Baptists and the American Civil War: December 4, 1865

Civil War States MapToday in the District of Columbia the 39th Congress convenes. The big question looming over all others is that of what to do about the Southern states who, although defeated in the recent war, seem determined to defy the Union by continuing their oppression and violence against against former slaves.

Republicans, the party of Lincoln but now led by president Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, are united in their belief that the South should not be allowed to sit representatives in Congress. Even moderates within the party are adamant that Johnson’ policies are not safeguarding the well-being of freedmen and that freedmen must be given the right to vote. Congress thus asks for a report on the conditions in the South concerning freedmen.

Two weeks pass and the president and some members of congress deliver reports on the state of the South. Johnson plays down concerns of atrocities committed by white Southerners. Congressman Charles Sumner rejects Johnson’s words, declaring ” do not let this crying injustice rage any longer.” Of Johnson he says, “If you are not ready to be the Moses of an oppressed people do not becomes its Pharaoh.”

Sumner’s commitment to advancing the endangered interests of freedmen is spurred on by many clergy of the North, some of whom are Baptist. As Baptists of the North during the war led the way in advancing abolition and demanding emancipation, so now they call for justice for freedmen. Justin D. Fulton, pastor of Tremont Temple Baptist Church in Boston, is among those demanding that Congress hold the white South accountable for their continued oppression of the black race.

The matter is far from decided at this point, yet the contours of the struggle for meaningful freedom for blacks are shaping up. Powerful interests in the South want to make certain the blacks remain in servitude to the dominant white race. Some Northerners agree, reflecting long-standing prejudice in much of the North. President Johnson appears unwilling to substantially challenge white supremacist Southerners. Many Northerners, however, are passionate about freedom for all, demanding that Southern states must give black men the right to vote. Freedmen in the South, at the same time, have throughout the Old Confederacy assembled into state political conventions for the purpose of demanding protection from their former masters and access to the ballot box.

This war after the war, yet hanging in the balance, will shape the South, and the nation, for many decades.

Source: Victor B. Howard, Religion and the Radical Republican Movement, 1860-1870, Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990, pp. 106-107 (link)