Massachusetts Baptists and The Civil War

In January of 1861 Massachusetts governor John Andrew issued a call for volunteers to serve in the Union Army and recruiters began gather troops in various towns in the state. Baptist pastor H.L. Wayland of Worcester resigned his pastorate to become the chaplain of the 7th Connecticut Volunteers, serving from 1861–64. Other graduates of Newton Theological Institution also served including George Henderson as a chaplain, and Daniel Litchfield in the United States Christian Commission (The Newton Theological Institution General Catalogue 1835–1912). Albert Arnold, in his 1861 report for the Worcester Baptist Association, noted that “almost all our churches have representatives in the armies that have been assembled to put down a rebellious conspiracy against the lawfully constituted authority of the land” (Fifty-Ninth Annual Report of the Massachusetts Baptist Convention).

The Massachusetts Baptist Convention met in November 1861 in Boston and approved a series of resolutions on the war:

Resolved, That we regard the existing revolt against our National Government, not only as a breach of human law, but as a wanton rebellion against the authority of God; and whether we consider the sovereignty which it spurns, or the iniquity which it seeks to enthrone, it must be contemplated with execration and loathing by all unprejudiced and God-fearing men.

Resolved, That inasmuch as this unrighteous war against a good and beneficent government, is waged avowedly in the interest of African Slavery, which has been authoritatively set forth as the corner-stone of the so-called Southern Confederacy, the fact ought to open the eye of all loyal men as to the character and tendencies of that system of abominations, and to lead the public authorities to avail themselves of every measure justified by the spirit of the Constitution, and demanded by the political or military exigencies of the time, for its eradication from the land…

Resolved, That we recognize in the present mournful state of our country, the righteous visitation of a jealous God; and that we can look for salvation only by turning away from our vain boastings, by repairing the wrongs which we have practiced against the weak, by renouncing the greed of our avarice, and by dealing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God. 

(Historical Sketch of the Massachusetts Baptist Missionary Society and Convention, 1802-1902).

A official copy of these “strong and patriotic resolutions” was sent to President Lincoln and to his cabinet. William Seward, the Secretary of State, replied, noting that he had given them to Lincoln. The President had received “with pleasure and gratitude the assurance of the Massachusetts Baptist Convention that its intentions and influence will be unanimously given in favor of the efforts which the government shall make for the public safety in the crisis to staying and so important” (“Response from the Government,” Christian Watchman and Reflector, January 23, 1862).

If many of these establishment Baptists had previously been only moderately anti-slavery, and unwilling to break fellowship with their southern brethren over the issue, the precipitation of war had pushed them over the edge, and they whole-heartedly supported the war effort. Baptists who had hesitated to condemn slavery too strongly now called it an “abomination” and called for it to be eradicated (though Lincoln would not emancipate the slaves until 1863). The federal government welcomed their support, and recognized the importance that ministers, even Baptists, could play in encouraging widespread support for the war efforts. 

As the war continued, so did Baptist pronouncements in support of it. On August 20 and 21 of 1862, J.L.A. Fish was appointed the moderator of the Worcester Baptist Association, filling the role left by H.L. Wayland. Besides the usual activities, the war was on everyone’s mind, and “strong union resolutions were passed respecting the state of our country” (“Worcester Association,” Christian Era, August 29, 1862). A letter was read on “the Necessity and Encouragement to Special Prayer for the Holy Spirit in this time of trial. Free utterance was given against ‘the sum of all villainies’ now casting its shadow over us, and confidence urged in God alone” (Christian Watchman and Reflector, September 4, 1862).

The 1862 American Baptist Missionary Union met in Providence, Rhode Island. They noted that one year previously, “everything without and around wore an aspect portentous of evil to our people, our government, and our missionary operations. No man could tell what a day would bring forth, and all were shut up to hope and faith in Him who ‘alone doest wondrous things.’” Now everything had changed: “In a year, we have lived a generation, if we reckon time by the number and magnitude of the events it brings forth… You may thank God and take courage. You may thank Him for placing you in a position where you might learn lessons never received in a day of material and outward prosperity.” The ABMU passed the following resolutions on the war, a remarkable expression from the largest Baptist society in America:

The officers and members composing the American Baptist Missionary Union, assembled at their annual meeting in the city of Providence, May 27th and 28th, 1862, deem it incumbent on them as patriots, and not for­eign to their sphere as a religious Association, to give this public expres­sion of sentiment in reference to the present stupendous crisis through which the nation is passing. 

Resolved, That we regard the war now waged by the National Govern­ment to put down the unprovoked and wicked rebellion that has risen against it, and to establish anew the reign of order and of law, as a most righteous and holy one, sanctioned alike by God and by all right-thinking men, involving our very life as a nation, and every thing precious depend­ ing on that life, and related most intimately to the progress of civilization, freedom and Christianity throughout the earth. 

Resolved, That we believe the institution of slavery to have been the principal cause and origin of this attempt to destroy the government, and that a safe, solid and lasting peace cannot be expected short of its complete overthrow. 

Resolved, That we tender to the President of the United States and his associates in the government our hearty confidence, sympathy and support, with the assurance of our fervent prayer that the same Divine Hand which has so manifestly guided them in the past may lead them on to the full and triumphant establishment of union, justice and liberty over the whole coun­try and among all ranks and conditions of its people. 

Resolved, That a copy of this preamble and these resolutions be sent to the Secretary of State, signed by the President and Secretary of this meet­ing.

(The Missionary Magazine (1862), 214.)

Baptists also published their views in religious periodicals:

Newton Theological Institution professor Horatio Hackett published an entire book depicting the Christian influences in the Union Army: Horatio B. Hackett, Christian Memorials of the War: Or, Scenes and Incidents Illustrative of Religious Faith and Principle, Patriotism and Bravery in Our Army. With Historical Notes (Boston: Gould and Lincoln, 1864). Hackett wrote this book because he:

thought it might be a grateful service to the friends of our brave solders, as well as an act of justice to the soldiers themselves, and because I felt a hearty interest in the work. Facts like those here spread before us are adapted to give us our strongest impression of the intelligence, the earnestness, the Christian principle and heroism of so large a class of men, who have come forward to support the Government in this great emergency.

Hackett, Memorials of the War, (vi).

In 1866 the Boston South Baptist Association approved several striking resolutions on the aftermath of the war and the initial stages of Reconstruction:

Whereas, The nation is evidently passing through an exceedingly critical juncture in its history, the judgment of civil war having been succeeded by the only less heavy judgment of official recreancy and dereliction, and the struggle with open treason by a bitter struggle with the pseudo-loyalty of those in the high places of power; and

Whereas, The peace and victory for which we gave devout thanks at our last meeting have been so far frittered away that treason is again asserting its sway; reenacting the worst horrors and outrages of the barbarities of slavery, driving loyal pastors from their pulpits, burning the churches of the freedmen and massacreing Union citizens for the simple offence of loving liberty and praying for its triumph, therefore 

Resolved, That in these sad and painful events we recognize a clear warning of God against the folly and crime of suspending the appointed penalties of law, and substituting a weak, sentimental leniency for a wholesome, rigorous punishment of civil crime. 

Resolved, That while as Christian citizens we are bound to accord all due respect to the Chief-Magistrate of the nation, we nevertheless cherish profound aversion for his plan of reconstruction, whose only issue thus far has been the reconstruction of an exploded rebellion and the rehabilitation of perjured rebels. 

Resolved, That we extend our warmest sympathy to our Union brethren in the South who are reaping the bitter fruits of this policy, some of whom are now exiles and wanderers in consequence of it. 

Resolved, That in this exigency it is meet that all Christians, with a firm reliance on Almighty God, should constantly beseech him for his gracious assistance and succor, that harmony and brotherly love may be restored, that the sundered portions of our country may be again united, and that perfect civil and religious equality may prevail throughout the length and breadth of our country. 

Resolved. That we regard the assassination of our late beloved fellow-patriot and Christian brother, Rev. Jotham W. Horton, at the hands of the police of New Orleans, as one of the natural results of that “policy” In its restoration by the executive pardon of conquered but unrepentant traitors to all their former power of mischief:—and that we recognize in the deliberate murder of that faithful minister of Christ at his post of duty, a sign of the times that proves the still unabated bitterness of the hatred to free institutions which cost our country the calami­ties of war, and that speaks with a trumpet warn­ing to all loyal citizens to guard the future peace and liberties of the nation by choosing for their leaders men who will rule in righteousness.

“Boston South Baptist Association,” Boston Evening Transcript, October 12, 1866

Jotham Horton was a graduate of Newton, and his death in the New Orleans Massacre of 1866 outraged Baptists in Massachusetts (See also J. Ellen Foster, Jotham Warren Horton). Baptists in Massachusetts remained concerned about the state of the country, particularly the condition of the Freedmen in the South. This would spur a number of northern Baptists to go and serve directly in the efforts of Reconstruction through the American Baptist Home Mission Society as well as other agencies.

Records like these form an important counterpoint to Lost Cause depictions of religion in the Confederate Army. After trying so hard for decades to maintain “fraternal” relations with their southern brethren, the tensions proved too much. Once the breach was made, Massachusetts Baptists became ardent supporters of the Union cause. As Abraham Lincoln famously said, both sides “read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other,” and Baptists in Massachusetts were as fervent in this as anyone.

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