Baptists and the American Civil War: September 25, 1864

Georgia MapIn Palmetto, Georgia this day, Confederate President Jefferson Davis meets with generals John Bell Hood and William Hardee. Hood, commander of the defeated Army of the Tennessee, blames subordinate general Hardee, who had commanded one of three corps under Hood, for the loss of Atlanta to Sherman. Hardee disagrees, and asks to be removed from beneath Hood’s authority.

Back in July, Davis had settled on Hood to command the Army of the Tennessee. Refusing to second guess himself, the president retains Hood and reappoints Hardee–arguably the better general of the two–to the Army’s Department of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.

Hood is subsequently tasked with maneuvering back into Tennessee to attack the Federals’ supply lines in an area weakly guarded. That the best Davis and Hood can hope to do is cut the enemy’s supply lines reveals, in and of itself, the now-precarious nature of the armies of the Confederacy.

Meanwhile, in a minor campaign in Arkansas known as the Fort Smith Expedition, a Federal detachment of troops departs Little Rock for Fort Smith, some 180 miles of distance in which Confederate guerrilla activity is commonplace. The goal is to carry important dispatches between the two garrisons. The detachment, in the weeks ahead, successfully carries out the mission, gathers area intelligence, and returns with few casualties on October 13. The successful mission strengthens the Union presence in Arkansas.

Not far from where Davis holds court with Hood and Hardee, the Columbus Baptist Association in Georgia convenes at the County Line Baptist Church in Talbot County, an area thus far out of the reach of Union forces within the state.

Yesterday, the Sabbath, Columbus Baptists opened the three day meeting with formalities and two worship services–one for whites, and one for blacks. What is going on in the minds of the black Baptist members of the Talbot church is unrecorded, but doubtlessly they long for freedom which now seems so near.

White Columbus Baptists, however, yet hope and pray for a Confederate victory over the abolitionist North, whether or not many believe in their hearts that triumph is still possible.

Today’s agenda is business and committee meetings. But as the meeting gets under way, the “order of business” is “suspended for the purpose of making appeals for money to furnish religious reading to the soldiers.” A total of $303.30 is collected, not an altogether great amount considering the high rate of inflation plaguing the Confederacy. Later in the day delegates vote to send $50 to “Army Mission” and $25 to “furnish religious reading to [Army] Hospitals.”

Shortly thereafter, those present hear and approve of a memorial report of the late Rev. Jarvis Gibson Johnson, one of a relatively few Georgia Baptist ministers who forsook the pulpit to serve as a minister in the Army of the Tennessee, and in the course of his service perished from disease the preceding April. Johnson’s faith, life and commitment to country are all remembered, with the consoling words that “he was blessed in his last hours with clear and satisfactory assurances of his acceptance in the Savior.”

Immediately after holding aloft Johnson’s sacrifice as a minister in the army, the Columbus Baptist men hear and adopt the Missions report, a statement that is a much a commentary on the war and Confederate nationalism as it is on missions.

Your Committee believe that the firy ordeal of war through which we are now passing should not diminish our efforts to accomplish the work assigned us by our blessed Redeemer. It needs no argument to prove that enlarged fields of usefulness increase the measure of our obligation, and demand of the disciples of Jesus efforts in proportion to the spiritual necessities of our fellow-creatures, which manifest themselves within the range of our influence.

Whatever may betide, our duty as Christians to preach the Gospel to every creature can never cease. Great hindrances and difficulties make sincere and efficient labor but the more acceptable to our Divine master, and insure a large reward. Though obstacles have intervened between us and Foreign Missions, never have Southern Churches had demands of such thrilling interest as are now made upon them by the armies and hospitals of the Confederacy. These men are bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. Our beloved relations and countrymen, who, in distress, call upon us for assistance. Can any heart among us refuse to respond liberally by our prayers and money? He who can is unworthy to have such defenders, and have in trust his Lord’s money.

Our Boards have occupied this field, and have worked with great energy and success. The Domestic Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention has had 123 Missionaries under appointment, of whom 77 have devoted their time to the soldiers–23 to the Indians and 23 to the destitute and feeble churches.

The Virginia Sabbath and Colporteur Society has had about eighty missionaries in the army and hospitals. Our denomination has supported about 150 ministers in the work of army missions, besides supplying the insufficient salaries of a number of chaplains.

The salaries of these missions and the expense of religious newspapers and tracts distributed will amount to more than two hundred thousand dollars. The success of this enterprise has been wonderful; far exceeding the means employed. Extensive revivals of religion, resulting in the conversion of thousands, is the consequence.

May God give us grace to largely increase our efforts in this direction.

Woven into the missions report is the not-so-subtle suggestion that if the war is lost, Baptist chaplains and missionaries will nonetheless be remembered as stewards of spiritual victory in the army camps.

Before the associational meeting concludes, a report on Sabbath Schools laments that the war has drawn many away; a report from the Committee on the State of Religion notes that due to the war “half the members of the churches are frequently empty on Sabbath;” and $100 is taken up for “the African mission.”

It occurs not to the white Baptists of the Columbus Baptist Association that they are the ones in need of gospel conversion on the subject of race.

When the gathering concludes, the delegates return to their respective churches, uncertain and uneasy as to what news the morrow may bring.

Sources: “Confederate President Visits General Hood in Georgia,” History Channel (link); “Fort Smith Expedition,” Encyclopedia of Arkansas (link); Minutes of the thirty-sixth annual session of the Columbus Baptist Association held at the County Line, Talbot County, Ga., September 24th, 25th and 26th, 1864 link)