Baptists and the American Civil War: August 29, 1865

colored_convention_dc1869During the war many Baptist associations and state conventions, South and North alike, formed committees on the “State of the Country” during annual gatherings. Not surprisingly, Northern Baptist reports commonly voiced support for emancipation of slaves and the Union efforts to defeat the South. Conversely, (white) Baptist groups who offered such reports (and many did not) often condemned Lincoln and abolitionism while pledging prayers and loyalty to the war effort in defense of black slavery.

Today’s Chicago Tribune newspaper publishes a “State of the Country” report from a group of Baptists whose voices were rarely heard during the war: colored Baptists.

Their report, recounting the horrors of slavery and the bravery of “colored soldiers, but far from optimistic that black bondage is truly over, demands the “elective franchise.”

The “Report of Wood River (Colored) Baptist Association on the State of the Country” (meeting in Springfield, Illinois) reads thus:

To the Moderator and Brethren of the Association:

Your Committee on the State of the Country, having had the subject under consideration, beg leave to submit the following:

In common with other citizens of the United States, and friends of free Government, we rejoice that the civil and bloody war which has been drinking the best blood of the nation, and wasting its treasures for four years past, has terminated: and that with its termination has come the promise of the complete overthrow of that “sum of all villanies,” American slavery. Yet, as part of that class who have been its immediate victim, those who have suffered more from the existence of the accursed institution in this country than others, and who must continue to suffer more than others, as long as the least vestige of it remains, we deem it imperative on ourselves, as a large and respectable body of colored Baptists and citizens of the United States, met to consider, and, so far as may be, to secure the best interests of our people, temporal and spiritual, to avow as our deliberate judgment, prayerfully aimed at, that, unless those whose business it is to reorganize the States recently in rebellion against the Government shall reorganize them under the principle of equality of rights, under the law, to all men without regard to color, slavery now declared to be dead and only needing burial, will be found to be as full of vitality as ever; will be no less a source of discord to the nation than it has been; will be as replete with untold horrors to the colored people as ever, and will, as truly as God loves justice and hates oppression, have, after all, to be strangled by a death as sanguinary as was the bloody conflict from which the Government has just emerged; which, may God in mercy avert! That the proclamation of the Nation’s dearly beloved, late and lamented President, pledging to the slave his liberty, may be kept to the hope as well as to the ear, we demand for the freedman the elective franchise. The Declaration of American Independence, as also the Constitution of the United States, made in pursuance thereof, makes it a crime against God and an outrage on humanity to withhold it from them. Birth in the Government entitles them to it; loyalty to the Government entitles them to it; loyalty to the Government strengthens that title. The colored people of the United States have ever been loyal–have always been patriotic–have always been ready and willing to come forward, bringing themselves and, they have all, and sacrificing it upon the altar of their country. In the war of the revolution their blood flowed freely with that of white men: in the war of 1812 they did their whole duty. And what shall we say of their conduct in the recent slaveholders’ rebellion? Why, that a people who have never known anything but oppression in the country, whether in the Southern or Northern States, whether on slave or free soil, falsely so-called, rushed forward at the sound of the first gun, at the first insult to that flag whose stripes were a fitting symbol of their oppression, and gallantly proffered all for the salvation of their country. Did our army need intelligence of the enemy’s movements in his own country? Colored men risked life itself to communicate it. When our soldiers were scattered and fleeing for their lives in the enemy’s country, with the blood-hounds hard upon their tracks, those ferocious beasts which had been imported into and bred in the country especially to hunt down colored men, who succored them? Who fed them? Who clothed them? Who piloted them to places of safety? Let our soldiers answer, colored men! When the South, as a unit, were laboring to destroy the Government, and a large body in the North were voting the war a failure, colored men everywhere were as true as steel. And now, we ask, shall the great body of Southerners, who had done all they could to destroy the government, be pardoned of their high crime, have the elective franchise, which they have so foolishly and maliciously thrown away, restored to them, and be allowed the privilege of voting and being voted for in reorganizing and governing the States recently in rebellion, while colored men, its true supporters and faithful friends, be denied those rights and privileges, when their free and unrestricted exercise is the only means by which to compel respect to their liberty, and make it a blessing instead of a curse? We cannot think so uncharitably of the American people.

Some admit the unfeigned and persistent loyalty and patriotism of our people; admit that they have done well in all the wars of the country, and incomparably well in the rebellion just closed. “But,” say they, “after all, they are too ignorant to be entrusted with the elective franchise.” To this we reply, that at the risk of life they arrayed themselves on the side of the Government and fought for it; and it is simply absurd, in our opinion, to accuse them of the folly of voting against it. They that fight will vote right, if you give them the chance.

Others, again, say “we have given the colored people their liberty, and that is enough for the present.” To this we reply, that a man has not got his liberty until he has the right of voting and being voted for. Again, admitting it to be true that the colored man hast his liberty, still it is not true that any have given it to him; if he has, he won it by his own arm. The colored men of the country form a small seventh of its whole population, and yet in putting down the rebellion they constituted one-fifth of its effective force; so that instead of its being true that others have given him his liberty, he has assisted in preserving to this nation free government.

For out part we cannot see how the Government can afford to treat our people with injustice, in the reconstruction of the rebellious States. It will take all the wisdom and all the votes of all the loyal men of the country to avert the dangers and disgrace still threatening us. Once let the armies be withdrawn from these States, and they will not only enact such laws against the freedmen as to make them beg to be enslaved again, but with their increased representation in Congress, based upon the freedom of their whole population, they will coalesce with the opposition party of the North and repudiate the national debt incurred in putting down the rebellion, or compel the assumption of the Confederates, so that if the nation pays one she will have to pay the other also.

If the foregoing reflections, conjoined with the memory of the hard-fought and bloody field of Port Hudson, where the devotion and heroism of the colored soldiers were more than human; the courage and gallantry displayed by colored soldiers at Milliken’s Bend, Olustice, in the mine before Petersburg, where so many of the bodies of colored soldiers were ruthlessly and wantonly buried, together with their slaughter at Nashville, where the brave and skillful Thomas annihilated Hood’s army, and where, out of fifteen hundred colored soldiers, four hundred and forty fell in fifteen minutes, led on by the brave Steadman, are not sufficient to restrain the Government from involving herself in the disgrace, and committing against her loyal colored citizens the great crime of extending the elective franchise to the mass of secessionists on a hollow pretence of repentance, and withholding it from colored men, then God have mercy on our unhappy nation, and on us too; for if the fitting out of vessels and sending them to Africa, instigating wars among the natives, cramming our vessels with those natives, subjecting them to the horrors of the middle passage, bringing them to this country, inflicting upon them and then of acendants a cruel and life long bondage, be a crime of such turpitude as to move the Great Father of all to pour upon our guilty nation that storm of wrath which has but just now expended itself, how ! O, how ! can we hope as a nation to survive when God comes, as He certainly must and will, to make requisition for the cruelties, the horrors, and the death that will result from arming the slave against his master that he might help to whip and subjugate him, and then turning him over, bound hand and foot, to the tender mercies of that master whom he has helped to whip and subjugate.

Your committee repeat, then, that the only way to make President Lincoln’s Proclamation abolishing slavery effective, and the freemen’s liberty a boon, is to give those freedmen the elective franchise, the right to vote and to be voted for.

Respectfully submitted,

Jas. Poindexter,
R. J. Robinson,
J H. Magee,

Sources: “Report of Wood River (Colored) Baptist Association On the State of the Country,” Chicago Tribune, August 29, 1865 (link)