Baptists and the American Civil War: May 19, 1864

SlaveryWhile white Southern Baptist elites fervently defend bondage as God’s will for blacks and fret over the possibility of a future without riches and comfort derived from the labor of black slaves, Northern (American) Baptists celebrate the impending freedom that they feel certain is the future of all blacks, as well as the will of God. After all, they have hoped and worked for black freedom for the past three decades.

Today a Baptist preacher, George B. Ide, speaking at the annual meeting of the American Baptist Home Mission Society, evaluates the war and the status of blacks already freed from slavery.

.…A period so eventful must be full of grave problems; and of these one of the gravest relates to the measures which should be adopted in behalf of those lately bound in chains, whom God, through the instrumentality of the war, is bringing out of bondage.

At the beginning of the fierce struggle that now convulses the land, the people of the North had but a dim perception of the stupendous issues which it involved, and no clear foresight of the consequences to which it would lead. They were animated by the single purpose of suppressing treason, upholding the Government and maintaining the integrity of the Republic. The overthrow of Slavery was not their direct object; for with whatever feelings of abhorrence they may have regarded the system, and however unquestioned may have been their right to prohibit it in the Territories, they were precluded, by the compromises of the Constitution, from any forcible attempt to abolish it in the States where it had been established by law. But as the war went on and assumed unexpected proportions-as the conflict grew thicker and more deadly-as the rebellion developed its real strength, and its atrocious aim, it became more and more evident that we could conquer it only by destroying the institution in whose interest it had been commenced, and from which it drew its vitality and its chief support. Slowly and reluctantly we accepted this alternative. It required the protracted frown of an angry Providence, months of disaster and defeat, the sacrifice of countless millions of treasure, and of almost countless lives, to bring us to it. But we reached it at length. In obedience to the voice of the people, the President, recognizing military necessity as superior to all constitutional provisions, issued his proclamation, declaring for ever free the slaves of the conspirators who were seeking to overturn the Government.

This fact, the grandest in our history, infused a new element of power into the conduct of the war. It revived confidence. It gained for us the suffrage of the world. It allied us with Heaven. It enlisted in our cause the invincible might of Eternal Right and Justice. It arrested the almost unbroken tide of reverses that had carried mourning into myriad homes, and ushered in those subsequent successes and victories which have filled all loyal hearts with rejoicing, and cast over the rebellion the shadow of its approaching doom.

Since this potent word of deliverance was spoken, more than a million of slaves have obtained the blessed boon of freedom, partly by escaping within our lines from districts yet held by the rebels, and partly by the progress of our arms in restoring the authority of the Government over large portions of the revolted States. And these are but the advance-guard, the forerunners of millions more who will fol- low them out of the prison-house of bondage, as the victorious forces of the Union open the way, till Slavery and Secession-foul mother and foul child-shall be driven for ever from our shores.

With what glowing interest and sympathy must we contemplate this multitude, thus led forth, by the hand of God himself, from life-long vassalage to liberty, and the possession of those personal rights which Heaven ordains as the inalienable heritage of all! And as we behold them struggling up into the light of a better day–stamped with the brand of chattlehood; scarred with the lash of the task-master; all covered with the traces of the degradation and misery to which they have been subjected–how impressively must these questions present themselves to every thoughtful and benevolent mind ! What is their condition? What are their most pressing needs? What must be done to prepare them for the new circumstances in which they are placed? In what way can their welfare be most effectually secured? And what are the reasons which render this the great work of our time, and summon us to give to it our utmost zeal and energy?

Of the million already freed, about one hundred and thirty thousand are in the military service of the United States; eighty thousand as soldiers, organized into regiments and brigades, and so armed and drilled as to be highly efficient; and fifty thousand as army laborers, workmen on fortifications, wagoners, and hospital servants-thus releasing an equal number of white troops for active duty in the field. The remaining eight hundred and seventy thousand, though more or less dispersed over the whole territory recovered from the rebels, are chiefly to be found at Port Royal in the Department of the South; at Newbern in North Carolina; at Norfolk in Virginia; in the District of Columbia; on the Mississippi from Helena to Vicksburg; and in New Orleans. The peculiar circumstances attending the early days of their exodus exposed them to much suffering from the want of food, clothing, and shelter. But through the care of the Government, their own industry, and the prompt aid of societies and individuals, these necessities have been so far supplied, that the freedmen are now, for the most part, in a state of comparative physical comfort. This statement, however, is not to be received as absolutely and universally true. Among the liberated bondmen, as among all other classes of our population, examples of indolence and unthrift may be found. Many, too, have recently escaped from slavery, and have not had time to redeem themselves from the rags and beggary which they brought with them. Such cases of distress, we are happy to say, are now chiefly confined to the region of the Mississippi. Owing to the unsettled and insecure state of that Department, and the consequent greater difficulty in organizing labor on the plantations, large numbers there are still in great destitution. But, leaving out of view these sad instances of suffering-instances exceptional in their character, and rapidly passing away-we recognize every where the broad and cheering fact, that the condition of the freed slaves as to employment and subsistence, is far more satisfactory than even the most sanguine could have ventured to predict. So well provided are they in these respects, that, as a general thing, they may be said no longer to require our aid, or call for our solicitude. It is in reference to their intellectual and spiritual wants, that the most urgent appeal now comes to us.

In studying their needs under this aspect, it is important to bear in mind the fact, that hitherto they have been debarred from all means of education, and from all correct religious teaching. Despotism always endeavors to keep its victims in ignorance, in order that they may be more patient and submissive under its control. This has been its aim in all lands and ages. In whatever form it exists-whatever name it bears, whether that of hierarchy, monarchy, aristocracy, or oligarchy-it seeks ever to perpetuate its power by holding in darkness the minds it would subject to its will. The motive which induces the ruling classes of Great Britain to withhold free schools from her crushed and imbruted masses, is precisely the same as that which led the oligarchy of the South to prohibit the instruction of the slaves. The English aristocrat dreads the diffusion of knowledge among the common people, lest it should diminish their subserviency to the privileged orders. His brother, the Southern oligarch, feared to permit his slave to be educated, knowing well that an educated slave would soon be a slave no longer. Hence in all the slave-holding States the most severe laws were enacted against teaching the slaves to read. Little better were the opportunities allowed them for religious instruction. (They were, indeed, permitted to hear what their oppressors called the Gospel, dispensed by such lips as their oppressors chose. But it was the Gospel of the trafficker in human flesh-the Gospel of the child-seller and the woman- whipper–a Gospel which nullified marriage, denied their manhood, trampled on their God- given rights, and held forth obedience to their masters as the essence of all grace and virtue).

Coming out from such a condition, with the impress of generations of servitude and darkness upon them, is it surprising that they should be ignorant, superstitious, degraded; or that the most energetic endeavors should be demanded to fit them for the new position into which they have been so suddenly brought? What else could we expect? To suppose that men, born and reared under the debasing influences of slavery, will become, by the mere act of emancipation, intelligent, self-reliant, and competent to their own welfare, is to hope for that of which the annals of civilization afford not a solitary example. There is needed for them–as once there was needed for every race that has emerged from barbarism–the guiding hand of a wise philanthropy, to lead them on to knowledge, independence, and happiness. This necessity the Government has felt strongly from the first, and has done all to meet it which the overwhelming burdens of the war have left it the ability to do. Numerous voluntary associations are also co-operating in the work with a liberality and an earnestness that are full of promise. The noble enterprise is begun; and it is only requisite that the Christian sentiment of the North should be deeply imbued with the feeling of its importance, and thoroughly roused to its prosecution, in order to put in action an array of agencies that shall pour the light of education and of a pure Gospel upon those millions of immortal minds, which long years chattlehood have benighted and brutalized.

A single glance at what is being done, even in this incipient stage of the movement, is enough to inspire us with confidence and joy. For the freedmen in the District of Columbia a village of neat, comfortable homes has been built on Arlington Heights, formerly the residence of the rebel General Lee. Who sees not the righteous retribution of Providence in the fact, that the princely estate of the man who has been the ablest champion of a rebellion undertaken for the perpetuation of slavery, should have been converted into an asylum for negroes whom the crushing of that rebellion has set free? What a striking instance of that poetic justice which, though often portrayed in fiction, is so seldom witnessed in real life ! Into this village the freedmen have been gathered from the various camps around Washington; and there the problem of their social amelioration is in process of successful solution. The men are employed on work for the Government, and in cultivating the adjoining farms. They labor regularly and earnestly. And although the season was far advanced before operations were begun, the experiment has already more than repaid the expense incurred. The charge of their mental and religious training has been assumed by the Tract Society at New York, under whose auspices a commodious building has been erected intended for the double purpose of a chapel and a school-house; and at its opening, a few months since, cabinet ministers, members of Congress, and high officers of the army, made congratulatory addresses. And well they might-for never did statesman or warrior utter words on a nobler theme or at a grander hour. In this house a day-school for children has been commenced, with hundreds of pupils; and also an evening school for adults, which is numerously attended. The capacity of the learners, their desire for improvement, and their proficiency, are eminently encouraging. In the formation of provident habits, in domestic economy, in moral culture, they manifest an equal progress. Indeed, the whole population is represented as evincing, in its industry, its thrift, its sobriety, strong indications of soon becoming an intelligent, self-supporting, well- ordered community.

Similar accounts come to us from almost every point where any attempt has been made to succor and benefit the freedmen….

American Baptists are convinced, and rightly so, that freedmen will need much help for years to come as they seek to acquire the skills and education to thrive as equal persons in a white man’s world.

Most white Southern Baptists, however, like most other whites of the South, cannot imagine a future in which black persons–whether slave or free–are the equal of whites.

Source: George B. Ide, Freedmen of the War, A Discourse Delivered at the Annual Meeting of the American Baptist Home Mission Society, Philadelphia, May 19, 1864, Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1864 (link)