in the South are now shuttered or teetering upon closing. Of those remaining open, many are pastorless.

Meanwhile, hardly a day seems to go by when a new congregation or congregations are not being birthed in the North. Many of the new Baptist churches of the North established this year are black Baptist churches, but primarily-white Baptist churches are also blossoming in great numbers. Among the latter is the Linden Baptist Church of Camden, New Jersey which today holds its first religious services in the “northeastern portion of the city.” Worship is held in the Paper Mill Schoolhouse, and a Sunday School established ten days hence.

While racism is far from exorcised in the United States, the principles of democracy and freedom for all, long embraced by many Baptists of the North but rejected by the Confederacy, are destined to overcome the wishful thinking of white supremacists of the Confederacy.

Sources: “Day of Fasting and Prayer,” Biblical Recorder, December 10, 1863 (link); “A discourse before the General Assembly of South Carolina, on December 10, 1863: appointed by the legislature as a day of fasting, humiliation and prayer” (link); “Benjamin Morgan Palmer,” The Southern Presbyterian Review (link); Camden, New Jersey: Linden Baptist Church” (link)