Article by Fred Anderson.
In June 1865, Virginia Baptists were experiencing the aftermath of the Civil War which had ended in April. Many churches had been destroyed. Denominational life was devastated. Few Virginia Baptist families escaped having some loved one maimed or killed or otherwise engaged in the war.
With freedom a sudden reality, the black members of mixed churches began to remove themselves in great numbers and to plant several hundred new churches. The newly-freed people also were struggling to survive. Julia Wilbur of the Rochester (NY) Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society visited Richmond where she observed that the freed blacks “looked like moving bundles of rags” and she distributed 600 garments to the people.
The records of the Baptist General Association of Virginia and the office of the Religious Herald, the denominational newspaper, were destroyed in the evacuation fire of Richmond. The great pride of Virginia Baptists was their school, Richmond College, and it practically was dead: its buildings damaged, its library stolen, its students and faculty scattered, and its endowment worthless. To sustain his family, Robert Ryland, the college’s president, stood on the street and sold milk from his cow.
With the fall of the Confederacy, there was no currency for legal transactions. Pastors had to be paid with provisions “in kind” and when the collection baskets were passed in Sunday schools, Baptist children filled them with eggs which were sold to traders and within the Federal army camps.
Four Mile Creek Church in the countryside to the east of Richmond was an example of the desolation. Robert Ryland appealed in the Religious Herald for aid to “assist the much to be pitied people” whose meeting house had been “wholly destroyed by Federal soldiers.”
He pictured the situation: “Impoverished by the war…they have lost their dwellings, their domestic animals, their farming utensils, their furniture. Many of the families have struggled hard against literal starvation.” They wanted to build “a small and neat house at a cost not exceeding a thousand dollars” but needed assistance.
A clerical club was formed to channel food and other aid to needy Virginia Baptists. A donation came from Bethlehem Church in Essex County which sent “eleven Bushels [of] Corn Meal, two hams of bacon, 3 gallons Molases, one peck of peas.” The church emphasized that “two bushels were given by Colored persons who feel interested in this cause & gave it freely.” As a direct result of meeting the needs of the postwar era, the Virginia Baptist Ministers Relief Fund was established to help widows and orphans.
In the midst of all the wrack and ruin, a remarkable thing occurred. The General Association met at First Baptist Church, Richmond in June 1865 and became “the first body in the whole South to begin the work of religious reconstruction.”
The Association – with an attendance of 114 delegates – passed the following resolution: “That whatever may have been our past views, aims or efforts regarding the issues which have divided the Northern and Southern States, we deem it our duty as patriots and Christians to accept the order of Providence, yield unreserved and faithful obedience to the ‘powers that be’ and to cultivate such a spirit and to preserve such a course of conduct as shall best promote the peace and prosperity of the country.”
The resolution was offered by Jeremiah Bell Jeter, a leader of the General Association from its inception and the post-war owner and editor of the Religious Herald. Virginia Baptists were reaching out their hands for reconciliation.
The General Association went another step. It urged white Baptists “to prosecute the work of instructing and evangelizing the colored people among us, in which we have been for so many years and with such gratifying success engaged.”
The resolution urged that “all lovers of our reunited country [should] counteract every influence tending to alienate the confidence and affection of the colored people from the white community” and to work against anything that might “create jealousies and foster dissentions between the races.” Virginia Baptists were trying to create a new society based upon Christian principles.
The General Association of Virginia moved forward while the Southern Baptist Convention was cautious. As late as 1879, 14 years after the war, the SBC voted down a resolution which was “looking to ‘a more perfect union’” by calling for “an intelligent understanding between Northern and Southern Baptists in regard to some of our denominational benevolences.” The idea of cooperation was too bold for the Southern Baptists who were still “waving the bloody shirt.”
The ultimate healing came with the Jamestown Exposition of 1907. For the 300th anniversary of the first permanent English settlement in the New World, a major exposition was planned for the Hampton Roads area. It was to be an ambitious year-long event with permanent and semi-permanent buildings. It was anticipated that multitudes, indeed several million people, would attend especially from the Eastern United States.
Virginia Baptists took the lead to construct “the Baptist Building” for the exposition and to fill it with exhibits showing the growth and significance of the Baptists of America. The cost of the building was estimated at $10,000 which was a large sum for the times. (In purchasing power alone it would be the equivalent today of over $250,000.) The General Association solicited its various district associations to help fund the building.
The Baptist Building was intended for all Baptists, representative of the various states, North and South, as well as the two major denominational bodies, the Southern and Northern conventions. Its purpose was to highlight the history of the Baptists as well as their role in the social and religious life of the country. It also would foster a fraternal spirit among Baptists who only 40 years earlier had been on opposite sides in a great war.
The exposition designated May 23, 1907, as “Baptist Day.” The Northern Baptists met for their anniversary meeting in Washington and at about the same time the Southern Baptist Convention met in Richmond. The Religious Herald reported that “they will come down the Potomac and James rivers and meet in Hampton Roads, where these historic waters meet, and here recount the struggles for religious liberty they and their fathers have engaged in on this continent from the days of Roger Williams until this good hour.”
The Baptist Building at the Jamestown Exposition was a fitting conclusion to the long saga of reconciliation following the Civil War and Reconstruction; but while cooperation from time to time and from situation to situation has existed, the idea of an eventual union between the various Baptist denominational bodies remained forever after only a dream.