Southerners still argue the cause of the Civil War on the 150th anniversary of its start.
Artifacts on display at the SBHLA Civil War Exhibit
Some call it the War of the Northern Aggression, a battle that pitted patriots defending states’ rights against a tyrannical federal government. Others blame economics — regional tensions between the industrialized North and the rural South.
But at the Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives in downtown Nashville, what the Baptists of that era thought becomes clear.
The cause was slavery. They never even mentioned anything else.
Today, as Tennessee observes the war’s sesquicentennial, Southern Baptist historians hope to remind their fellow Baptists about why the war started and its long-term consequences on their Nashville-based denomination.
Only 3,236 of the 40,648-plus Southern Baptist congregations are predominantly African-American, although the number is growing — there were only 1,907 just over a decade ago. The lingering image of fighting on the wrong side of the Civil War was cited during recent calls to drop the word Southern from the denomination’s name.
Other denominations — such as Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians — split during the war but eventually reunited.
Southern Baptists and other Baptists remain at arm’s length from one another over the conflict: Northerners believed God wanted them to eradicate slavery. Southerners believed God wanted them to own slaves — and that the Yankees had become heretics for trying to free them.
This later point is something that my wife, Traci, writes about in our new book, Onward Southern Soldiers: Religion and the Army of Tennessee in the Civil War. Slavery was the overriding issue that caused the Civil War, and religious institutions in the Confederacy saw slavery as Biblically-ordained, using scripture to justify its practice. The religious hierarchy fiercely debated different interpretations of the scriptures where it concerns slavery, both before, and during the war.
The Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives provided Traci and I with a wealth of archival research material in support of Onward Southern Soldiers, and has done an outstanding job of preserving the historical record of the Southern Baptist denomination, telling the story of how slavery divided a faith and our nation.
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