Secessionist Religion

After decades of regional tensions at the Triennial Conventions, where Baptists gathered to coordinate their church and missions work in the early eighteen hundreds, Baptists in the South brought the issue of the compatibility to slaveholding and Christianity to a head. The lead architect of these efforts was Reverend Basil Manly Sr., president of the University of Alabama, and the former pastor of the prominent First Baptist Church of Charleston, South Carolina. On November 25, 1844, Manly and a group of Alabama Baptists sent a letter to the managing board of the Triennial Convention, declaring, “Our duty at this crisis requires us to demand from the proper authorities… the distinct, explicit avowal that slaveholders are eligible, and entitled, equally with nonslaveholders, to all the privileges and immunities of their several unions.” They received a swift and blunt reply from the board: “If any one should offer himself as a missionary, having slaves, and should insist on retaining them as his property, we could not appoint him.” Leaving no doubt where they stood, they concluded, “One thing is certain: we can never be a party to any arrangement that would imply approbation of slavery.”

Six months later, Manly and other Baptist leaders across the South gathered in Augusta, Georgia, to form their own organization, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Their “Address to the Public” declared that the goal of the new body was to direct “the energies of the entire denomination into one sacred effort, for the propagation of the gospel.” By the time the SBC met in Savannah, Georgia, just one month after Confederate soldiers opened the Civil War with an attack on Fort Sumter, South Carolina, in April 1861, it was clear that its energies were also focused on supporting the Confederacy. Among other official church business that year, the SBC delegates defended the right of Southern secession and replaced references to the United States of America in the denomination’s constitution with the words “the Southern States of North America.”

While the South lost the war, this secessionist religion not only survived but also thrived. Its powerful role as a religious institution that sacralized white supremacy allowed the Southern Baptist Convention to spread its roots during the late nineteenth century to dominate southern culture. And by the mid-twentieth century, the SBC ultimately evolved into the single largest Christian denomination in the country, setting the tone for American Christianity overall and Christianity’s influence in public life.

From “White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity” by Robert P. Jones – Simon & Schuster

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