Christian Religion in the Twenty-Seventh Massachusetts Regiment, 1861–65

(image: Henry A. Hubbard, descended from missionary David Brainerd)

Abraham Lincoln famously noted that both sides of the Civil War “read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.” While much has been made of the “Christian character and piety” of Confederates like Robert E. Lee, Christian belief and practice was ever present in the Union Army as well as the North as a whole (see for example Massachusetts Baptists and The Civil War).

William P. Derby’s, Bearing Arms in the Twenty-Seventh Massachusetts Regiment of Volunteer Infantry During the Civil War 1861–1865 (Boston: Wright & Potter Company, 1883) is an example of a “regimental history,” histories of particular regiments compiled and published after the war by members of those regiments (see more on regimental histories here). Derby’s account of the 27th Massachusetts contains a number of references to Christian practice and belief, some of it incidental, some of it in the form of Biblical allusions, and some of it in extended accounts of religious services. Attached here is an edited compilation of a number of those references as an example of the various ways that Christianity infused the Union War effort.

An important note is to be made regarding the depiction of African Americans in Derby’s account. Racism was prevalent in the Union Army, and even the “best intentioned” white soldiers still held patronizing and condescending views of the newly freed slaves. When reading Derby’s accounts of Black church services, one must often read “against the grain” of his white perspective to see more clearly the rich religious belief and feeling expressed in the Black church.

Nevertheless, this is a fascinating look at the role of Christianity in the Union Army, one that could doubtless be repeated across any number of the hundreds of regimental histories available.

Here are a few quotes:

[As the regiment was preparing to leave for the front]: “Sunday, October 20th, [1861] Rev. Henry M. Parsons, pastor of the First Congregational Church, Springfield, [Massachusetts] preached upon the grounds an eloquent and stirring sermon from 1 Cor. 16 : 13 — ‘Quit yourselves like men ; be strong'” (16).

To the Citizens of North Carolina : … We are Christians as well as yourselves, and we profess to know full well, and to feel profoundly, the sacred obligations of the character. No apprehensions need be entertained that the demands of humanity or justice will be disregarded. We shall inflict no injury unless forced to do so by your own acts ; and upon this you may confidently rely” (74)

“On the morning of the 9th, as the troops were awaiting orders to move, Chaplain Woodworth rode along the line, saying,“Boys, this is the Sabbath, and as we cannot have other religious exercises, can’t we all join in the Doxology!” Comrade Oliver A. Clark of Company A, to whom music and the sentiment were both inspiring, led off in a clear, strong voice. Like electricity it sped from line to line, and the rising sun witnessed five thousand warriors with uncovered heads, singing“ Praise God from whom all blessings flow” (140).

“If Nicodemus would not wake under such fervency as moved the crowded cabin at that midnight hour, melody and volume will do little to accomplish it. Emancipation was to them a great jubilee, and in the realization of long -deferred hope, every power of body and mind was thrown into this melody which expressed their faith in God’s deliverance” (217).

“Sunday, May 22d, [1864] was a sad day, as with depleted ranks we gathered for divine service, and reviewed the terrible experiences of the previous week. Fervent prayer was offered, that God would shield those who had fallen into the enemy’s power, and temper the winds to the bereaved at home. While we were engaged in this service, Maj. Gen’l Martindale arrived, and, dismounting, remained with uncovered head until the close, joining tears with us over lessons drawn from the lives of comrades slain” (292).

[At the siege of Petersburg, 1864]: “It seemed as if the sun were standing still a second time, and this time for the benefit of the Amorites” (339).

[In prison in Andersonville, Georgia 1864]: “When the storm had passed, and the waters had receded to the banks of the stream , it was found that the swift current like a faithful scavenger, had cleared the swamp of all its filth, and that at the foot of the hill and just over the dead line, a spring of clear, cold water had burst forth, sufficient to supply the wants of the entire camp. This spring continued to flow undiminished, until our departure, a constant reminder of God’s miraculous care and intervention. No Moses had been sent to smite the rock, but none the less had the Almighty cleansed this Gehenna by floods of water, and opened the fountains of the earth to minister to the wants of his suffering creatures” (381).

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.

Spurgeon’s Civil War Letter (January 9, 1862)

In 1860, the Christian Watchman and Reflector, a Boston Baptist newspaper,  secured Charles Spurgeon as an exclusive correspondent. Over that year, Spurgeon wrote 15 letters to the paper. They are being available now for the first time in 150  years. An index of the letters and several background articles can be found here: Charles Spurgeon in the Christian Watchman & Reflector | Index

One year later, after the U.S. Civil War had started, and in the aftermath of “The Trent Affair,” with rising hostilities between the Union and Britain, Charles Spurgeon wrote another letter to the paper.

(original pdf here) | (Civil War Letter)

LETTER FROM REV. C.H. SPURGEON

Metropolitan Tabernacle, London

Dec. 14, 1861.

MY DEAR WATCHMAN AND REFLECTOR,—I ven­ture to write you, although I fear my letter will not be at all acceptable, and possibly you may see fit not to print it. You are quite welcome to put it into the waste-basket, if you think best to do so, and all I ask is that you will kindly publish every word, or leave it alone. We know not, as yet, what answer your government will return by the messen­ger dispatched from our shores, but our Christian ministers are laboring with diligence and earnest­ness to cool the war spirit, and all good men are hopeful that the peace will not be broken. May the Lord our God avert the terrible calamities which must attend a conflict between two nations so near­ly allied, so kindred in religion, in liberal institu­tions, and in blood. Be assured that all our church­es will pray for peace, and should it be broken politically, we shall feel that spiritually we must have fellowship with all our brethren, be their na­tionality what it may, for there can be no war in the one body of Christ.

Constantly reading your very excellent paper, I have looked upon it as a fair exponent of the feelings of the godly in the North, and I assume that I am not far wrong in the supposition. Well, then, I am sorry that you feel as you do towards England, and yet more troubled am I at the general feeling in this country with regard to your government. When your present conflict began, our whole na­tion, with a few worthless exceptions, felt an in­tense sympathy with the North. I met with none who did not wish you well, although there were some who feared that the struggle would be far more severe than you expected, and a few who sus­pected your soundness on the main question. We prayed for you, and hoped that the day of eman­cipation for every slave was fully come. I move among all classes, and I can hear witness that there were premonitions of a coming excitement and en­thusiasm, such as that produced by Garibaldi’s Italian campaign, so long as the idea had currency that you would contend for freedom, and our interest only flagged when that notion was negatived by the acts of your leaders. Right or wrong, we have now ceased to view the conflict from the slave­ry point of view. Whose fault is this? What have your statesmen done? Or, rather, what have they left undone? They have shown no interest in emancipating the slave. Principle has been thrust into darkness, and policy has ruled the day, and the consequence has been a long and disastrous war, instead of a dashing and brilliant victory. With “Emancipation” as your watchword, your empire would, ere this, have been safe and glorious. The Union safe, or at least, the North more than para­mount. You would not have needed any of our sympathy, but you would have had it to the utmost degree of enthusiasm. Our young men, and our old men too, talked like soldiers, and wished they were with you to fight in freedom’s hallowed strife. Your avowal of abolition would have made us deliri­ous with joy, for the freedom of the slave is a religion in England from which there are very few dissent­ers. But the universal conviction in England is, that the leaders of your government care nothing about slavery, and that they make you fight for empire and not for freedom.

You say in your issue of Nov. 28th, “The higher classes in England are friends of the South, while the people stand by our government.” Neither of these sentences has any truth in it. I speak what I do know, when I say that our public sympathy with your government is clean gone, not only with the higher classes, but more thoroughly and com­pletely with our people. Our populace, to a man, have ceased to respect the truckling policy which controls you, and I believe they would speak far more harshly of you than the richer classes care to do. It is no one’s business here which of you con­quers, so long as slavery is not at issue. That was the key to the British heart, it has been discarded, and we remain unmoved, if not indignant specta­tors, of a pointless, purposeless war. My whole heart and soul wished you God speed, until, like all the rest who looked on at your awful game, with an ocean between us to cool the passions, I saw clearly that only extreme peril would compel your leaders to proclaim liberty to the captives. That trial you have had, do the right, and your trouble will be over.

We cannot love the South. They are not and cannot be our natural allies. We have few bonds of relationship there, and no commercial ties which we would not rejoice to sever. Even if a spasmodic interest should be excited by your violation of our flag, yet we never can have any hearty union between our people and the slaveholding South. Cotton, I confess, is a great bond, and the stoppage of its supply is a serious calamity, hut as far as I have seen, our people had made up their minds to bear hard times patiently, in the hope that slavery might cease. I believe that our people would sooner pay a tax for emancipation, or bear the stoppage of their trade for the sake of the slave, than for any other motive under heaven. But we are disappointed. A noble opportunity has been frittered away. Halting between two opinions has ruined the cause. The friends of Africa are sick at heart. Your government has fooled you. It dared not do the right for fear of consequences. It courted useless friendships and tried to buy them with hesitations and compromises. Had it but dashed at once into the “irrepressible conflict” all civilized nations would have honored the courage and decision which would run any risk sooner than allow the barbarous and diabolical crime of slavery to fester in your constitution. But your rulers must be driven to virtue, for even when upon the verge of it, they start back alarmed. Why was Fremont silenced? What power is that which leads your Cabinet to be so fearful to commit it­self upon the point of slaveholding? Why leave your most powerful weapon to rust upon the shelf? Have you no means of pressure by which you can compel your rulers to find their senses and give up their vacillation. To hesitate is to court disaster, to decide is to overcome.

No one can fail to admire your loyalty, but surely some of you must have had stern difficul­ty in enduring such protracted temporizing. Be loyal still, but constrain the President and his council to be loyal to your public feeling, which I hope is sound at heart. Will not the slave ques­tion soon be made the point in issue? For your own sake will you not let loose the black tempest from its chains of darkness? I earnestly pray that in all thoroughness, the cause of freedom may be taken up boldly and at once; and I am sure that with our usual unanimity we shall return to our natural position towards you, viz., that of unfeigned sympathy and hearty good-will. You may reply that this is of no value. I reply, that you are a little angry, and therefore I will plead that it may be of service to your kinsmen and brethren in Eng­land, and to the world at large, therefore win our love for our sakes if not your own. It may tend to produce a healthier feeling between the two nations, if it be fully understood that the people of England deprecate the idea of a quarrel with you, and sincerely desire unbroken and profound peace, but the blood of the Old Saxons is as fully in our veins as in yours, and no Englishman feels any sort of fear of you, your fleets, your armies, your expeditions to Canada, or any other enter­prise you may set on foot. We neither despise your weakness nor dread your strength.

But why should there be a fight at all? What good can come of it ? Could not every end be answered by arbitration better than by blood ? In the presence of heathen and popish nations wherefore should two protestant powers disagree? It will be a crime, a treason against Heaven, a despite to the cross of Christ. We are co-operators in every good work, and in some we willingly yield you the palm, but wherefore should we differ? Why, above all things, should we be made to kill each other against our wills? We have both had our sins to­wards the sons of Ham, let us bear the brunt to­gether, you the war, and we the evils of blockade. Do you hasten to proclaim “liberty,” and we on our part, if we be not permitted to interfere with effec­tual aid, will endure patiently the necessary stop­page of trade, will rejoice in your successes, and never even dream of your being repulsed.

We both seem to be drifting most ridiculously, but most lamentably from our proper positions. Our place is at your side in a great moral conflict, yours is it to make that conflict moral. We have all a thousand dear friends in either hemisphere; some of us have brothers on each side, and even children in both nations. We must get out of this quarrel somehow, without a rupture, and in my heart, I believe that your proclamation of emanci­pation will do it. How can we be your enemies if you are the friends of the slave ? If our govern­ment should attempt to aid the South for the mere sake of cotton, (which they would not do, for at present ours is the most popular of all governments, and feels the most readily the motion of public sentiment,) thousands, yea millions of us, would abhor the selfish and unhallowed combat, and it could not last.

The scales are trembling in the balance. May your voices cry aloud for peace and liberty. Some few words of reconciliation, a little mutual forbear­ance, deaf ears to irritating newspapers, and a no­ble publication of freedom to the captives, and the two nations will be sworn friends. O Lord, grant it may be so. Never did prayer rise more heartily or earnestly to heaven’s throne. I pray you join in it with your fervent “Amen.”

Now, Messrs. Editors, I do not write this as though my individual opinions were of any value in America, but because I know that the truth in these matters may ultimately be for the best. My letter on slavery excited so much ill-feeling, even in the North, that I did not see the use of my further correspondence, but this is duty, therefore I do it.

With heartiest affection to believers in the North,

Yours, most peacefully and honestly,

C. H. SPURGEON.

(Photo by Chris Chow on Unsplash)

What’s So Bad About R.L. Dabney?

R.L. Dabney has been so thoroughly whitewashed in reformed evangelical circles that it comes as a surprise when he is criticized for his virulent white-supremacy. The whitewashed version of Dabney started with his close friend and first biographer Thomas Cary Johnson, and was passed along to reformed evangelicals by Iain Murray  (see here, for example) and Banner of Truth publishers. He was then picked up by men like John MacArthur, who gave him unqualified recommendation for over 38 years.

What could possibly be so bad about Dabney? I suspect that very few people have actually read for themselves the kinds of things Dabney said. If they had, I simply cannot imagine them giving him the kind of praise that they have.

Before anyone accuses me of over-reacting to Dabney, or making a mountain out of a molehill, I simply ask you to read for yourself a handful of articles. These are all available for free in the public domain. You can find them on Google Books or on archive.org. I’ve uploaded pdfs of each relevant chapter or address. If you haven’t faced Dabney’s racism and white-supremacy for yourself, you simply cannot make an accurate assessment of his life and legacy. If you only have time to read one, read “Ecclesiastical Equality of Negroes.” If you have time for a second, read “The Negro and the Common School.” Read it all if you really want to know how abhorrent his teaching and influence has been.

 

Letter to Major General Howard, Oct 21, 1865 (pdf here)

In 1865 Dabney wrote a letter to the Chief of the Freedman’s Bureau which was formed to help former black slaves in the aftermath of the civil war. The Letter is a mixture of a rosy white-washed picture of southern slavery, irony and sarcasm when confessing the South’s “inferiority” to the North, and a concluding section on the challenges of helping African-Americans:

“One of your difficulties is in the thriftlessness of the Africans themselves, and their want of intelligent foresight; a trait which was caused, not by domestic servitude, but by the savage condition from which they were taken, and which we had partially corrected when they were taken out of our hands” (41).

“The larger part of them evidently confound liberty with license; and to them, liberty means living without earning a living” (42).

“You have this task then, gently to educate them out of this innocent mistake of Stealing everything which comes to their hand” (43).

“You, sir, are appointed to do what no other mortal has hitherto done successfully: to transmute four millions of slaves, of an alien race and lower culture, all at once into citizens, without allowing them to suffer or deteriorate on your hands” (44).

Ecclesiastical Equality of Negroes, Nov. 9, 1867 (pdf here)

This one address encapsulates everything that is wrong with Dabney. Not only was he a white-supremacist, but he influenced his entire Southern Presbyterian denomination in this speech to not grant equality in the church to black preachers. Thus, to the sin of racial animosity, we can add the sin of dividing Christ’s church, and that of influencing many others to stumble. This is Paul and Peter, Galatians 1 territory. Ironically, Dabney quotes Galatians 1 in this address, getting the sense exactly opposite. In Dabney’s surreal version, he himself is Paul, and those arguing for racial equality are Peter.

The effect of this speech was powerful in the Presbyterian assembly. Sean Michael Lucas notes that this speech “turned the tide against racial equality in the Southern Presbyterian church… and set the ‘racial orthodoxy’ of the Southern Presbyterian church for the next hundred years” (Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life, 148–49). The whole thing is really vile, and I urge readers to read it for themselves or they will be incapable of making an honest assessment of Dabney. Here are a few excerpts:

“an insuperable difference of race, made by God and not by man, and of character and social condition, makes it plainly impossible for a black man to teach and rule white Christians to edification” (201)

“I greatly doubt whether a single Presbyterian negro will ever be found to come fully up to that high standard of learning, manners, sanctity, prudence, and moral weight and acceptability which our constitution requires” (202).

“Now, who that knows the negro does not know that his is a subservient race; that he is made to follow, and not to lead; that his temperament, idiosyncrasy and social relation make him untrustworthy as a depository of power?” (203–4).

“Our brethren, turning heart-sore and indignant from their secular affairs, where nothing met their eye but a melancholy ruin, polluted by the intrusion of this inferior and hostile race, looked to their beloved church for a little repose. There at least, said they, is one pure, peaceful spot not yet reached by this pollution and tyranny” (205).

“Every hope of the existence of the church and of state, and of civilization itself, hangs upon our arduous effort to defeat the doctrine of negro suffrage” (205)

“These tyrants know that if they can mix the race of Washington and Lee and Jackson with this base herd which they brought from the fens of Africa, if they can taint the blood which hallowed the plains of Manassas with this sordid stream, the adulterous current will never again swell a Virginian’s heart with a throb noble enough to make a despot tremble… We have before our eyes the proof and illustration of the satanic wisdom of their plan.” (206)

 

A Defense of Virginia and the South, 1867 (pdf here)

Dabney wrote a 350 page defense of slavery, in which he claimed that the Bible supported the slavery and that only infidels and unbelievers disagreed. See here for an assessment of his treatment of the book of Philemon. Sean Michael Lucas offers an insightful analysis of the book on pages 117–128 of his biography of Dabney, which I highly recommend. Portions of this book are “willful propaganda of the highest order and manifestly untrue.” It’s astonishing to me that Doug Wilson calls this work of Dabney’s “excellent.”

“for the African race, such as Providence has made it, and where he has placed it in America, slavery was the righteous, the best, yea, the only tolerable relation” (25).

“domestic slavery here has conferred on the unfortunate black race more true well-being than any other form of society has ever given them” (261).

“On the Civil Magistrate” in Systematic Theology, 1871 (pdf here)

But racism doesn’t affect theology, right? No, Dabney’s white supremacy even made it into his systematic theology:

Thus, if the low grade of intelligence, virtue, and civilization of the African in America, disqualified him for being his own guardian, and if his own true welfare, and that of the community, would be plainly marred by this freedom; then the law decided correctly that the African here has no natural right to his self-control, as to his own labour and locomotion. (869)

The State Free School System, April 22, 1876 (pdf here)

Here Dabney repeats arguments that he made frequently before about slavery as a “true education” fitting for the condition of the African, and wields it to oppose public-schools in Virginia:

“So, our own country presents an humbler instance in the more respectable of the African freedmen. Tens of thousands of these, ignorant of letters, but trained to practical skill, thought, and resource, by intelligent masters, and imitating their superior breeding and sentiments, present, in every aspect, a far “higher style of man” than your Yankee laborer from his common school, with his shallow smattering and purblind conceit, and his wretched newspaper stuffed with moral garbage from the police-courts, and with false and poisonous heresies in politics and religion. Put such a man in the same arena with the Southern slave from a respectable plantation, and in one week’s time the ascendancy of the Negro, in self-respect, courage, breeding, prowess and practical intelligence, will assert itself palpably to the Yankee and to all spectators. The
slave was, in fact, the educated man” (250).

The Negro and the Common School, 1876 (pdf here)

Dabney goes even further in his attacks against the notion of educating the newly freed slaves in his letter to the editor of the Farmer and Planter:

“The tenor of the argument concedes, what every man, not a fool, knows to be true: that the negroes, as a body, are now glaringly unfit for the privilege of voting. What makes them unfit? Such things as these: The inexorable barrier of alien race, color, and natural character, between them and that other race which constitutes the bulk of Americans: a dense ignorance of the rights and duties of citizenship: an almost universal lack of that share in the property of the country, which alone can give responsibility, patriotic interest and independence to the voter: a general moral grade so deplorably low as to per- mit their being driven or bought like a herd of sheep by the demagogue: a parasitical servility and dependency of nature, which characterizes the race everywhere, and in all ages: an al- most total lack of real persevering aspirations: and last, an obstinate set of false traditions, which bind him as a mere serf to a party, which is the born enemy of every righteous interest of our State” (178–79).

“What is called ‘impartial suffrage’ is, however, permitted by their new Constitution. We should at once avail ourselves of that permission, and without attempting any discrimination on grounds of “race, color, or previous condition of bondage,” establish qualifications both of property and intelligence for the privilege of voting. This would exclude the great multitude of negroes…” (187).

Conclusion

Everyone has blind spots. Even our most beloved heroes have feet of clay. However, what should we do when the whole thing is filled with clay? When the blind spot becomes large enough to divide an entire denomination for over 100 years? We need unequivocally repudiate it, lament and ask forgiveness for our unqualified endorsement of such a man, and then rethink whether we ever want to do so again. We can’t even start this process until we see for ourselves what’s really there.

The Bible vs. Southern-Slavery: a downward hermeneutical spiral

Mark Noll wrote The Civil War as a Theological Crisis “to explain why clashes over the meaning of the Bible and the workings of providence… revealed a significant theological crisis” (6). One key element of the crisis is how, as Lincoln said, both sides “read the same Bible” but came to such opposite conclusions. In fact, the interpretation of the Bible’s teaching on slavery and its application to Southern-slavery turned into a downward spiral of reactions that pushed both sides further from the truth.

Just Open the Bible, Read it, and Believe it

One important element in the crisis was an Enlightenment induced confidence in one’s ability to easily understand the world, including the Bible: “understanding things was simple.” Our entire country, after all, was founded on truths that are “self-evident” (22).

The significance of this marriage between Christianity and the Enlightenment influenced the harsh polemical tone and the firmly drawn battle lines of the debate:

“On the one side, it bestowed great self-confidence as Americans explained the moral urgency of social attitudes and then of national policy. On the other, it transformed the conclusions reached by opponents into willful perversions of sacred truth and natural reason” (20). 

There was a foundational naivety in reading the Bible that ignored the interpretive process. Questions like “what did that word mean in its original context, and are there any important differences in my own context that would affect my understanding?” were rarely asked. The process was much more simple: “In effect: open the Bible, read it, believe it” (33).

Southern-Slavers’ Conflation and Abolitionist Reaction

One fascinating dynamic was the interplay between abolitionists and the defenders of slavery over the Bible. At the very root of the entire conflict is the confusion between what the Bible refers to as slavery, and Southern-slavery as it was actually practiced in America. When slave holders conflated the two and appealed to the Bible to defend their horrific practices, they created a stumbling-block over Biblical truth. Some abolitionists responded by simply discarding those portions of the Bible. William Garrison said this: “to discard a portion of scripture is not necessarily to reject the truth, but may be the highest obedience that one can give of his love of truth” (32). I think the warnings in Mark 9 against causing others to stumble apply squarely to the defenders of Southern-slavery:

But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me [i]to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea (Mark 9:42).

By entangling the Bible with their unbiblical system, Southern-slavers caused others to reject the Bible. Given a choice between the clear dictates of conscience and this twisting of Scripture, I can understand why the abolitionists sided with their consciences in their “love of truth.”

The Southern-Slavers’ Counter-reaction

This, of course, fueled a counter-reaction by the “Biblically orthodox” slavers: “the willingness of Garrison and a few others to favor abolitionism in place of Scripture actually worked to the advantage of those who defended slavery on the basis of Scripture.” In fact, the counter-reaction entangled the issues even more tightly: “biblical defenders of slavery were ever more likely to perceive doubt about the biblical defense of slavery as doubt about the authority of the Bible itself” (32). This is why if you read any of “the Southern divines” (as Genovese calls them) you frequently hear “abolitionism” paired with “infidelity.” Henry Van Dyke claimed: “Abolitionism leads, in multitudes of cases, and by a logical process, to utter infidelity” (32); or R.L. Dabney:

“the Word is on our side, and the teachings of Abolitionism are clearly of rationalistic origin, of infidel tendency, and only sustained by reckless and licentious perversions of the meaning of the Sacred text” (A Defense of Virginia, 21).

When abolitionists accepted the slave-holders’ false premise—that Biblical slavery is the same as Southern-slavery—and attacked slavery as an evil in itself, including a willingness to discard the Bible’s teaching on this subject, they created a very confusing situation for the “moderates.” Many of these moderates “had also grown troubled about America’s system of chattel bondage, but who were not willing to give up loyalty to Scripture” (36). The slaveholders’ conflation of the two set everyone on the wrong course.

As the hermeneutical conflict wound itself up, those in the South could encourage themselves with statements like this: “your cause is the cause of God, the cause of Christ, of humanity. It is a conflict of truth with error — of Bible with Northern infidelity—of pure Christianity with Northern fanaticism” (39). This “biblical” defense of slavery “increasingly came to look like a defense of Scripture itself” (45).

How appalling and heartbreaking that this syncretism between between Southern slave-culture and “christianity” was so thorough and so entrenched.

The Hard Work of Untangling

In this context, some of the best and most important work was the work of disentangling Southern-slavery from the Bible. Men like David Barrow, Francis Wayland, James M. Pendleton, and Taylor Lewis all worked to prove that the Bible described “a very different situation than prevailed in the South” (46). Pendleton observed that “there are points of material dissimilarity between that system and our system of slavery… it does not follow necessarily that Abraham’s servants were slaves in the American acceptation of that word” (47). Taylor Lewis argued that “‘the Patriarchal Servitude’ in ancient times was very different from the slavery found in the American South” (48). As I hope to demonstrate in another post, these “points of dissimilarity” were sharp and they were many. I take my stand with those who held both to abolitionism and to Scripture, and in fact argued for the former precisely from the latter. 

The whole complicated scenario demonstrates the importance of carefully untangling and refuting false teaching, especially when perpetrated by otherwise “orthodox” Christians. To fail in this task is to make a stumbling-block out of the Bible, and a steep barrier to Christianity. This has lamentably been the case in our country for a long time, and is still seen when people reject evangelicalism because of her entanglements with obvious wickedness. When we hear these criticisms, we should set about the important work of untangling dangerous syncretism and dismantling any elements in our presentation of Christianity that actually poison our message. White-supremacy is just one significant form of such American-syncretism.

Civil War: War and Aftermath

I realized this summer that I knew very little of substance about America’s Civil War. Louis Masur’s The Civil War: A Concise History was a fantastic primer on this part of our country’s history and reading it prompted a number of reflections on my part. (This is Part 2, reflecting on the War itself and its aftermath. See part 1 on some of the causes and background to the war).

Southern lust for war

I’ve heard the Civil War called “the war of northern aggression” but listen to this quote from the same Atlanta newspaper quoted in part 1: “let the consequences be what they may—whether the Potomac is crimsoned in human gore, and Pennsylvania Avenue is paved ten fathoms in depth with mangled bodies… the South will never submit to such humiliation and degradation as the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln” (19). I had forgotten that the South actually fired the first shot of the war — on Fort Sumter. “Confederate Secretary of State Robert Toombs had warned against this action… ‘it puts us in the wrong. It is fatal’” (24). The south was not some innocent, passive victim of invasion. They fully played their own part in the conflict.

An easier way out

I’ve heard southern sympathizers lament that the North waged a war to end slavery that cost hundreds of thousands of lives when slavery could have been ended in some other way. Interestingly, Lincoln repeatedly offered them some other way. In 1862 “Lincoln appealed again to border-state members of Congress to adopt a plan for gradual, compensated emancipation… they had a chance to get something in return for their property.” However, they “rejected his plea” (40). I say their blame rests on their own heads.

Emancipation

We view the emancipation proclamation as a great act by Lincoln. I hadn’t recalled how vehemently the south reacted. Jefferson Davis called it “the most execrable measure recorded in the history of guilty man” (48). This is telling at how deeply distorted southern Christian values were.

Caving in on itself

Part of the southern states’ reason for seceding from the Union was over states’ rights (namely, the right to own slaves). They resented the “tyrannical” federal government telling them what to do. But in order for the confederacy to work together in the war, it needed to have a centralized organized government (what could possibly go wrong?) “States’ rights ideologues, who believed that the reason for secession was to escape a tyrannical centralized government, were increasingly reluctant to comply with the Confederate government’s demands, essential though they were to waging war effectively” (49). You reap what you sow. Eventually the southern governors “resisted Davis’s call for men and material” (63). The separatist impulse that started the war also helped lose the war.

Racial violence in the North

The country was founded on white supremacy, and even at the time of the war the entire country was still white supremacist. The South expressed it through slavery, but the North did it in other ways. I had never heard of the New York City Draft Riots in 1863. People were angry that “they had to compete for jobs with free blacks, whose numbers they believed would only grow with emancipation. The rioters overwhelmed the police and let loose on the black community a wave of horrific racial violence. They burned buildings, including the Colored Orphan Asylum, and lynched more than a dozen blacks, stringing them up from lamp posts” (56). Nearly everyone was white supremacist in the 1850s.

White Supremacy in the Union Army

Black soldiers fought in the Union army, but they suffered at the hands of white supremacy even there. They “suffered the taunts of white soldiers… Prejudice against them meant not only skepticism about their ability to fight but also harsher punishments and unequal treatment. They served in segregated units commanded by white officers and received less pay than white soldiers” (58). One incident reminds me of the of the later plea from the civil rights era: “ain’t I a man?” A soldier wrote directly to the president: “we have done a Soldier’s duty. Why can’t we have a Soldier’s pay?” (58). White supremacy was ubiquitous and systemic.

“But slavery ended 150 years ago”

I’ve heard some people say, “slavery ended so long ago, so why is race still an issue?” Well, it did, and it didn’t. After Lincoln was assassinated, Andrew Johnson became president. Johnson “supported state’s rights generally. A former slaveholder, he also shared in the dominant racial ideology [i.e., white supremacy] of his day” (80). Johnson opposed a measure that would give blacks the right to vote. Southern states passed laws that “forbade blacks from serving on juries, stipulated harsher punishments for crimes than those given to whites, and outlawed interracial marriage” (82). Johnson vetoed a bill that would have continued the Freedman’s Bureau devoted to helping blacks. He also vetoed a civil rights bill passed by Congress. Not just in the south, but in even in northern states like Ohio and Minnesota “black men in the North could not vote any more than freed slaves in the South” (85). Did slavery itself end? Sure, but as one Southern lawyer said, “Blacks have freedom in name, but not in fact” (89).

The problem is that slavery went away, but white supremacy didn’t, and it found other ways of effectively oppressing black people that would linger on far longer, even to this day.

(Photo by Patrick Perkins on Unsplash)