Baptists and the Civil War

April 1865

150 Years Ago
In their own words

Jefferson Davis, Daniel Huntington, 1874

Jefferson Davis, Daniel Huntington, 1874

Like a towering, thundering wave crashing upon the shore, the army of U.S. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant finally breaks through the Confederate lines at Petersburg on the morning of the second day of the month, a Sunday.

It is the moment the North has long awaited, and the moment long dreaded by Confederate officials. Having rolled up Rebel defenses, the road to Richmond is open.

Within hours a telegram is delivered to Confederate president Jefferson Davis, who is attending a Sunday morning church service. The message is from the commander of the South’s armies, Gen. Robert E. Lee: “I advise that all preparation be made for leaving Richmond tonight.”

Jumping up, Davis rushes to his office and instructs officials to destroy government documents and then leave town. Stacks of papers are hauled outside and set ablaze.

Startled observers see the flames. As the smoke drifts skyward, rumors begin swirling around town. Something is wrong. Has the fighting at Petersburg been renewed?

At four o’clock in the afternoon the departure of the Confederate government is formally announced. Mayhem immediately ensues.

From late afternoon through the night, Richmond’s white elites stream out of town. On horseback, in train cars and carriages and skiffs and boats, or pulling carts, they take what they can.

During the night, Confederate soldiers work quickly to destroy the stocks of tobacco, cotton and food stored in warehouses. When local poor whites see the massive quantities of food being brought out of secret storage, they react with disbelief, having for many months lived on the edge of starvation because of Confederate officials’ insistence that there was a shortage of food.

An enraged crowd quickly forms and begins looting at will. Amid the looting, soldiers set fire to tobacco and cotton bales. The flames mingle with those from piles of government documents yet burning.

The wind picks up, spreading the flames to the business district. Loaded shells at the ironworks go off, then the arsenals aboard docked warships explode with such force that windows are shattered for a radius of two miles.

The morning of April 3 dawns on a city devastated, and devoid of most of its leading white citizens. U.S. President Abraham Lincoln is notified.

“Thank God,” the president responds. “I have lived to see this! It seems to me that I have been dreaming a horrid dream for four years, and now the nightmare is gone. I want to see Richmond.”

Union troops march into the city to the cheers of blacks who were slaves just hours earlier. The sight of black troops brings joyous tears to the eyes of many.

The arrival of Lincoln on April 4, however, elicits the greatest response of all. Instantly recognizing the president, former slaves greet the man who is widely viewed as their Moses.

Adm. David D. Porter, accompanying Lincoln, describes the scene: “As far as the eye could see, the streets were alive with negroes and poor whites rushing in our direction…. They all wanted to shake hands with Mr. Lincoln or [touch] his coat tail or even to kneel down and kiss his boots!”

With Richmond fallen, Lee surrenders to Grant on April 9 at Appomattox, Va. Although some Confederate forces remain afield and Jefferson Davis is not captured until weeks later, the war is effectively over.

The rebellious states have been defeated, the Union preserved. Four long, agonizing years and more than 600,000 deaths have been required to fulfill the promises of 1776 that bound the original colonies together.

“All men are created equal,” the “unanimous Declaration of the 13 united States of America” had boldly decreed back then. “Liberty” is an inherent “right.” And “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it,” the Declaration had trumpeted.

The southern states had denied these very words of the nation’s founders, insisting that liberty belonged to whites only. For almost a century southern white elites had enriched themselves off of slave labor, preaching white solidarity while leaving crumbs to common white folk and censuring dissenting voices.

Architect of the Capitol, by Allyn Cox. A Confederate soldier and a Union soldier shake hands, marking the reunion of the country after the devastation of the Civil War in 1865. A cotton plant and a northern pine tree symbolize the South and the North, respectively.

Architect of the Capitol, by Allyn Cox. A Confederate soldier and a Union soldier shake hands, marking the reunion of the country after the devastation of the Civil War in 1865. A cotton plant and a northern pine tree symbolize the South and the North, respectively.

Many Baptist elites in the South had joined the chorus, sanctifying black slavery with a literal interpretation of the Bible while condemning evil northerners, including Baptists, who insisted that God willed freedom for all people.

The South had gone to war with the North for the stated purpose of preserving black slavery. But God’s hand ultimately found expression in northern military might, bestowing freedom to all and thus completing the American Revolution — or so many northerners believe as celebrations erupt throughout the North.

As joyful as are the northerners, the bitterness and despair of many white southerners is every bit as visceral. An actor and Confederate sympathizer named John Wilkes Booth, hateful of Lincoln as have been many southerners during the war, seeks revenge.

On April 14, five days after Lee’s surrender, Booth assassinates the president, shocking the world. Seemingly no one is left untouched by the murder.

Northerners are outraged and deeply saddened. In the days and weeks following the killing, from many Baptist pulpits in the North, black and white alike, flow tributes to Lincoln for his sacrificial commitment to freedom. On the other hand, many white southerners believe Lincoln got what he deserved. Others, especially the poor, mourn.

Blacks everywhere are shocked, while many are fearful. God’s agent, their deliverer, is dead. Might their newfound freedom somehow be snatched away?

Nonetheless, celebrations of freedom are held in many black Baptist churches. Former slaves praise God and Lincoln’s Republican Party. At an April 23 gathering at the State Street Baptist Church in Mobile, Ala., the packed crowd of former slaves sings:

Free workmen in the cotton-field,
And in the sugar cane;
Free children in the common school,
With nevermore a chain.
Then rally, Black Republicans —
Aye, rally! We are free!
We‘ve waited long
To sing the song —
The song of liberty

The immediate post-war years are full of promise and hope for black citizens in the South and North. The 13th Amendment formally ends slavery in December 1865, while the 14th and 15th amendments in the years following extend legal protections to blacks and decree that suffrage cannot be predicated on the basis of race.

En masse in the South, black Baptists leave white churches and form hundreds, then thousands, of autonomous congregations. Some individuals, such as South Carolinian and war hero Robert Smalls, become political leaders in state houses and in Washington, D.C.

Others, having served in the Union military, trade their soldier uniforms for clerical garments. Collectively, black Baptists begin establishing denominational structures to help in the tasks of missions, education and uplift of the black race. Many northern Baptists, black and white alike, provide assistance.

White southerners confront a land destroyed and a society, culture and economy devoid of slave labor. Southern Baptists face the daunting prospects of rebuilding their churches and denomination, eventually emerging organizationally stronger than ever.

Southern ideologues, meanwhile, set about turning defeat into victory. Unwilling to concede that the South was in the wrong in going to war with the North, they create a narrative of righteousness.

Southern Baptist leaders such as John William Jones, well-known Confederate chaplain and denominational administrator, play prominent roles in this task. Ignoring the historical records of the Confederacy that clearly portrayed the South as going to war to preserve black slavery, Jones and other southern apologists create a “Lost Cause” mythology, recasting the war as a noble and moral fight for states rights and southern traditions.

While the godless North won the war due to military dominance, the superior southern way of life had not been conquered. Quietly set aside in public discourse is the fact that “states rights” and the “traditional” southern “way of life” were shorthand for black slavery. The new narrative thus preserves white supremacy while downplaying slavery.

Nonetheless, many remain convinced that God yet wills that the black race be subservient to the white. Some openly voice such sentiments. In the 1890s Southern Baptists support efforts to take freedoms away from blacks, including the implementation of apartheid laws and the suppression of black votes.

The end of the war, it turns out, is anything but. Not only are blacks in the post-war South gradually stripped of many of the freedoms to which they are legally entitled as American citizens, but racism remains all too real in the post-war North.

The Civil War was thus a second revolution, but an incomplete one. Legislatively, full freedom and equality for black citizens will not come until the passing of another 100 years. BT

By Bruce Gourley

Bruce Gourley is executive director of the Baptist History and Heritage Society and online editor/contributing writer for Baptists Today.

The final article; next, the book
EDITOR’S NOTE: For more than four years we have followed the month-by-month summaries of Baptist engagement in and interpretations of the American Civil War 150 years ago. This is the final article in the series. However, Bruce Gourley has graciously agreed to let us publish this well-researched and insightful material in book form. Sponsors will have their names in the book and receive a signed copy. The $100 sponsorship, minus the cost of the book, is a charitable gift. Make your contribution online at or mail to Baptists Today, P.O. Box 6318, Macon, GA 31201-6318. Please indicate the gift is for the “Gourley book.” Thank you.

Beliefs into Action

The night Dean Smith broke the rules on race in Chapel Hill

Coach Dean Smith, a Baptist layman, made a huge impact on college basketball and beyond the court. This photo and the one on the cover are courtesy of UNC Athletic Communications.

Coach Dean Smith, a Baptist layman, made a huge impact on college basketball and beyond the court. This photo and the one on the cover are courtesy of UNC Athletic Communications.

James Forbes was at a conference of pastors on Sunday, Feb. 8, in Virginia when he got a call from his brother. “Have you heard the news?” his brother asked.

Dean Smith, the revered former basketball coach at the University of North Carolina, had died.

In the days since, Forbes has heard all the tributes. He’s seen the remembrances of Smith’s on-court success and off-court courage.

“Listening to all the words people have been saying about what a special human being he was, I’ve just been saying ‘Amen!’” Forbes said. “Yes, that’s just the kind of man he was.”

While Forbes, the senior minister emeritus at New York’s Riverside Church, didn’t have the same close, decades-long relationship with Smith as many of the people who remembered the coach recently, he did play a role in a central piece of Smith’s legacy.

As a young black pastor, spending the summer of 1962 on the staff of Chapel Hill’s Olin T. Binkley Baptist Church, Forbes was part of the most famous meal in the town’s history. The dinner he shared with Smith and the pastor at Binkley Baptist, Robert Seymour, at The Pines restaurant helped kickstart the town’s path to integration.

It’s a story that has been retold recently as evidence that Smith turned his beliefs into action in a way that almost overshadows what he did as a coach.

When Forbes first met a then 33-year-old Smith, who had just finished his first season as the Tar Heels’ head coach and was on the church’s deacon board, he quickly grasped the innate decency that has been referenced often in the wake of his death.

“You see, black people sort of understand when people are trying to bend over backwards to be accepting versus the times when we encounter people for whom it is natural,” Forbes said. “… You can sense it. You can smell it. You can feel it. In his case, there was no straining to have to be open and accepting… The comfort level, the genuineness, what I’d call the unfeigned sense of friendship, that’s what you found in Dean Smith.”
Ask Forbes about the night when he, Seymour and Smith went to The Pines, an upscale Chapel Hill restaurant that was staunchly segregated, and he’ll tell you about Binkley Baptist.

In 1962, Forbes, who was born in Burgaw in eastern North Carolina, had just graduated from New York’s Union Theological Seminary but didn’t have a job lined up. So he took part in a program run by the National Council of Churches called the Student Interracial Ministries.

James Forbes

James Forbes

“They would place black pastors in white congregations and white pastors in black congregations to at least begin to overcome separation and to make it possible to recognize that our faith makes us one,” Forbes said.

Seymour invited Forbes to Binkley and Chapel Hill.

The Chapel Hill that Forbes found was far from the tolerant place it has become. Forbes remembers leaving a church service and walking uptown to restaurants with parishioners only to get turned away. He recalls afternoons when he would umpire youth baseball games and hear racial epithets shouted after unpopular calls.

Once, when he visited the hospital after one of Binkley Baptist’s white parishioners had given birth, he was greeted by a nurse at the door to the maternity ward. She was certain he was on the wrong floor. Black babies, she told him, were somewhere else.

While Chapel Hill stillhad its racial barriers, Binkley did not.

“The extraordinary openness of the people at Olin T. Binkley Baptist Church made all the difference and indicated what I learned for many years, and that is you cannot put all the people from any ethnic group in the same basket,” Forbes said. “That is true for black people. That is true for white people. I was glad to have an experience that confirmed that philosophy of life.”

Ask Forbes again about the night he dined at The Pines and he’ll tell you about Seymour.

In his three decades as Binkley’s pastor, Seymour was an unwavering progressive voice. He spoke out against the Vietnam War and the death penalty and advocated for tolerance and helping the poor. In the early 1960s, he took aim at Chapel Hill’s oppressive racial climate.

He had an ally in Smith, who had been taking similar stands since helping to integrate his high school basketball team in Kansas.

This led to a belief among the Binkley congregation that the racial status quo must be challenged.

“We must attempt to do what we pray about,” Forbes said. “We prayed ‘Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ They were fully aware of the racial difficulties and continued prejudices. But the pattern was, let us model what we believe the way society ought to be, fully aware that not everybody was up to it and there would be an emotional and psychological lag. So what we were going to do, while I was there, was let us act as naturally as we would wish to be. And if we encounter negativity, then we will deal with that.”

The dinner at The Pines was part of this push. The restaurant was one of the fanciest in Chapel Hill.

Smith’s teams dined there often. All of the patrons were white.

The story is that Seymour first approached Smith with the idea of the three trying to get a table there. With Smith’s stature in the town, the owners wouldn’t dare turn him away.

In his 1999 autobiography, Smith described the meal as uneventful, saying the only hiccup was a slight delay in finding the trio a table.

When asked once more for his memories of that night, Forbes paused. You see, he explained, he has none.
“In those days, part of the way you survived was to anesthetize yourself to the indignities that would come quite frequently,” Forbes said. “Should you have lived with exposed nerves to all the slights and slings and arrows, you might have become a kind of basket case. But black people learned how to live as if the pattern was a temporary arrangement based on faulty understanding, that in the course of time, it would be better.

“You don’t always sit around nursing these things. So I suspect if I were in hypnosis, somebody could help me to remember a whole lot of things that I chose not to be as fully aware of or not to remember.”

For those who learned well after the fact about the nation’s struggle to move past Jim Crow, it can be too easy to confine it to the pages of books or discussions in history class. One can lose sight of the fact that the fight was waged by real people who had to endure it in living color.

What in hindsight reads like a triumphant march toward progress was in fact earned one awful, degrading, fearful moment at a time.

“You could either choose, as some people do, to dwell on [your] scars, or you can celebrate the healing that comes amidst the assaults and bruises and unjust arrangements,” Forbes said. “I guess we could actually enjoy having many black people who have managed to survive.”

For Forbes, the details of that night at The Pines aren’t important. More than a half century later, the only thing that matters is that he was there.

So was Seymour.

And so was Smith.

Forbes’ time in Chapel Hill was brief. After the summer ended, he went on to serve at the Holy Trinity Church in Wilmington. N.C.

Later, he preached at a church in Richmond, Va., and went back to Union Theological Seminary to teach. In 1989, he became the first black minister at Riverside Church, a diverse and influential parish on Manhattan’s upper west side.

Along the way, he never stopped advocating for change.

He also never lost touch with Seymour. The now-retired pastor officiated Forbes’ wedding in Wilmington and, just last summer, traveled to New York to speak to his congregation.

Forbes didn’t stay in as close contact with Smith. As the coach built the Tar Heels program into a powerhouse, Forbes was content to watch from afar.

“My contact with him was, every time I saw him on the floor, to say ‘I know that man,’” Forbes said.

Very quickly after Forbes arrived in Chapel Hill in the summer of 1962, Seymour decided to take a vacation. So for a few weeks, Forbes was left in charge.

He said it was an important time for him as he was still learning how to run a parish.

In the decades since, his brief period at the helm of Binkley Baptist has taken on an additional meaning, one that he said continues to be a source of pride.

“I could really say ‘I was Dean Smith’s pastor,’” Forbes said. “That’s a real distinction.’” BT

By Stephen Schramm, Fayetteville Observer

Stephen Schramm is a staff writer for The Fayetteville Observer in Fayetteville, N.C., where this story first appeared. It is reprinted with permission.

‘Caving into culture’ often needed

Selections from recent blogs at

Whenever a hot-button issue arises within the larger society, as well as within church life, there are those who charge proponents of social change with abandoning the Bible and caving into culture.

One does not have to be an indefatigable historian to find ready examples about all kinds of shifts that faced such criticism and opposition — from Sunday recreation to racial and gender equality — voiced by leading Christian figures at the time.

Southern Baptist Convention president Ronnie Floyd recently took up that charge regarding the fast-moving political embrace of marriage equality, according to Baptist Press. “Even religious leaders are caving in to the shifting sands of cultural change…,” the Arkansas pastor is quoted as saying.

While it is possible to make a biblical case for most sides of any debate, this familiar way of standing in opposition to social change is riddled with problems.

Chiefly, it has been the common refrain used by defenders of the status quo through most every societal shift including women’s rights, dancing, interracial relationships, blue laws, slavery and many others.

The charge in each situation is: You cave into modern culture while I remain true to the unchanging Bible.

Within that charge is the arrogant assumption that one’s long-held social position could not have been influenced by earlier cultural norms that shaped what one claims to be biblical.

To strengthen that position, the charge of apostasy (as well as failed patriotism) is first employed. The 19th-century Presbyterian minister and writer James H. Thornwell of South Carolina took such an approach in defense of African slavery.

He labeled supporters of abolition as “atheists, socialists, communists [and] red republicans,” according to Christianity Today. Then his argument of holding the one true biblical position followed.

Because of such historical evidence, much caution about labeling others as failed disciples who cave into culture should rest with conservative evangelical Christians. The track record is simply not good.

One doesn’t have to dig too deeply to know that more-conservative Christianity has consistently come down on the wrong side of one social issue after another related to equality and human rights. And, in each case, the go-to argument was one of staying true to the Bible while the less faithful were “caving into culture.”

That reality does not mean that every new issue that arises should be embraced without questioning or even appropriate opposition where one’s conviction lies. But it should cause a sense of humility and caution that doesn’t quickly dismiss those with a different perspective as unbelievers.

Indeed, following Jesus is counter-cultural. However, what many assume to be a “biblical worldview” or “Christian culture” often misses the very essence of Jesus’ words and deeds.

And, as a result, history and the Bible have often been found on the side of those who at the time were deemed heretics who caved in.

On any side of any debate, however, caution is always needed before claiming that one’s own perspective is assuredly shared by God.BT

By John Pierce

Are they really working?

My students are allowed to use laptop computers in class because I want them to take good notes, and most people can type faster and more legibly than they can write by hand. But I often ramble around the room to make sure they have a word processor open, rather than Facebook.

Workplace managers might want to look over a few shoulders, too. Apparently, many folks who sit behind a computer are checking out more than the price of pork bellies or the status of the latest contract. I suppose that should not come as a surprise.

Of course, students and others who have smart phones can do the same thing beneath the desk without the need of a computer.

A friend who’s interested in doing a social media campaign recently pointed me to an “infographic” (we used to call them charts) about peak times for social media use — and they mostly come during business or school hours.

If the chart is correct, the highest number of click-throughs on Facebook occurs between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. on weekdays, with the peak time being at 3 p.m. on Wednesdays. Hump day is actually marked by a hump on the graph.

If you want people to read your tweets, the most popular Twitter time is between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Monday to Thursday.

The business-related site LinkedIn is most popular Tuesday through Thursday, with peak times being at noon and between 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. My understanding is that LinkedIn is mainly for networking, but I’m aware that one popular use is for job hunting or prospecting for possibilities.

Perhaps managers should worry that so many employees are checking out the site during lunch break and at the end of the workday — but, then, maybe the managers are doing the same thing.

Fewer people than you might expect are cruising social media at night: the worst time for Facebook is after 8 p.m. on weekends. Twitter calms down after 8 p.m. every night, and LinkedIn hits the skids after 10 p.m.

The take-home, apparently, is that if you want more people to see the latest cute picture or charming insight you have to share, post it during a workday afternoon.

Here’s to productivity! BT

By Tony W. Cartledge