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Website highlights how Baptists were changed by Civil War


By Bob Allen

ATLANTA (ABP) — The American Civil War led Baptists in the South to forsake their historic commitment to the separation of church and state and embrace Christian nationalism, the head of a Baptist history organization says on a new website.

Bruce Gourley, executive director of the Baptist History and Heritage Society, says the Civil War challenged Baptist convictions that had been hard won by a persecuted minority fighting for religious freedom in Europe and Colonial America.

Defending slavery as an institution ordained by God, Gourley wrote on a new website coinciding with the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, many Baptist leaders in the South became convinced the newly formed Confederate States of America was God’s chosen nation and viewed battlefield service as honoring to God.

“The Christian nationalism embraced by many Baptists in the Confederate States of America watered down their commitment to the separation of church and state and reduced God to the God of the South,” Gourley wrote in an article on American Civil War: In Their Own Words, a website he launched several weeks ago.

Gourley said a similar mistake was made in the late 20th and 21st century when “many embraced the myth of America’s founding as a Christian nation and denied their own faith heritage of separation of church and state.”

Gourley launched the website to make research behind his forthcoming book, Diverging Loyalties: Baptists in Middle Georgia During the American Civil War by Mercer University Press, available to the general public. Though it is a personal project, he is inviting organizations, businesses and individual to become sponsors of the public service by donating $1,000 or more to the Baptist History and Heritage Society.

Gourley said things like news coverage of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War focused on controversies like “secession balls” that polarize whites and blacks and reports linking white supremacist groups with the Tea Party movement prompted him to develop the site out of “a simple desire to tell the historical truth.”

In the decades that followed the Civil War, for example, Gourley said many white southerners, including Baptists, came to deny that slavery was the cause of the war — a denial that remains widespread today. For Baptists of the day, however, it was clear that slavery was a root cause.

When Southern Baptists gathered in 1845 Augusta, Ga., to organize a new convention, Gourley said, much discussion was given to differences over missionary strategy and funding with Baptists in the North. He said the record is clear, however, that Baptists in Augusta believed northern abolitionists were responsible for Baptist division and that Baptists in the South had been patient long enough.

One statement from the meeting expressed outrage that a northern Baptist missionary had “actually remitted money to the United States to aid in the assisting of slaves to ‘run away from their masters.’”

While many, if not most, white Baptists in the South believed that slavery was ordained by God and necessary for the southern economy, Gourley said they were not monolithic on the need for secession.

Privileged white slaveholders had the most to lose, Gourley said, but many southern whites did not own slaves. To rally their support, slaveholders argued that even the poorest whites were superior to blacks and warned that if Lincoln’s campaign succeeded that blacks would take away white jobs.

Even with that, Gourley said, many white southerners were unconvinced but joined the Confederate Army anyway to defend families, fight alongside friends and in hopes of earning a better life.

The Civil War lasted from April 12, 1861, the day that Confederates fired on federal Fort Sumter, S.C., until Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Va., on April 9, 1865. In between, as many as 8,000 hostile engagements took place between Union and Confederate forces and hundreds of major battles. An estimated 620,000 Americans died from battle and disease, nearly as many casualties in all other U.S. wars combined.

A main feature of the American Civil War: In Their Own Words website is a daily snippet of history about events that occurred on the same day 150 years ago.

This article, written by Bob Allen, senior writer for the Associated Baptist Press, appeared at the www.abpnews.com on Jan. 10, 2011.

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