Baptists and the American Civil War

We’re currently in the second year of a four-year, sesquicentennial remembrance of the American Civil War. Fought between 1861 and 1865, the Civil War remains the deadliest war in American history, resulting in the deaths of over 750,ooo combatants, plus an unrecorded amount of civilians. Hundreds, maybe thousands of events are being held throughout the country to commemorate, honor, and often grieve various aspects of the conflict.

It’s impossible to separate the Civil War from its religious undercurrents. Historians such as Clarence Goen and Mitchell Snay argue that the racially charged divisions between Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians in the 1830s and 1840s helped to pave the way for the secession of the southern states in 1861. Dozens of historians have weighed in on the religious dimensions of the war itself. Some of the more noteworthy works include studies by Mark Noll, Harry Stout, and George Rable. Stout, Randall Miller, and Charles Reagan Wilson have also edited a fine collection of essays that introduce readers to the historiography of religion and the Civil War through the late 1990s.

Bruce Gourley, executive director of the Baptist History and Heritage Society, has created an impressive website dedicated to Baptists and the American Civil War: In Their Own Words. The website includes numerous resources, including links to primary source documents available online, an ongoing collection of “this day in Civil War history” blog entries that focus upon Baptists, and links to other Civil War resources on the web. The website is a great resource, especially for classes on the Civil War, American Christianity, or Baptist History.

If you’re interested in learning more about Baptists and the Civil War, you should consider attending the 2013 annual meeting of the Baptist History and Heritage Society. The conference will be held May 20-22 in Richmond, Virginia. The theme is “Faith, Freedom, Forgiveness: Religion and the Civil War, Emancipation and Reconciliation in Our Time.” The keynote speakers are the distinguished historians Harry Stout, Edward Ayers, and Andrew Manis. The conference will also include dozens of shorter papers related to the conference theme. You can read more about the conference at the BH&HS website.

(Note: The image [credit] is a picture of J. William Jones, a Southern Baptist chaplain in the Army of Northern Virginia, author of Christ in the Camp, and assistant corresponding secretary of the SBC Home Mission Board from 1884-1893. He was one of the most important evangelists for the “Lost Cause” mythology that dominated the post-war South into the early 20th century. You can read more about Jones in the New Georgia Encyclopedia.)

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  1. Gary Snowden   •  

    How about a sesquicentennial remembrance, rather than a bicentennial one?

  2. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    Whoops. Thanks, Gary.

  3. Adam Shields   •  

    Mark Noll’s book The Civil War as Theological Crisis should be required reading for everyone that is intersted in Christian interaction in politics, hermenutics, and US history. A short but facinating book.

  4. dr. james willingham   •  

    One of the items in my early readings was Douglas Southall Freeman’s 4 vol biography of R.E. Lee. I was around 9 years of age, when I found that set in the public county library in Piggott, Arkansas along with its companion set, Lee’s Lieutenants which I also read. I also read Gone With The Wind (GWTW) for the first time at age 9 and by age 12 I had read it four times. The fifth time was about 12 years ago. I would have the privilege of meeting people who knew Margaret Mitchell personally, one was the wife of the retired editor of the Louisville Courier Journal, Both her and her husband had worked with Ms. Mitchell on a paper in Atlanta. Ms. Mitchell’s description of the battles North of Atlanta, I found, were accurate, being based on her study of the records. I had one, perhaps two great great grandfathers who took part in those battles. One, James M. Beasley, a private in a Tennessee regiment was wounded at Lookout Mountain. Then I had the privilege of meeting Mrs. Mamerta de los Reyes Block, the wife of a fellow student at SEBTS, Dr. Isaac Block. She told had she won Ms. Mitchell to Christ during a speaking engagement to a women’s group at the Temple Baptist Church in Atlanta. Ms. Mitchell invited her to tea the next afternoon. This information can be found in Mrs. Block’s autobiography, The Price of Freedom. It is also interesting to note that our son, Craig Willingham, pastor of the Berry’s Grove Baptist Church, of Timberlake, NC, had a great, great grand daughter of General Lee who was a member of his congregation for a while. I had the opportunity to speak with her on one occasion about her famous ancestor. I also supplied the pulpit of the Dallas Baptist Church early in the first decade of the new millenium. The man in charge of the pulpit was a descendant of General Lee’s brother who shoed Traveler. One of the first papers that I wrote in college that received a notice from my professor, a famous Black Historian, Dr. Lorenzo J. Greene, was on the Battle of Wilson’s Creek in Missouri. Dr. Greene said, “I like this paper. It is an attempt to be critical.” The war was instrumental in reducing my family to poverty. The Yankees burned the home place down in Arkansas, and my great great grandmother loaded up the children with my great grandfather (about the age of 4-5) and drove a covered wagon to Texas to be near her brothers while my great great grandfather and an older son were away in the war. My maternal grandmother use to tell me about my Great Great Grandfather James M. Beasley who was wounded at Lookout Mountain and at Chattanooga. I figured out that he suffered from PTSD after the war, and he lost his share of the family wealth, probably due to that stress and also the lost of his first wife and child in child birth. I taught American History for two years at South Carolina State College (now University), wrote a prospectus for a Doctoral Dissertation in Black History at Columbia Univ. in NY and did my project for the Doctor of Ministry on Christian Love & Race Relations at SEBTS. The director of my project said, “You ought to have known better than to select a controversial topic like this. If that church fires you, I will be right there behind them, supporting them.” That War and the evil institution that it ended still resonates among us to this day. Southern Whites and Southern Blacks are closer to one another than they are to their Northern Counterparts.

  5. David Scott   •  

    Will you be presenting a paper?

  6. Nathan Finn   •     Author


    I hope to present a paper. I’m submitting one for consideration. I hope to discuss the story behind the book Domestic Slavery Considered as a Scriptural Institution, written by Francis Wayland and Richard Fuller. I co-edited a new edition of this book with Mercer University Press in 2008. It is widely considered to be one of the most important works on the topic written by antebellum evangelicals.


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