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churches and slavery -- 5/22/15

Today's selection -- from Rough Country by Robert Wuthnow. Before and during the American Civil War, church denominations split over the issue of slavery. The Methodist Church, the largest American denomination at the time, split in 1844 due to divisions over slavery. Southern Baptists split from northern Baptists in 1845 over the issue of forbidding Southern slave-owners from becoming ordained missionaries. In 1861, Presbyterians in the Southern United States split from the denomination because of disputes over slavery, politics, and theology precipitated by the war. After the war, southern churches struggled as membership declined, but these division had been so bitter that they refused financial help from the north.

"As was true nearly everywhere, the founding of new churches [in Texas] ground to a halt during the Civil War, and many of the more recent congregations that had organized just before the war struggled to stay in existence and were unable to erect buildings for several years after the war. The 1870 U.S. Census, in which the number of churches, like the number of schools, was undoubtedly underreported, showed that the total number of churches in Texas fell to 843, down from 1,035 in 1860; the number of Methodist congregations dropped from 411 to 352; and the number of Baptist congregations declined from 280 to 275. ...

Sudley Church - Bull Run, VA, March 1862

"Although local reports written in hopes of attracting immigrants touted the presence of churches, just as they did the availability of schools, clergy and lay leaders were hindered in organizing congregations in the late 1860s by weak growth in population and a lack of funds from southern denominations. Unlike churches in northern frontier areas, they generally lacked support from northern denominations as well, despite some efforts in this regard. At an 1865 meeting of bishops in Erie, Pennsylvania, for example, the northern Methodist Episcopal Church resolved to work toward unity with its southern counterpart and pledged 'to send such ministry from time to time as shall be necessary to care for the people, irrespective of color, who shall place themselves under our charge, and to provide for such ministers as shall be received by our Annual Conference.' Congregationalists and Presbyterians in the North also passed resolutions to support church building or rebuilding and to send clergy to southern states. These efforts, however, proved meager and indeed were met with misgivings and resistance. Shortly after the meeting in Pennsylvania, for example, southern Methodist bishops met in Columbus, Georgia, and pledged in words that rang of bitterness to resist efforts at reunion with the northern branch. Northern Methodists, the bishops charged, had demeaned the South with invidious language about secession and schism while filling northern pulpits with perverted agitations that were unhealthful to personal piety and productive only of discord. A resolution at a subsequent meeting in Palmyra, Missouri, stated, 'the abolition of slavery has not destroyed all the differences that existed between the two bodies [because] the question upon which the church divided was not whether the institution of slavery was right or wrong, per se, but whether it was a legitimate subject for ecclesiastical legislation.' The resolution further declared the southern bishops' opposition to any 'political tests of church fellowship.'

"At least one northern Methodist pastor had been murdered in Texas for preaching against slavery, and a minister across the border in Arkansas had been lynched in 1861 on suspicion of fomenting a slave rebellion. As in other states, Texas clergy who supported slavery and states' rights generally expressed hope that war could be avoided and then vigorously supported the effort when war began. In a sermon on May 12, 1861, in Marshall, Texas, for example, a pastor voiced hope that Christ would 'save our country from impending ruin' and that brotherly feeling would prevail instead of war. As hostilities began, another pastor warned that a 'war of extermination is to be waged upon us' and counseled against underrating the resources and courage of the enemy. Churches supported the war effort through preaching and in prayer, as well as organizing educational funds for the disabled and children of the deceased. Congregations provided a language in which to express grief and a refuge for those who mourned. 'While our country's cause is bleeding,' a Baptist pastor near Pleasant Grove in Leon County wrote, 'the mantle of widowhood is thrown around many a soldier's wife -- sadness and gloom are manifest around the once peaceable and happy fireside, and disappointed hope pines away after listening in vain for the familiar footsteps, or looking for the lovely face of returning father, brother, husband, son or lover.' The church, he hoped, was helping in a small way to 'cheer the Christian in his pathway from earth to heaven.' Even as the tide turned against the Confederacy, pastors counseled courage in the face of oppression. At a meeting in 1864, for example, Texas Baptists called for 'redoubled energies for the deliverance of our country from Yankee thralldom and oppression.' It was hardly surprising that Texas clergy were less than welcoming toward overtures from northern denominations when the war ended."

author: Robert Wuthnow
title: Rough Country: How Texas Became America's Most Powerful Bible-Belt State
publisher: Princeton University Press
date: Copyright 2014 Princeton University Press
pages: 39-41
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