At Ease in Zion
Social History of Southern Baptists, 1865â"1900
By Rufus B. Spain
The University of Alabama Press Copyright © 2003 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
Problems of Politics
The last thirty-five years of the nineteenth century were fraught with political problems. The most portentous was that of restoring national unity after the period of sectional controversy and war. Union victory on the battlefield established the supremacy of the nation over the states, but it by no means restored a united country. For a generation after the cessation of hostilities, sectional animosity continued, nurtured by bitter memories of the war and military occupation, by the adroit devices of unscrupulous politicians, and by the vagaries of human nature. The resurgence of white supremacy in the South, tacitly approved by the North in its acceptance of the Compromise of 1877 and the Supreme Court's civil rights decision of 1883, did much to heal the breach, but sectional comity was not fully restored until near the end of the century.
Besides the difficulties resulting from the sectional conflict, the postbellum period presented other fundamental political problems. Among the most critical was the changing role of the state in the everyday affairs of its citizens. Political laissez-faire declined between 1865 and 1900, and government at all levels intervened more and more in areas which formerly had been reserved to private initiative. The development of public education, for example, was considered by many Americans as an encroachment of the state on the domain of the church, the family, and private philanthropy. The proper relationship between church and state, the emergence of the United States as a world power, and the growth of socialism and anarchism were also problems of a political nature which provoked discussion during the last third of the century.
Southern Baptists took cognizance of these changing political conditions and expressed definite opinions about them. Their response to the events of the immediate postwar period can be understood, however, only in relation to their attitudes toward secession, the Confederacy, and the war. As the slavery controversy threatened to dissolve the Union in 1860–1861, Southern Baptists were forced to decide between the Union and their native states. In the closing weeks of 1860 they were divided on the question. Some wanted secession immediately; others wanted to wait for an overt act of aggression by the North; and others opposed secession under all circumstances. Soon after the election of Lincoln, opinion began coalescing. The Alabama Baptist State Convention, in session November 9–12, 1860, unanimously adopted a report declaring the Union a failure and pledging to support the "sovereignty and independence of the State of Alabama" in whatever course her representatives might choose to follow.
Baptists in other parts of the South expressed regret at the hasty action of Alabama Baptists, which, they thought, had been unduly influenced by the recent political campaign. The editor of the Southern Baptist of Charleston, South Carolina, claimed to see no cause for alarm in the Republican victory or in the threatened secession of the states of the Lower South. Six or seven cotton states might withdraw from the Union, he admitted, but the separation would be peaceful. The federal government would not dare attempt a policy of coercion which could end only in failure. Kentucky Baptists pursued a more cautious course. Although their state paper reflected a considerable amount of pro-Southern, and even secessionist, sentiment, their general association eventually adopted a resolution pledging loyalty to the Washington government. Kentucky Baptists failed to achieve political unanimity. Throughout the war factional strife emanating from political differences so divided the denomination that a number of churches closed their doors and all co-operative effort among the churches ceased.
While the Upper South equivocated after the election of Lincoln, Baptists of the Lower South moved swiftly toward secession. Florida Baptists in convention November 24, 1860, deemed it "proper at once to express their cordial sympathy with, and hearty approbation of those who are determined to maintain the integrity of the Southern States." Delegates at the Georgia Baptist Convention, April 26–29, 1861, denounced the "madness of Mr. Lincoln," and vowed to let no group of Southern people exceed them in defending the Confederacy, even to the "sacrifice of treasure and of blood." Members of the faculty and student body at the nascent Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Greenville, South Carolina, debated the question of secession for several weeks, but as the states began seceding most of the students followed the lead of their native states into the Confederacy. Finally, when Virginia voted to secede, the seminary suspended classes and the remaining students left without completing their final examinations.
The climax of the secessionist movement among Southern Baptists came at the meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Savannah, Georgia, May 10–13, 1861. Nine states had seceded from the Union by that time; the convention had to recognize or repudiate a fait accompli. The delegates made their sentiments unmistakable. In a long report they defended the right of secession, condemned Northern politicians and churchmen for forcing war upon the South, and pledged themselves to sustain the Confederacy with their prayers. In a final act of defiance, the delegates struck "United States" from the constitution of the convention and substituted for it "Southern States of North America." If any pro-Union sentiment existed among Southern Baptists at this convention, it is not apparent in the records.
Following the action of the Southern Baptist Convention, the state conventions in all the states of the Confederacy which had not already done so proclaimed their loyalty to the Confederacy. Baptists saw God at work in the events of 1860–1861. Delegates at the South Carolina Convention in 1861 expressed the conviction that
so far as we can understand the remarkable openings and guidance of Divine Providence, we have but received, in almost every instance, the merciful blessing of our God, as approbation upon the plans our State and Southern Confederacy have deemed it best to adopt ... [and] that in this most unrighteous and most wicked attack upon our otherwise peaceful homes, the wickedness of the wicked will return on their own heads.
Virginia Baptists found comfort in the "sweet assurance that our cause is a righteous one, and we can appeal to the God of Battles for help in this hour of darkness and peril." Baptists believed that the cause of the Confederacy was in harmony with the will of God.
Until the closing months of the war, Baptists maintained their optimistic faith in the righteousness of the Confederate cause. "We solemnly reiterate our firm conviction of the rectitude of the cause of the C.S.A., and our unwavering confidence in its final success," declared Virginia Baptists in 1862. Baptists of Louisiana united in a prayer of thanksgiving for the successes of Confederate arms after the first year of conflict, and concluded that Confederate victories had only served
to fasten the conviction, that the cause for which the Confederate States is struggling is just; that the existence of civil and religious liberty and the perpetuity of institutions, established by God himself, depend upon our success.
The editor of the Confederate Baptist, a weekly established in Columbia, South Carolina, declared in 1862 in his "Salutatory" that
in regard to our civil and political status we may remark, that we regard the establishment of the independence of the Confererate States as a foregone conclusion, and we expect to live and die in the enjoyment of the blessings of our glorious Confederacy.
As the war continued, however, and the people of the South began feeling the horrors of bloodshed and destruction, Baptists were called upon to reconcile their optimism of 1861 with military reverses. Delegates at the Virginia General Association of 1863 called Confederate defeats "tokens of God's displeasure against us for our sins," but assured their constituents that the Confederate cause was still God's cause and that success was inevitable. In the same year the Southern Baptist Convention expressed similar sentiments. The events of the last two years, the delegates declared, had only
strengthened our opposition to a reunion with the United States on any terms whatever; and while deploring the dreadful evils of the war, and earnestly desiring peace, we have no thought of ever yielding, but will render a hearty support to the Confederate Government in all constitutional measures to secure our independence.
Although God was just in punishing the Southern people for their sins, the delegates concluded, He would ultimately bless them with success.
As the war entered its final year, Baptists began reflecting the general despondency which was settling over the Confederacy. Their journals attempted to boost lagging spirits by predicting the eventual triumph of the Confederacy, but they could not avoid taking note of the setbacks to Confederate arms. The future looked dark, one editor confessed, but not every cloud that hid the sun portended immediate night. If Christians would only be true to God, "the storm-cloud which seems to be thickening over our heads shall break away, and we shall walk in the light of peace." Only a month before Lee's surrender, the Virginia paper, in an editorial entitled "Away With Despondency," still expressed hope for victory but at the same time attempted to prepare its readers for inevitable defeat. In the early part of the war, the editor said, the South had been successful because the people were humble and prayerful, but success had turned their heads. The recent defeats of Southern armies were the result of the personal and collective sins of God's people. The North had the material advantage in the war, the South was cut off from outside aid, and traitors threatened the Confederacy from within; but, he continued, "if we are overcome finally, it will be because we are not worthy of freedom. ... Our cause will be strengthened and our liberty secured as soon as we deserve it." This declaration, so near the end of the war, reveals that Southern Baptists, like the devout of all ages, were caught in a dilemma of faith: How could the justice of God and the righteousness of the Southern cause be reconciled with the imminent collapse of the Confederacy?
On April 9, 1865, Lee tendered his word to Grant, and the effort of Southerners to achieve independence was over. Baptists who had gone to war four years earlier assured of God's approval now faced the problem of reconciling their confidence in victory in 1861 with the contradictory outcome of 1865. Their faith was severely tested. Defeat weighed heaviest on those whose faith had been strongest. "When the Southern Confederacy fell," wrote one editor,
thousands of hearts were crushed. ... It is simply the fact, that good men, good men and true, men full of the Holy Ghost and of faith, were ardently desirous for the success of the Southern arms, and felt, when the cause failed, that Providence had sent upon them an overwhelming calamity.
The North Carolina paper expressed well the sense of disillusionment:
It were useless to deny that despondency, like a thick cloud, rests on the minds of many of the people of the South. The result of the late war was unexpected to them. They believed in the justice of the cause which they espoused and believing this, looked for final success, even under the most serious reverses, till sudden, hopeless, inevitable ruin came. ... When they turn from the past, in which so many cherished treasures, and joys, and hopes, lie buried, to the present, it only brings before them more vividly the sad realities of their condition. Confusion and uncertainty reign now, and to them the future holds out no promise of improvement, no incentive to effort.
Delegates to the state conventions meeting soon after the war ignored the untenable position in which defeat had left them. They thanked God for peace and accepted their fate with resignation. Baptist papers at least recognized the dilemma, although their early attempts to rationalize were little more than unreasoned assertions that God was still in His heaven and all would soon be right in the world. They continued to attribute defeat to the sins of the Southern people and to assert that the righteousness of the Southern cause, the justice of God, and the Confederate debacle could be reconciled. It hardly seems to have occurred to Southern Baptists that a forthright acknowledgment of error on their part would have solved their problem. Their effort to blame defeat on the sins of the people only hedged the question. The real dilemma was never resolved; there was no satisfactory answer as long as Baptists held to their major assumptions.
Besides the presence of unrepented sin in the lives of Southerners, Baptists offered only one other explanation for the defeat of the Confederacy — in some mysterious way it was God's will. The editor of the Georgia paper employed a curious sort of logic in arriving at this conclusion: When the plans of Christians succeeded, he said, it could be that God was leaving them to their folly.
But when we are disappointed, it is clear that God has taken our case out of our own hands, and has substituted his judgment in the guidance of our affairs for our own. ... Instead of grieving over our disappointment, therefore, we should rejoice in the evidence we have that we are in the hands of superior power. ... If God has placed us where we are, we ought to be content with our condition.
In a later issue of the same paper, the editor expressed what Baptists seemed to have accepted as the explanation of the war:
He [God] has done what he thought best. ... He may have laid his hand heavily upon us; certainly we are deeply smitten, but in the midst of it all, we rely on his goodness, and would not, if we could, interfere with his workings of his Providence, and rejoicing ever in tribulation, we feel that it is
"Sweet to lie passive in his arms
And know no will but his."
These affirmations evidently satisfied Baptists, for expressions of skepticism disappeared altogether in 1866. Attributing defeat to God's will enabled Baptists to save face and obviated the necessity of sacrificing any cherished beliefs.
Accepting the failure of the Confederacy as providential also enabled Baptists to absolve themselves of any blame in causing the war. Baptists never repudiated slavery and secession, the two alleged causes of the war. A contributor to one of the papers took sharp issue with an editorial in which the editor had suggested that the war might have been God's method of abolishing slavery. Such an idea was preposterous, the writer claimed. Slavery was sanctioned in both the Old and New Testaments:
Can it be that it was the design of God in the late terrible civil war to overthrow an institution which he himself ordained, established and sanctioned, and which he 'designed' should exist forever? ... [God would not have caused all this suffering] that an inferior race might be released from a nominal bondage and endowed with a freedom which, to them, is but another name for licentiousness, and which must end in complete extermination, so far as human foresight can judge. ... But I cannot, I will not believe it. ... It was Satan that ruled the hour [i.e., the freeing of the slaves].
A contributor to another journal saw God's hand in the emancipation of the slaves — not because slavery was wrong, but because Southern slaveowners had failed in their duty to evangelize their servants. No evil was abolished by emancipation. Southern whites, therefore, still had the same obligation to the freedmen. If they permitted the Negroes to degenerate, God would punish the white race again.
As with slavery, so with secession. Baptists had no confessions of guilt. They defended the states'-rights arguments on which the doctrine of secession rested. In resorting to secession Southerners had merely followed a political philosophy which differed from that held by Northerners. The Constitution provided for the possibility of a divided loyalty between federal and state governments. Southerners had expressed first loyalty to their states; Northerners had given first allegiance to the federal government. Neither could be charged with disloyalty. At worst Southerners were guilty of treason on a technical point, not of "moral treason." Because Southern Baptists considered secession a legitimate, constitutional right, they had nothing to repudiate. One editor would admit only that perhaps the South had used bad judgment in exercising its right of secession and that "the sword is mightier than the pen."
Northern Baptists chided their Southern brethren for refusing to admit that the collapse of the Confederacy was evidence of God's disapproval of slavery and secession. To this argument one editor replied: "Might and right have never been wedded in this world since the fall." Another paper elaborated:
It [the war] has decided questions of power, but not of morality. [The war proved that secession could not] be maintained by force of arms — and that slavery could be abolished by military [power]. ... But the sword cannot determine moral questions. The bayonet may coerce, but it cannot convince. All questions of right — of morality — are left precisely where they were before the war. Whether secession was a legitimate or revolutionary measure? whether slavery was right or wrong? whether the forcible emancipation of the slaves will prove a blessing or a curse? and whether those who engaged in the war, on either side, were innocent or guilty? are grave questions, on which the issue of the war has shed no light. (Continues...)
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