Baptists and the American Civil War: December 26, 1863

Map of Virginia 1860sIn Union-occupied areas of Virginia, black Baptists are increasingly exercising their newfound freedom. George Corprew,a free black living in the Portsmouth area, this year donates land for what becomes the Divine Baptist Church in Princess Anne County.

This month the church is established and Charles E. Hodges (1819-1910) is called as the congregation’s first pastor. The founding of the Divine Baptist congregation is a triumph both for Virginia blacks and for Hodges, a wealthy black businessman and Baptist minister who is returning home years after being forced to flee his native land.

By 1837, the Hodges family had accumulated some 253 acres of land in Princess Anne County. As wealthy free blacks, they were symbols of what blacks could achieve if granted freedom. As Virginia’s laws governing blacks grew ever more restrictive in the 1840s, however, Hodges’ refused to obey edicts that restricted the movements of free blacks. Some accounts indicate that Charles’ wife Sally was assaulted. In 1852 Charles and his family were driven from their home and lands by slave patrols. Moving to Brooklyn, New York, they remained there into the Civil War years, becoming an important part of the Underground Railroad. In 1855, Charles and his brother William were chosen as delegates from New York to the “Colored National Convention” held in Philadelphia.

Following Sally’s death, Charles moves his family back to Princess Anne County, Virginia, helping establish the Divine Baptist Church of Portsmouth. Following the war, he regains ownership of his confiscated lands, and serves as a delegate in the Virginia House of Delegates from 1869-1871. In addition, three of Hodges’ brothers are involved in Reconstruction efforts in Virginia.

The Divine Baptist Church, meanwhile, grows following the war and still exists to the present day.

Sources: “Religion During the Civil War,” Encyclopedia Virginia (link); Linwood Morings Boone, The Chronological History of the Roanoke Missionary Baptist Association, Authorhouse, 2012, p. 42 (link); “House Joint Resolution #65, Recognizing the African American members elected to the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1867-1868 and members elected to the Virginia General Assembly during Reconstruction,” March 10, 2012, Virginia Legislature (link); “Information about Charles Edward Hodges” (link); History, Divine Baptist Church (link)