Religious justifications, continuing impact of the American Civil War explored
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — The American Civil War ended150 years ago. Or did it?
“We cannot get away from the Civil War,” said historian Bobby Lovett, retired from Tennessee State University in Nashville. “In one way or another, all of us are still fighting the Civil War. We’re trying to understand it.”
Lovett was one of two historians to address the Nurturing Faith Experience: Civil War at 150 — a two-day gathering hosted by the First Baptist Church of Chattanooga and sponsored by Baptists Today/Nurturing Faith, Baptist History and Heritage Society, and Tennessee Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
The staggering losses from the war can be both measured and yet remain unmeasured, said Lovett.
Of the estimated 620,000 Americans who perished in the battles on their home turf, he said: “It was the bloodiest war we ever fought.”
Yet the total loss of human life from the war — soldiers, slaves, Native Americans — remains unknown, he added. “We dig up people all the time.”
Outside perspectives can provide Americans with a better understanding of the enormity of the war’s self-destruction, human and otherwise, past and present, said Lovett.
“European visitors want to know about the Civil War,” he said. “They can’t believe it.”
Terry Maples, field coordinator for Tennessee Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, echoed that observation during a discussion that followed Lovett’s presentation. During a recent visit to Canada, Maples said he explored the differences between Americans and their neighbors to the north.
One Canadian told him: We never killed one another in a war.
Lovett’s own church experience reflects the impact of the Civil War.
“I’ve been a Baptist for 60 years,” said the 72-year-old, who recalled his grandmother leading him at age 12 to a mourners’ bench where he confessed his sins and professed his faith.
The congregation he joined that day was the First Colored Baptist Church of Nashville — now called First Baptist Church Capitol Hill. Lovett is helping lead a yearlong commemoration of the congregation’s 150th year of independence dating back to 1865.
The church’s roots go back to 1834 when the First Baptist Church of Nashville allowed its slave membership along with free blacks to hold Friday night prayer services. In 1848, black members — representing about half of congregation — were allowed to meet separately in an old schoolhouse for services led by the white associate pastor.
“That’s why balconies were built in churches,” said Lovett, noting that white congregants would occupy the lower space while black members would sit above.
White ministers continued to lead the services until 1853, when worshippers educated a freed slave who had been willed to the church earlier. Nelson G. Merry was called the “sexton” — which Lovett said was a fancy word for janitor: “the person who took care of the church and made sure it was ready for Sunday and so on.”
But in 1853, the ministers of Nashville ordained Merry to lead services for the black members. Then, during the Civil War, white church leaders “pretty much left the black congregation alone,” said Lovett.
In March 1865, a month before Robert E. Lee surrendered in Virginia, the black Baptist worshippers in Nashville sent a petition to the white congregation asking for independence and the ownership of a meetinghouse the slaves had erected.
Weeks later, on April 15, Lincoln was assassinated and a march turned into mourning and then mass meetings. One was held in the slave-built church that would gain its independence in August of that year, 1865.
Lovett said the church made its name change during its centennial celebration in 1965, the era of the Civil Rights Movement. The word “colored” was dropped, he said, since several white members had joined including activist and Baptist minister Will Campbell.
“Dec. 13 this year is the final celebration,” said Lovett of the commemoration of the historic congregation’s independence. And he warmly invited guests to attend.
“Preservation of the American Union” was a primary result of the Civil War, said Lovett. It was a concern for many including the first U.S. president.
“If there is one thing that is going to destroy this union it’s the question of slavery,” he quoted George Washington, who died in 1799, as saying.
The Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and the U.S. Constitution addressed issues of human equality, said Lovett. And, as an example, in his last will and testament Washington freed his own slaves.
“But Martha didn’t!” noted Lovett. However, Washington would be revered in the North and the South, and among free and enslaved blacks.
“He didn’t know that 61 years later we’d have an American Civil War that would nearly destroy the Union,” said Lovett.
Yet at the end of all the destruction of that war would be a tattered but preserved union.
“That was the greatest result, in my opinion, of the Civil War,” said Lovett.
A second significant result of the war was the fulfillment of Lincoln’s vision of a nation free of human enslavement and a permanent establishment of the Emancipation Proclamation, Lovett said.
President Lincoln was worried that the Emancipation Proclamation would cause him to lose reelection in 1864, said Lovett. “There was as much opposition to it in the North as there was in the Confederate States.”
Lincoln called abolitionist Frederick Douglass to the White House to agitate for the escape of so many slaves that the Emancipation Proclamation could not be repealed,” Lovett said.
“Before that a black man had never been called to the White House….”
Douglass agreed to help, but he didn’t have to do so, said Lovett, because Lincoln won reelection handily. After the election, Lincoln worked to make emancipation permanent — through the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution that was ratified by the states in Dec. 1865, months following Lincoln’s death in the spring.
“That was a great result of the Civil War — at least for African Americans,” said Lovett, “that there would be no slavery in the United States, forever again, anywhere.”
Lovett noted that the 150th anniversary of the passage of the 13th amendment will be marked on Dec. 18, 2015.
As a historian, Lovett said he is often asked when the slaves were freed.
“Well, the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t have anything to do with my people in West Tennessee,” he said. And it didn’t apply in some other states such as Louisiana, Missouri, West Virginia, Maryland and Delaware.
“Our date is Dec. 18, 1865.”
A third result of the Civil War, said Lovett, was the realization of a radical proposal put forth by abolitionists in 1848 that many considered a pipe dream.
“All the presidents before Abraham Lincoln had supported slavery,” said Lovett. “Every one of them.”
Martin Van Buren acquiesced to political pressure, said Lovett. And Tennessean Andrew Jackson packed the Supreme Court in a way that resulted in the 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford decision in which Chief Justice Roger Taney declared that slaves were not United States citizens.
“It was a powerful case for the South,” said Lovett, adding that it also declared that Congress had no authority to prohibit slavery in any state.
“The North hated the Dred Scott case,” said Lovett. “The South loved it.”
He recalled that when Taney died during the Civil War, some newspapers in the North reported: “Justice Taney has died. He did the nation a favor.”
While Southern states would soon begin declaring their secession from the Union, Northern abolitionists back in 1848 were first to raise the idea of independence from slave-holding states, said Lovett.
“They wanted to secede from the Union and write a slave-free constitution,” he said. But their desire was too costly for other abolitionists to sign on.
“Frederick Douglass and others asked: ‘What about the four million slaves down South? You’ll leave them slaves forever probably.’”
The abolitionists backed off from their call for secession in 1848, but ultimately achieved their goal of a slave-free constitution, said Lovett.
“One of the greatest results of the Civil War is they rewrote the Constitution of 1789-1791.”
The 13th amendment, in particular, brought several important changes, said Lovett, including nullification of the Three-Fifths Compromise that counted only 60 percent of blacks in each state to determine national legislative representation.
“But guess who wins?” asked Lovett. “The South wins because now the South can count all of the blacks. You know, the South picked up almost 30 seats.”
So the struggle for freedom and equality was elusive. President Ulysses S. Grant pushed for the 15th amendment giving African Americans the right to vote — though that right was long restricted in many states.
Interestingly, the U.S. Constitution says nothing about race, Lovett noted. The reason, he added, is that Colonial America had white bondsmen too — those dumped on the colonies by England.
Equality for indentured whites “ was what Thomas Jefferson was talking about in the Declaration of Independence,” said Lovett.
The anti-slavery movement dating back long before the Civil War was based on the question of morality, said Lovett. That question was finally answered as a result of the great conflict.
“It was based on morality, not just that (slavery) was unconstitutional,” he said. “It was simply wrong.”
The first abolitionist movements arose in the South, said Lovett. Quakers in Tennessee were publishing antislavery newsletters by 1819.
The moral question of slavery split Methodists and other Christian bodies, he noted.
“Some historians say the first shot in the Civil War happened long before the battles,” said Lovett. “It was when the question of the morality of slavery was raised: simply, ‘Is it right?’”
Many influences turned Northerner sympathies toward abolition, said Lovett, but none more so than Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. “That was on everybody’s coffee table.”
The moral question grew as songs emerged such as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” — proclaiming “His truth is marching on” — published in The Atlantic Monthly in February 1862. The popular marching song was a takeoff on the Negro spiritual, “John Brown’s Body,” said Lovett.
The question of the morality of slavery was answered in the costly war.
The Civil War was more than an event captured in the past, said Lovett. Its influence continues.
The war raised important and ongoing questions about what it means to be human, he noted. And history, a study within what is called the humanities, is about “seeking truth.”
Economic, cultural, political and social differences between the southern and northern regions of the nation resulted in the war, he said. Many of those differences remain today.
The end of the war brought about another great challenge: How do you integrate more than four million people freed from slavery into American society?
“Race and skin color came to have special meaning,” he said.
The Civil War was followed by long and often painful struggles for civil rights, Lovett noted. Progress has been slowed.
“There is something that comes out of history, whether it’s good or bad,” he said,“… that yields some of the progress we human beings make.”
Bruce Gourley, executive director of the Baptist History and Heritage Society and contributing writer for Baptists Today, said connections between the war a century and a half ago and modern times can be seen in South Carolina today — where a Confederate symbol was removed this year from the state capitol following the murder of nine African-American church members by a young white supremacist.
Charleston’s Emmanuel AME Church, where the June 17 massacre occurred, was active prior to the Civil War, said Gourley. One of its founding members, Denmark Vesey, who had bought his freedom, was part of a slave insurrection plot that was discovered in 1822.
Vesey had stockpiled arms and enlisted some 3,000 freed blacks but mostly slaves to take over plantations, kill whites, commandeer ships and sail to freedom in Haiti. Thirty-five of those participants were executed, said Gourley, and The Citadel arose to prevent future insurrections.
In December of that same year, Richard Furman, president of the South Carolina Baptist Convention, penned a public letter to the state’s governor that represented “a tipping point among white Baptists in the South,” said Gourley.
Furman’s “very pro-slavery stance” in the letter affirmed that slavery is never actually condemned in the Bible, and he assured the governor of the state’s Baptist support in preventing future insurrections.
“Prior to 1800, most white Baptists in the South were either opposed to slavery or ambivalent,” said Gourley. “Richard Furman’s letter changed things in the South.”
Socially, Baptists in the mid- to late-18th century were still disadvantaged persons, said Gourley. “They were not the ‘in crowd’; they were outsiders.”
Sermons, especially revival sermons among Baptists and Methodists during the Great Awakening, often opposed slavery. But social change was occurring in the South.
“Baptists [went] from persecuted, poor outsiders to up-and-coming insiders who [benefited] from changes taking place in the South,” Gourley noted.
That shift, he said, could be seen in popular evangelist and religious liberty advocate John Leland who — writing on behalf of Virginia Baptists in 1789 — called for the removal of slavery (deemed “a violent depravation”) from the land.
“Not all white Baptists agreed with that but a significant number did,” said Gourley. “Others were ambivalent on slavery.”
Yet 50 years later, Leland, who died in 1841, called slavery “humane, just and benevolent.” He then argued for the rights of slave owners rather than for slaves, said Gourley.
What caused Baptists to flip on the issue of slavery? Money, said Gourley.
“Baptists changed as they became dependent on the economics based on slave labor,” he noted. And those changes were clearly reflected in those who gathered in Augusta, Ga., in 1845 to form the Southern Baptist Convention.
Those represented owned more slaves than typical Baptists, said Gourley. He noted that in 1860, on the eve of war, the 10 richest counties in the U.S. were all in the South. And the Baptist presence was strong in all of those areas except Louisiana.
Protecting the economic benefits of slavery was the reason the South sought independence, said Gourley.
“This was a war about slavery,” he said. “… ‘States rights’ was a tool to preserve what at that time was called ‘a peculiar institution.’”
Language at the time had meaning, said Gourley. Southern elitists used terms such as “radical” and “fanatic” to refer to abolitionists. “Rights” was used in reference to their freedom to own slaves.
“When they spoke of liberty or freedom,” said Gourley, “they spoke only of freedom for whites.”
Southern Baptists at this time attributed white supremacy and black slavery to the will of God. Fearful that Lincoln would seek to end slavery, they tagged him as “the black president.”
Lincoln’s background would give them reason for such concern, though he ran on a platform of simply seeking to keep slavery from spreading westward, said Gourley. “Lincoln grew up in a Primitive Baptist abolitionist church.”
In January 1861, Pastor Ebenezer W. Warren of First Baptist Church in Macon, Ga., proclaimed from his pulpit: “Slavery forms a vital element of the divine revelation to man.”
He offered strong biblical support for this cause and was critical of those not standing in defense of slavery.
“We in the South have been passive, hoping this storm would subside,” said Warren. “Our passiveness has been our sin. We’ve not come to the vindication of God and truth as duty demanded.”
Warren preached that slavery, like Christianity, comes from heaven. “Both are blessings to humanity.”
It was all part of a divine plan, said Warren: “Their Maker has decreed their bondage.”
Politically, Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, spoke of “the proper status of the Negro” as indicated in the Confederate Constitution, during a March 1863 address in Savannah.
The U.S. Constitution, he noted, rested on the equality of races. “This was an error,” said Stephens, calling it a sandy foundation.
“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea,” said Stephens. “… Its cornerstone rests upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man. That slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”
The government of the Confederacy, he said, is to be based on “this great physical, philosophical and moral truth.”
White Baptist leaders of the South raised their voices in support.
Virginia Baptists in June 1863 declared: “We are daily convinced of the righteousness of our cause.” Northern Christians who “claim to be followers of the meek and lovely Jesus,” they charged, actually embrace an “intolerant fanaticism.”
A grandiose vision of an expanding slave empire was set forth by Samuel Boykin, editor of the Georgia Baptist newspaper, The Christian Index, who proclaimed: “We will absorb Central America and the contiguous states of Mexico not by bloody war but by the generous attractions of our superior civilization and purer religion.”
Boykin assured his readers that a time would come when other nations of the world would “come to woo and worship at the shrine of our imperial confederacy.”
Keeping God on the side of slaveholding required some ongoing theological efforts, said Gourley. One common claim was that slaves were happy and content in their state — even though slaves were risking their lives to escape.
While defending the institution of slavery, some Southern Baptists would criticize certain laws pertaining to slaves such as disallowing slave marriages and Bible reading, he said.
And losses throughout the latter part of the war — despite the South being clearly on God’s side — called for justification. For example, the North Carolina Baptist newspaper, Biblical Recorder, in December 1864, blamed Confederate losses on the failure of slave owners to evangelize their slaves.
Theological justifications were built on selected literal readings of the Bible, said Gourley, as well as intentional misuses such as the easily debunked “Curse of Ham.”
Confederate losses would dampen the aspirations of many Southerners. However, the immorality of slavery was never a reason for so-called setbacks in the minds of white Southern elites, said Gourley. Baptists and others would point to retribution for sins such as greed, alcohol consumption and Sabbath-breaking.
One North Carolina Baptist soldier wrote of profanity, gambling and other iniquities within the army favored by God — and he complained about the lack of “any spiritual counseling.”
True to their heritage of church-state separation, most Baptists had not supported government-paid chaplains and missionaries during the war, said Gourley. As a result, there were fewer Baptists serving as Confederate chaplains.
As losses mounted, however, many Baptists went against their religious liberty heritage. They spoke in terms of Christian nationalism — even asking the government to declare days of prayer and fasting for them.
Efforts to keep the presumed holy cause from faltering did not always succeed, said Gourley. Quiet dissent appeared — especially among poor white Baptists in eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina.
By the end of the war, he noted, nearly two-thirds of the Confederate soldiers had deserted.
On the other side, white Baptists in the North were heavily abolitionist — sometimes called the more “radically abolitionist” among major Northern denominations, said Gourley.
“Many (Northern) Baptists pushed Lincoln toward emancipation more quickly than he wanted,” taking advantage of the president’s open door policy.
Baptist bodies in the North passed various antislavery resolutions, including one from Pennsylvania in November 1862 that called for emancipation.
From the 1820s on, many slaves were forced to attend church and sit in the balconies. Many prayed for a Moses to lead them out of bondage — a role later embodied by Abraham Lincoln.
“They were quite certain that God was a God of freedom and equality for all,” said Gourley. This understanding led many slaves to escape, and for black churches to seek some autonomy.
“From 1862 onward they established autonomous Baptist churches in Union-controlled areas of the South especially along the South Carolina coast,” said Gourley. “There was very dynamic African-American Baptist presence during the war along the coastal areas of South Carolina.”
In and after 1864, escaped slaves fought officially for the Union cause, said Gourley.
The movie, Glory, he noted, showed Sgt. William H. Carney, a Baptist deacon, as the flag bearer who survived the Battle of Fort Wagner in 1863. He became the first African American to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor.
“Many Baptists fought in colored regiments, as they were called back then, for freedom for those yet enslaved,” said Gourley.
Great anticipation surrounding the long-awaited Emancipation Proclamation kept black Baptists and other black Christians up late on the night of Dec. 31, 1862. It took awhile for Lincoln to sign it and for word to get out over the wires.
Frederick Douglass spent that day and night at Tremont Baptist Temple in Boston — writing later about the anticipation and anxiety before the formal announcement of freedom was received.
“Watch Night is an African-American church story,” said Gourley, although many white Southern Baptists who have prayed in the new year together were unaware of its historical ties to enslaved blacks awaiting the good news of freedom.
But Gourley noted that despite the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation, real freedom for black Americans didn’t come for another 100 years. BT
Story and Photos by John Pierce