Baptists and the American Civil War: May 11, 1865

equal_suffrage_norfolk_1865Despite the earlier surrender of the Confederacy’s major armies and yesterday’s capture of former Confederate President Jefferson Davis, many soldiers and chaplains yet remain in the field.

Today William H. Whitsitt, future professor and president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is relieved of his position as Confederate chaplain in the 4th Tennessee Cavalry. Whitsitt originally listed in the unit as a private and was later appointed as chaplain.

Following six years of study following the war, Whitsitt is appointed as a professor at Southern Seminary in 1872, ascending to the presidency in 1895. His years as president are controversial due to Whitsitt’s insistence upon Baptist origins in the early 17th century, rather than from the days of the biblical John Baptist. The latter belief, although lacking historical evidence, is yet held by some prominent Southern Baptists of the day. By opting for the evidence-based 17th century dating, Whitsitt set himself on a course that led to his resignation in 1899 in order to relieve pressure on the seminary. Whitsitt moves on, taking a professorship at Richmond College in 1901.

Also surrendering this day is the 15th Missouri, of which Captain Jefferson Richardson Pratt (1804-1888) is a member. Pratt is a Baptist minister, having served as pastor of several Missouri churches prior to enrolling in the Confederate Army. His parole takes place on June 5 at Jacksonport, Arkansas. Afterwards, Pratt remains in Arkansas, settling in the Warm Springs area.

In Norfolk, Virginia, meanwhile a “mass meeting” is held at the Bute Street Baptist Church (colored). At this gathering local freedmen pass a number of resolutions concerning emancipation and their rights of equality.

One resolution insists upon “equality before the law, and equal rights of suffrage at the ‘ballot box.'” Signatories also resolve that the government should not make any legal distinctions among citizens due to color, and “that the removal of such distinctions and disabilities are like demanded by sound political economy, by patriotism, humanity and religion.” In a swipe at white southerners, those present pledge to “prove ourselves worthy of the elective franchise …. by never abusing it by voting the State out of the Union, and never using it for purposes of rebellion, treason or oppression.” They also resolve to “not patronize or hold business relations with those who would deny to us our equal rights.” In order to work toward enacting their political rights, signatories form an organization called the “Democratic Republican Association” in order to “inaugurate a series of public meetings and publications, and memorialize the President and Congress, and invoke the aid of the friends of freedom throughout the State and Nation.”

Today’s meeting of black citizens of Norfolk illustrates the energy throughout the South among freedmen now that the war is over and the Confederacy defeated. In the months to come Norfolk’s black citizens continue working to ensure that their rights are legally and practically observed. Victories are achieved in the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments that formally abolish slavery, provide equal protection under the law, and grant voting rights to black men.

Yet despite today’s energy and the passage of the three amendments in the years following, the momentum does not last but instead is overcome by growing racial violence on the part of white supremacists of the South abetted by civil structures, as well as inertia in the nation’s capital.

Sources: Lyon Gardiner Tyler, editor, Men of Mark in Virginia, Washington, D.C.: Men of Mark Publishing, 1909, Volume 5, p. 453 (link); Jesse Richardson Pratt, 1804-1888 (link); “Equal Suffrage: Address From the Colored Persons of Norfolk, Va., to the People of the United States,” 1865 (link)