Belief  /  Antecedent

Baptists, Slavery, and the Road to Civil War

Baptists were never monolithic on the issue of slavery, but Southern Baptists were united in their opposition to Northern Baptists determining their beliefs.

During the Civil War, just two years after publishing a sermon on the fruits of the Spirit, Georgia pastor Charles Dutton Mallary wrote emphatically, “If the Federals should get possession of my poor body, I shall tell them I am a rebel.” Such a staggering declaration on the part of a seemingly pious Baptist pastor should leave us to consider two questions: First, would later Christians have chosen differently had they been ensconced in the same time and place? After the assassination of President Lincoln, Princeton theologian Charles Hodge was not entirely sure. In an article in the Princeton Review, Hodge conceded, “Slavery, as it existed in the South…is a great moral evil. And yet had we been born and educated under that system, we doubtless would either acquiesced in it or defended it.” He reasoned, “A man’s character, his opinions, his feelings, are determined in part by the inward principles of his nature, and largely by the external influences to which he is subject.” Even after Lincoln’s death, Hodge, who possessed his own complex view of slavery, was not convinced that Northerners were somehow more inherently virtuous than Southerners. Such a sympathetic view no doubt led Hodge to engage rather well with Southerners like James P. Boyce, a Charlestonian educated at Princeton who eventually served in the Confederate army (1861–62), owned over two dozen slaves, and advised friends like John Broadus to invest in slaves.

Secondly, wherever Southern Baptists fell along the spectrum of pro-slavery ideology, their individual views were shaped not just by their immediate context, but by decades of experiences and evolving thought on the issue. If a young Basil Manly Sr. was ambivalent about the ills of slavery in 1821, Richard Furman was decidedly less conflicted about the issue just two years later when he believed slaves were plotting to overthrow white society. As the nation changed, so did people, and vice versa. And extremes in the North slowly hardened Baptist consciences in the South.