Volume 47 - Issue 1

Southern Yankees: Southern Baptist Clergy in the Antebellum North (1812–1861)

By Obbie Tyler Todd


Baptists provide an excellent window into the American identity during the antebellum period. For this reason, no group illustrates the unity and disunity of the infant nation more than the Baptist ministers who left their homes in the South to fill pulpits in the North. The experiences of these “Southern Yankees” represent a denomination in turmoil and a nation on the verge of political, social, and theological crisis. This article will examine the variety of ways in which Southern Baptists transcended sectional divides in the antebellum period as well as the reasons that these pastorates either failed or were fraught with controversy due to slavery.

For decades, scholars have analyzed the meteoric rise of Baptists into nineteenth-century American culture. From the growth of the denomination during the Second Great Awakening to the wealth and influence of businessman John D. Rockefeller, the Baptist story has become an essential piece in American religious and historical studies.1 In fact, one could argue that the preservation of the nation itself owed much to the prosperity of Baptists during this period. Both Henry Clay and Abraham Lincoln had Baptist fathers from Virginia whose Jeffersonian values laid the foundation for their sons’ careers. Thomas Lincoln, a Calvinistic Baptist, traveled west to Kentucky and then Indiana and then Illinois seeking to carve out a piece of the American frontier for his family. Decades later, Abraham recorded that his father left the South “partly on account of slavery, but chiefly on account of the difficulty of land titles in Kentucky.”2

Henry Clay, Lincoln’s political hero, was the son of a Baptist minister who farmed tobacco. John Clay of Hanover County, Virginia pastored Chickahominy Church and was “a plain, but sincere and devout man of God.”3 However, as James C. Klotter has shown, the somewhat stereotypical image of Clay’s father as a lowly, indigent Baptist is not grounded in historical fact. Klotter explains,

In contrast to the image of Rev. John Clay as a poverty-stricken minister of the Old Dominion, in truth Henry’s father came from a distinguished family that had been in Virginia almost from the first English settlement. “Sir John,” as he was called by contemporaries, held sizable landholdings of over 450 acres and owned at least twenty slaves. Most of that estate went to his widow, leaving the family in a comfortable situation.”4

Indeed, the lives of “The Great Compromiser” and “The Great Emancipator,” and thus the fate of the infant nation, were tied to the fortunes of Baptists.

Conversely, just as Baptists played a role in shaping the country, they also helped sever it. C. C. Goen has examined how the denominational fissures among Methodists and Baptists foreshadowed the Civil War.5 In many ways, the Baptist denomination became a reflection of the peaks and valleys of the American people in the 1800s. Baptists thus provide an excellent window into the national identity during the antebellum period. For this reason, no group illustrates the unity and disunity of the nation more than the ministers who left their homes in the South to fill pulpits in the North. By 1814, Baptists had become a truly national denomination with the birth of the Triennial Convention, and this, along with the optimism of the nation at large, produced a spirit of fellowship between Northern and Southern Baptists that brought many Northern churches to extend calls to Southern clergymen. However, the challenges faced by the men I call “Southern Yankees” represent a denomination in turmoil and a nation on the verge of political, social, and theological crisis.6

It is the aim of this article to examine the variety of ways in which Southern Baptists transcended sectional divides in the antebellum period as well as the different reasons that these pastorates either failed or were fraught with controversy due to the issue of slavery.7 While historians have diagnosed the 1845 split of the Triennial Convention and the participation of Baptists in the War itself, less understood is the question of how Southern pastors in the Antebellum North transitioned into their new churches, and, in turn, how their churches responded to their Southern pastors. Their experiences not only prefigured the looming Civil War, but also demonstrate just how much Northern and Southern Baptists had in common during this period as well—including beliefs about race. E. Brooks Holifield has rightly cautioned historians, “To speak of the mindlessness of antebellum Southern religion is to repeat a cliché.”8 Perhaps nothing exposes the fallacy of this cliche more than the willingness of Northerners to call Southern theologians to their churches. By examining the pastors who left the confines of their Southern world in order to serve congregations in the lower North and Middle Atlantic states, Christians today will discover a group of sojourning ministers whose successes and failures can teach us a great deal about ministry in a divided nation.

1. Schism in Philadelphia (1812–1824)

The foundation for Northern-Southern relations between Baptists was laid—and leveled—over missions. Long before Southern Baptists departed the Triennial Convention in 1845 over the rights of missionaries to own slaves, it was in fact a pro-slavery Baptist from the South who served as its inaugural president in 1814: Richard Furman.9 Although a Northerner by birth, Furman was raised in the Carolina upcountry and pastored the Southern Baptist “mother church” in Charleston where he fit nicely into its genteel, Federalist culture. So revered was the pastor of First Baptist Church that William B. Johnson later invoked the “sainted Furman” both when he was voted the fourth president of the Triennial Convention in 1841 and after becoming the first president of the Southern Baptist Convention four years later.10 The name of Richard Furman carried weight before and after his death. Therefore, quite naturally, when Baptists convened the very first nationwide assembly in their history, Furman was unanimously elected its President (both in 1814 and 1817) alongside Vice President Thomas Baldwin of Second Baptist Church of Boston. Just as George Washington had secured Southern interests in the executive branch in the nation’s capital decades earlier, Baptists in the South were well represented in 1814. And the location of the Triennial Convention, like the newly-constituted government in 1787, was likewise in Philadelphia, a city that came to symbolize both the unity of the nation and the Baptist denomination.

In Philadelphia, Baptists had long boasted a rich history and a willingness to cross geographical and cultural boundaries. For instance, Richard Furman’s predecessor at First Baptist Church, Oliver Hart, was licensed to preach by the Philadelphia Association in 1746. Three years later, after a pastoral request from Charleston, the Philadelphia Baptists sent Hart to South Carolina to fill the pulpit.11 In 1772–1773, the Association sent David Jones westward in one of the earliest Baptist missionary endeavors to the Native Americans.12 A friendly, albeit confessional, spirit had long indwelled the Baptists of Philadelphia. Although a Northern city, as attested by its favorite son, Benjamin Franklin, Philadelphia was culturally and religiously distinct from the more Puritanical New England. As a result, it proved more receptive to Southern pastors in its Baptist churches.

The first two Baptists from the South to pastor large churches in large Northern cities immediately encountered trouble—with one another. After receiving a Doctor of Divinity from Princeton in 1801, the erudite William Staughton was called to First Baptist Church of Philadelphia in 1805. Staughton was hardly a Southerner, having been a founding member of the Baptist Missionary Society in Kettering, England with Andrew Fuller in 1792. But one year later, at the request of none other than Richard Furman, the Englishman had emigrated to South Carolina to pastor the church at Georgetown for approximately two years.13 His successor at First Baptist Church of Philadelphia, on the other hand, carried an impressive list of Southern credentials. Born in Virginia, Henry Holcombe moved to South Carolina with his family as a small child and eventually pastored several churches in both South Carolina and Georgia. While pastoring Pipe Creek Baptist Church in May 1788, the former cavalryman during the Revolutionary War was one of seven members chosen to represent St. Peter’s parish in the South Carolina ratifying convention. Like most of the low country delegates, and foreshadowing a political and religious tendency toward national unity, he voted in favor of ratification. From the beginning, it seems, Holcombe was a Southerner who looked beyond the South. As John B. Boles concludes, “Receptive to new ideas, broadly humanitarian, forward looking, Henry Holcombe represented a Baptist minister from the South who shared many of the reform impulses of the American Enlightenment…. In an age when most Southern ministers were completely other-worldly and concerned only with individual salvation, Holcombe stood out vividly. He thus earned for himself a pre-eminent position among Baptist reformers of the Age of Jefferson.”14

Like most Southern pastors who took Northern pulpits, Holcombe dedicated himself to the so-called “benevolent empire” that had steadily arisen in the new republic along with various other moral and social causes.15 For example, after founding the Savannah River Baptist Association in 1802, he helped reform the Georgia penal code and secured the construction of a new state penitentiary. Once in Philadelphia, Holcombe’s wife filled an important position in the “Female Hospitable Society for the Relief and Employment of the Poor,” and “the Baptist Education Society of the Middle States” was founded in the church.16 As the wealthiest and most prestigious church in the United States, and in the nation’s second largest city, First Baptist Church of Philadelphia presented an opportunity for ambitious Southern ministers to cast a wide net of influence that would have otherwise been impossible in the more rural South. The pastor from Savannah initially had great reluctance about moving his family north, also declining an offer from Boston. But he received a letter from Dr. William Rogers, a Baptist professor at the University of Pennsylvania who was familiar with his published sermons, convincing him to at least visit Philadelphia.17 After some deliberation, Holcombe resolved to make the two-week-long journey, but he decided that he would only accept an offer from the church if the call was unanimous. Nearing the age of fifty, Holcombe would only leave his beloved South with the full assurance of Baptist fellowship. He would receive it. After his first trial sermon on the last Sunday in September of 1811, Holcombe eventually received a unanimous vote. Holcombe also discovered a city teeming with Christian causes. When Holcombe arrived in Philadelphia, he was “agreeably surprised,” taking note of the various institutions in the city, including orphanages, hospitals, and a university.18

His introduction to William Staughton, however, had all the trappings of an old-fashioned Southern duel. Years later, in a series of published letters addressed to Staughton by an anonymous figure named “Plain Truth,” the author, suspected by many as Holcombe, accused Staughton of treating the newcomer as an enemy: “Assuming a lofty air, you addressed your astonished successor, as follows:—‘Are you come to Philadelphia, for peace or war?’ Before you gave him time to answer this inflammatory question, you proceeded in a tone and attitude of defiance, ‘If you are come for war, sir, I am ready for you.’” In the months leading up to the War of 1812, an English Baptist and an American Baptist were on a collision course in the city of brotherly love. According to “Plain Truth,” when Staughton insisted that the two exchange pulpits, Holcombe replied that he could not agree upon such an arrangement without first consulting his friends. This apparently did not satisfy his predecessor, who interpreted his response as a “declaration of war.”19 While Holcombe denied that he was indeed the author known as “Plain Truth,” he also denied, quite disingenuously, that the assertions were “inconsistent” with the truth, suggesting that the information had come from Holcombe himself. The ensuing fracas between Staughton and Holcombe played itself out on the largest stage in American Baptist life: the Triennial Convention.

While the exact source of the conflict between Staughton and Holcombe, and between Holcombe and the Philadelphia Association, is nevertheless difficult to determine, the clash of these Baptist titans most likely stemmed from the one cause that both men promoted throughout their lives: missions. In 1814, when Dr. Staughton sought to ensure that the board of commissioners (of which Holcombe was Vice President) give funds to a widow named Mrs. White to serve as a missionary in India, Holcombe opposed these efforts. Holcombe also insisted that Luther Rice be sent back to India, something that was not appreciated by Rice or those in his circle, including Staughton.20 Afterward, Holcombe was silently removed from the Vice Presidency of the Board, effectively beginning the public dispute between the two Baptist leaders. To make matters worse, the conflict entered the Philadelphia Association when Holcombe opposed the First African Baptist Church’s offering communion to a person who had been excluded from fellowship by other churches for moral failings. After Holcombe was not granted a formal protest by the Association, a faction within the Association tried to force First Baptist Church to accept a minister of the Association’s choice. Holcombe then criticized an unnamed Baptist minister for befriending the individual who was not barred from fellowship, presumably Dr. Staughton.21 As a result of this Baptist imbroglio, Holcombe’s church seceded from the Philadelphia Association.

When Holcombe published The Whole Truth, Relative to the Controversy Betwixt the American Baptists (1820) in order to justify his actions and to set the record straight on the controversy, he included an extract of an 1816 letter to “Thomas Gillison, Esquire, S.C,” indicating that Holcombe’s ties to South Carolina were still strong just a few years after arriving in Philadelphia. In the letter, he relayed his account of events involving White, Rice, and the Convention. As the “negro question” had already begun to divide the nation (albeit not with the intensity that it would by the 1830s), what is most revealing about the church’s withdrawal—and Holcombe’s own prejudices—is that FBC Philadelphia protested the actions of the First African Baptist Church of Philadelphia. In the 1818 statement by the church explaining its departure from the Association, the racist beliefs of its leaders became evident: “But our Association has condescended to notice a query from the society, which, in contradiction to the authority of the State, they call, ‘The First African Baptist Church of Philadelphia.’ Now, gentle reader, what query, think you, could these sons of Ham, in obscure darkness, propound to our learned Association?” Not only did Holcombe’s church object to the name of the black congregation, whom they alleged were in “obscure darkness,” but they also advocated a biblical interpretation of race that James P. Byrd has called “one of the most racist and most prominent defenses of slavery long before the Civil War.”22 By labeling blacks “sons of Ham,” First Baptist Church of Philadelphia was advancing a paternalistic idea that Africans were the descendants of Ham, the son of Noah, who in Genesis 9 had been cursed by his father for seeing him naked, dooming Ham and his descendants to servitude.

In order to clarify these comments, a footnote was added at the bottom of the page: “The attentive reader will observe, that this query respects only one small society of Ham’s sons—who, as such, are on equal grounds with those of Japheth. In many of their kindred, according to the flesh, we joyfully recognize the enlightened, and precious sons and daughters of Zion.”23 Whether this footnote did anything to reduce the suspicion of racism on the part of the white church is uncertain. If Holcombe had wished to avoid the impression that the fracas with the Association was racially motivated, why include the epithet “sons of Ham”? (All Baptists would have affirmed humanity’s common descent from Adam.) Clearly, by the addition of the footnote, Holcombe’s church was sensitive to the fact that the object of their complaint was a black church and that the appeal to Genesis 9 was somewhat controversial.24 After all, by the 1790s, Philadelphia had become a capital of free black life and home to men such as Richard Allen, bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.25 While in Savannah, Holcombe had worked to promote the growth of black churches and even participated in the ordination of two black preachers.26 Nevertheless, the ethnocentric language and logic of the comments suggest that, although the ultimate cause of the exit from the Association had origins beyond the issue of race, Holcombe’s beliefs about Africans were consonant with the views of his congregation and that these beliefs contributed to the break with the Association.27 First Baptist Church of Philadelphia would ultimately stand by its controversial pastor. However, as slavery exacerbated the divide between North and South, the next pastor at First Baptist Church would not stand by his congregation.

2. A Southern Unionist in Philadelphia (1826–1837)

If there were any doubts that First Baptist Church of Philadelphia held similar social views to their brethren to the South, they were laid to rest when the congregation called yet another Southern minister after Holcombe. After strife with local churches, turmoil with some disaffected deacons who eventually left the church, and an outspoken pacifism that did not always match the Jacksonian tastes of his congregation, Holcombe enjoyed a surprisingly amicable relationship with his congregation, or at least with those who intended to stay.28 The trust between pastor and people was apparently so strong that when the ailing Holcombe recommended William Theophilus Brantly as his successor, the congregation listened. Holcombe knew Brantly well from his days as a pastor in Georgia. The two had briefly served in the Savannah River Association together and Holcombe had even participated in Brantly’s ordination in 1809 in Augusta, Georgia, the future site of the first Southern Baptist Convention in 1845. Especially telling of Holcombe’s Southern allegiances and his poor relations with other Baptists in the region is the fact that, after serving twelve years in the North, Holcombe recommended a pastor from the South as his replacement. Although Holcombe had generated many enemies during his time in Philadelphia, his pastoral connections in the South were still active.

Indeed, W. T. Brantly’s network in the South was also active. Born in North Carolina, Brantly eventually pastored churches in both South Carolina and Georgia. Serving both as pastor of the Baptist church in Beaufort, South Carolina as well as president of Beaufort College for several years, Brantly exercised influence over a host of pastors who would become founders of the Southern Baptist Convention, including Basil Manly Sr. and Richard Fuller. Upon moving to Augusta in 1819, Brantly ran the local Richmond Academy, grew the Baptist church in size, and helped establish the Georgia Baptist Convention. In the early part of his life, Brantly encountered Northerners who ministered in the South, exposing him to an array of Baptists from various parts of the country. For example, at South Carolina College, Brantly studied under Jonathan Maxcy, a New Englander who had served as president of colleges in both Rhode Island and New York.29 In Georgia, he came across Baptist pioneers like Adiel Sherwood, who had been educated in Massachusetts at Andover Seminary, the nation’s very first graduate school.30 In some sense, the nation was getting larger and smaller at the very same time. At the national level, this was the era of “internal improvements,” as Southern politicians like Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun sought to connect the growing country with roads, rails, and canals.31 In the church, approximately the same time that Southerners were supplying Northern pulpits, many Northerners were moving to the South to educate and evangelize Southerners. Less than a year before Brantly arrived in Philadelphia, another Southerner, John L. Dagg, replaced William Staughton at nearby Fifth Street Baptist Church. Staughton had moved to the South once again to become the inaugural president of Columbian College in Washington D.C. In 1829, he accepted the presidency of Georgetown College in Kentucky but died on the westward journey. Baptists were crisscrossing the entire republic, it seemed.

Like Holcombe, Brantly maintained close relations with the Baptists of the Charleston Association, particularly with Richard Furman. Brantly even delivered a eulogy of Furman after his death in 1825, prior to Brantly’s move to Philadelphia. “As an experimental Christian,” Brantly boasted of his fallen hero, “Dr. Furman stood pre-eminent.” In the sermon, Brantly recounted Furman’s numerous achievements, including his pro-slavery treatise on behalf of the newly formed South Carolina Baptist Convention. In the wake of Denmark Vesey’s failed slave revolt plot, Exposition of the Views of the Baptists, Relative to the Coloured Population in the United States in a Communication to the Governor of South-Carolina (1823) was an attempt to suppress potential rebellion, restore public order, and promote white supremacy by defending the institution of slavery on biblical grounds.32 Furman’s logical arguments laid the groundwork for future Southern Baptists like Brantly who would defend slavery as more than a way of life, but as a matter of Christian principle. Signaling his own views on the subject, Brantly praised Furman’s 1823 address to the Governor:

In a recent period of the history of this city, when a providential disclosure brought to light a plot, which in its execution would have exhibited one of the most sanguinary scenes in the annals of this country, Dr. Furman maintained the part of a Christian citizen. As the President of the Baptist Convention in this State, he prepared an address to be delivered to the Governor, soliciting the appointment of an early day to be observed in thanksgiving, for the wonderful preservation of the city from so horrid a conspiracy. This address is the obvious production of a mind not less influenced by the rational love of your municipal arrangements, than by the spirit of becoming gratitude to the Author of all mercies. And were it not foreign to our design, we should notice the uncommon success and ability with which he conducted the argument in favour of a Public Thanksgiving, which many respectable citizens had thought to be an imprudent measure.33

By Brantly’s estimation, Furman was not so much defending the right of whites to enslave blacks as he was celebrating an averted catastrophe and preventing future bloodshed. Furman was exercising Christian citizenship, not cruelty. What “many respectable citizens” saw as a defense of a barbaric practice, Brantly viewed as an admirable attempt to promote the general welfare. Unsurprisingly, after visiting Philadelphia in late 1824, Brantly received a unanimous vote from First Baptist Church to become its pastor. After changing his mind multiple times due to the fact that FBC was “not yet a united people,” and after the church ostensibly resolved its diaconal dispute, he eventually accepted the call and began his charge in 1826.34 Like his Southern predecessor, Brantly’s doubts were likewise overcome by the prospect of an urban ministry and its “large sphere of usefulness.”35

If Henry Holcombe’s pastorate at FBC was defined by schism, W. T. Brantly’s was characterized by generally irenic relations. John Dagg testified that Brantly was indeed a “peacemaker,” convening monthly prayer meetings between ministers and promoting causes like Sunday School Unions that partnered Baptist churches.36 Having witnessed the revivals of the Second Great Awakening in the South, Brantly sought to replicate these meetings in the North. He also assumed the editorship of The Columbian Star between 1827 and 1833 and quickly expanded the paper’s coverage, including to the South. (He also changed its name to Columbian Star and Christian Index.) Brantly went so far as to describe the Index as a “southern paper,” believing that a southern locus might increase circulation.37 On January 1, 1831, in an article entitled “Objects of Attention,” Brantly referred to the “great body of Baptist brethren” as “UNIONISTS,” setting forth his vision of an undivided denomination despite the vicissitudes of the country.38 However, later that year, Brantly reached out to Jesse Mercer about moving the periodical to Georgia, demonstrating that Brantly’s Southern roots were still deep. By 1833, with rising national tensions over slavery, the paper was eventually moved out of Philadelphia to Washington, Georgia. Brantly was not far behind.

As early as 1828, due to the ongoing feud with the Association and an unsuccessful attempt to establish his own, Brantly had second thoughts about his post. And the South was calling. After he was offered a position as principal and chief instructor of Furman Academy and Theological Institution in Greenville, South Carolina, First Baptist Church was forced to plead for their pastor to stay. The ensuing letter from the church reveals the way that many Baptists in the North viewed the early nineteenth century South. In addition to highlighting Brantly’s qualifications as a leader, the committee stressed the importance of the ministry in the city. Philadelphia presented a “much larger field” than South Carolina, appealing to Brantly’s sense of duty and his desire for a wider scope of ministerial influence. In comparison to Baptists in the South, Pennsylvania also had the greater need. In Philadelphia, Brantly could be “most useful” in the “general interests of the Redeemer’s kingdom.”39 With more urgency and greater potential in his current field, how could Brantly walk away from his Northern post? The members of FBC were by no means the first Baptists to perceive a spiritual disparity between North and South in the early republic. In The Rights of Conscience Inalienable (1791), Baptist John Leland, another Southern Yankee, acknowledged, “let me add that, in the southern states, where there has been the greatest freedom from religious oppression, where liberty of conscience is entirely enjoyed, there has been the greatest revival of religion; which is another proof that true religion can, and will prevail best, where it is left entirely to Christ.”40 For the saints at First Baptist Church, the spiritual needs of Philadelphia over those of the South demanded that Brantly remain as pastor. He did so for another nine years, but not without an abiding sympathy for the South.

By late 1837, just before returning to the South to become the pastor of First Baptist Church of Charleston, Richard Furman’s former pulpit, it appeared that Brantly had already made up his mind on the seemingly immutable differences between Northerners and Southerners. Despite investing so much of his life and labors into the people of Philadelphia in the name of one Baptist church, he no longer had the same hope of a united republic that he did just a few years earlier. From Philadelphia, in a letter written on November 14, “To the Patrons of the Southern Watchman,” Brantly pronounced,

The Baptists of the South, though agreeing in fundamental principles with those of the North, are now in many important respects a distinct and separate people. On some very exciting questions they are becoming more and more distant from each other. And while I heartily deprecate all uncharitableness, or even rivalship among brethren, I cannot fail to perceive that independent action on the part of those who have their domestic institutions to protect and vindicate in conformity with the word of God, is the course of sound wisdom.41

As the nation divided over slavery, Brantly saw the writing on the Baptist wall. In one of the most prescient observations by a Baptist in the antebellum period, the “independent action” that Brantly predicted would prove to be the beginnings of denominational schism and eventual Civil War. After serving Pennsylvania Baptists for eleven years and editing a denominational newspaper for six, perhaps no other Baptist had a better vantage point of the looming crisis than Brantly, the Southerner who could no longer reconcile his pro-slavery views with his “Unionist” beliefs. He had arrived in the city as a hopeful peacemaker. But he was leaving with a little less optimism and a little more homesickness. John Dagg, who encountered his own trials at Fifth Baptist Church stemming from First Baptist’s split with the Association, eventually left Philadelphia in 1836 due to a failing voice. While Dagg’s tenure was not riddled with discord to the degree of Brantly, he too returned to the South, spending the next eight years in Tuscaloosa, Alabama as the president of the Alabama Female Athenaeum before attending the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845.42 That Dagg’s church initially declined his resignation and that Brantly’s church crafted a very formal plea for him to remain in Philadelphia suggest that relations between Baptists in the North and the South in the late 1830s had not yet begun to descend into the chasm of 1845. However, not surprisingly, the events in Augusta would have a dramatic effect upon the remaining Southern ministers in the North, including Brantly’s son.

3. “The Most Dangerous Rebel in Maryland” (1846–1861)

As early as 1802, Baptist John Leland perceived an odd resemblance between the Northern and Southern people in the United States. “As personal slavery exists chiefly in the southern states,” he averred, “so religious slavery abounds exclusively in three or four of the New England states.”43 According to Leland, each section of the country faced its own unique form of bondage. However, by 1833, when Massachusetts finally disestablished the Congregationalist church, Leland’s parallel no longer described the American predicament. Even though Baptists had won their hard-fought religious liberty in the North, their black brothers and sisters were still in chains in the South. Although the Southern Baptist Convention forged a moral dividing line between pro-slavery and anti-slavery Baptists, it did not, strictly speaking, create a geographical boundary. Ironically enough, not every pastor in the Southern Baptist Convention resided in the South. While the issue of slavery had been definitively settled (at least in theory) between the two sides, the confusion had only begun for Southern Baptist pastors serving churches in the antebellum North. For ministers in Philadelphia and Baltimore, so-called “hot spots of black congregationalism,” the tension between one’s denomination and one’s congregation was felt most poignantly.44 They also experienced the national crisis in a way that perhaps no other group of people did in the years leading up to the war.

In 1837, William T. Brantly had left Philadelphia to return to the South. Nearly a quarter of a century later, his son, William T. Brantly Jr., did as well. However, by 1861, the nation was already on war footing. Therefore, his departure was not so much a professional decision as it was an exodus from the land of the enemy. Before leaving his pastorate at First Baptist Church of Philadelphia to accept a call from Atlanta’s Second Baptist Church in the early months of the war, Brantly Jr. delivered a Thanksgiving sermon in 1860 entitled Our National Troubles. In the sermon, Brantly identified various sources of the conflict, including “national idolatry.” Americans had worshipped the United States instead of the living God. “We have eulogized the Union until we have begun to think that it was some deity worthy of our homage,” he warned. Brantly Jr. was no Unionist. In fact, his support for the Confederacy was inextricable with his own faith in God, and he was willing to sunder the Union itself in order to defend his beliefs about slavery. “May not God,” he beseeched, “in this adversity be rebuking us just at that point where he has seen that we have been unduly proud and boastful?”45 God was disciplining America for its sins. However, Brantly offered more than admonishment. As the nation approached the precipice of war, Brantly believed that, as a Southerner who ministered in the North, he could contribute a unique insight into the true problems of the nation. He recounted,

When residing in Athens, Georgia, I saw a statement in the northern papers, that a box containing copies of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, destined for Alabama, had been seized while passing through Athens, and burned in the public streets. The story was a gross fabrication, but it was extensively circulated in the Northern states as an illustration of the barbarism of slavery. Those of you who are acquainted with the railroad communications of the country know that Athens is a terminus of a railroad, and that no goods intended for Alabama are ever sent through that place. At the very time when this burning was alleged to have occurred, the book was on sale in Athens, and was freely purchased and discussed by some of its citizens. They agreed that with some things that were true, it contained also much that was false. And now living at the North, I sometimes see in the Southern newspapers, reports in circulation of transactions here quite as fabulous as the story to which I have now referred. The result is just what might have been expected from such distortions and misrepresentations. How could it be otherwise?46

Although Brantly’s allegiance lied with the South, his status as a Southern Yankee granted him access into both the Northern and Southern worlds. According to Brantly, there was plenty of blame to go around on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. Misinformation and rumormongering had become normalized in American discourse. Nevertheless, while Brantly was able to detect “distortions and misrepresentations” in Southern newspapers, he still showed his Southern colors by insisting that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (a fictional work) contained “much that was false.” As a defender of slavery, Brantly could not stomach Stowe’s raw depiction of slave-owners and slave-owning.47 Southern Yankees had a prime vantage point of the conflict, but they were still Southerners at heart. Brantly was not the only Baptist to leave Philadelphia for the South at the beginning of the war. Rev. A. T. Spalding, pastor of Berean Baptist Church, moved to a new congregation in Selma, Alabama.

Between 1845 and 1861, these Northern Southern Baptists bore the full cultural, political, and religious brunt of the nation’s turmoil, and no Baptist experienced the agony and friction of the separation more than Baltimore pastor Richard Fuller. Less than a year after the inaugural Southern Baptist Convention in Augusta, in which he preached the Sunday sermon and chaired the committee that authored the preamble, Fuller then accepted a call to Seventh Baptist Church in a Northern city already plagued with racial tension. But Fuller did not shy away from the task before him. From the beginning, he expressed a desire to minister in a city where moral and social reform were possible. In a letter to the church on February 4, 1846, he wrote, “I love Baltimore: I love you. I confess, too, that, if I should move, it would be just into a latitude like yours, as I wish to look at slavery and other agitating topics with a calm and impartial judgment, and see what is our duty to our poor, distracted country. But I cannot come to Baltimore to do nothing.”48

By the time Fuller began his ministry in Baltimore, he was fairly accomplished and well-known, at least among Southern Baptists. As a child growing up in the aristocratic society of Beaufort, South Carolina, he had been schooled by none other than William T. Brantly (although Fuller was raised Episcopalian). Fuller’s father, Thomas, was wealthy enough to send his son to Harvard. Upon graduating in 1824, Richard came home to Beaufort where he practiced law, and after converting to the Baptist faith in the winter of 1831–1832, eventually became pastor at Beaufort. At First Baptist Church, he converted a young James P. Boyce, the inaugural president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (est. 1859). On one hand, his sermon at the 1841 Triennial Convention, entitled On the Cross, earned him national recognition and attracted the attention of Seventh Baptist in Baltimore.49 On the other hand, Fuller’s literary debates with Baptist Francis Wayland over the issue of slavery in the 1840s, although one of the most civilized exchanges in American history on the subject, gained him a reputation as a pro-slavery theologian.50 Due to Northern abolitionist criticism on one side and the accusation by many Southerners that he was “too moderate” on the other, Fuller was averse to further conflict on the slavery issue when he arrived in Baltimore.51 But his troubles had just begun.

Pastoring in a state where different views about slavery were often found in the very same church, Fuller was hesitant to preach political sermons or to speak publicly on the slavery issue. As a result, he was initially critical of the war, envisioning border states like Maryland as mediators in the conflict.52 As a Southern Baptist in a Northern state, Fuller saw himself as a peacemaker. However, when the Southern Baptist Convention issued the so-called “Savannah Resolutions” in 1861 declaring its support for the Confederacy, Fuller found himself stuck between a rock and a political hard place. Not only had Fuller, a citizen of Maryland, supported a treasonous measure which directly violated the union of states, but he was even a member of the committee which introduced the Resolutions! That Fuller was pledging his allegiance to the United States while apparently seeking to undermine the nation at the same time did not go unnoticed by the Maryland public. Was the Baltimore pastor a secessionist or a unionist? Fuller’s efforts at peacemaking were interpreted by local Baltimore newspapers as nothing more than subterfuge. Due to his involvement in the “Savannah Resolutions,” The New York Tribune even dubbed Fuller “the most dangerous rebel in Maryland.”53 While Fuller’s authorship of the Resolutions was later disclaimed by fellow Southern Baptists, it did little to abate the immense public pressure that Fuller faced as a Southern Yankee during wartime. Ironically enough, anti-slavery Baptists like James M. Pendleton were fleeing the South to renounce the Confederacy while pro-slavery Baptists like Fuller remained in the North and supported it. In yet another ironic twist, Pendleton was denied a call in Lebanon, Ohio because of his opposition to slavery while Fuller was received into a Northern congregation despite his defense of slavery.54 The local autonomy of Baptist churches made for a diverse denomination.

As Baptists often demonstrated, the social and political contours of the union in the antebellum period were not always defined by simple geographical boundaries. Like the so-called “Peace Democrats” or “Copperheads” in the political sphere, Southern Yankees help to illuminate these outliers in the religious realm. As James M. McPherson has shown, the “Butternut” region of southern Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois was composed largely of Baptist churches, many of which were filled with transplants from the upper South. According to McPherson, “They remained rural, southern, and localist in their orientation, hostile toward ‘Yankees’ of New England heritage who settled the northern portions of these states made accessible by the Erie Canal after 1825.”55 From Maryland to Pennsylvania to the Old Northwest, Southern Yankees could be found virtually everywhere in the lower North, as these regions were sympathetic with Southern politics and religion. Indeed, after the war, W. T. Brantly Jr. moved to Baltimore, where he replaced Richard Fuller at Seventh Baptist, ministering there until his death. In the case of Fuller, his desire for unity can be seen most vividly in his 1865 sermon A City or House Divided Against Itself, but he never left the Southern Baptist Convention.56 In fact, for the first half of the war, Fuller served as its president.57 From his arrival in Baltimore in 1846 to his death in 1876, Fuller was a man between two worlds. In some sense, these Southern Yankees were citizens of the North and the South, and yet belonged to neither.

4. Conclusion

In the twenty-first century, as the United States continues to wrestle with its past and Southern Baptists attempt to face honestly the origins of their denomination, the Southern Yankees of the antebellum period are a vivid reminder that the Southern Baptist Convention has never been a purely “Southern” denomination nor were its founders necessarily agreed upon the best way to engage brethren with whom they disagreed on social issues. In addition to the explosive question of race, issues like urbanization and poverty and local associations were just as divisive two centuries ago as they are today. Yet, despite the barbarity of so many Baptists in defending and even practicing human enslavement, the buildup to 1861 was not without those who at least attempted to bring peace between two warring factions. Indeed, the history of the Baptist denomination represents the agonizing story of nineteenth-century America, and to examine the paradoxical lives of the Southern Yankees is to face, rather painfully, the best and the worst of redeemed humanity.

[1] For the latest example of Baptists shaping the fate of America, see Darren Dochuk, Anointed with Oil: How Christianity and Crude Made Modern America (New York: Basic Books, 2019).

[2] In Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume 1 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), 21.

[3] H. A. Tupper, The First Century of The First Baptist Church of Richmond, Virginia 1780–1880 (Richmond: Carlton McCarthy, 1880), 55–56.

[4] James C. Klotter, Henry Clay: The Man Who Would Be President (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 2–3.

[5] C. C. Goen, Broken Churches, Broken Nation: Denominational Schisms and the Coming of the Civil War (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1985), 5.

[6] See Mark A. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 1.

[7] In this article, I do not use “Southern Baptist” to refer to a member of the Southern Baptist Convention in the post-1845 sense. Instead, it will simply denote a Baptist who is from the South or was raised in the South.

[8] E. Brooks Holifield, The Gentlemen Theologians: American Theology in Southern Culture 1795–1860 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1978), 4.

[9] For some works that examine the 1845 split, see Robert G. Gardner, A Decade of Debate and Division: Georgia Baptists and the Formation of the Southern Baptist Convention (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1995); William Wright Barnes, The Southern Baptist Convention, 1845–1953 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1954); H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1987), 382–463; Bill J. Leonard, God’s Last and Only Hope: The Fragmentation of the Southern Baptist Convention (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 17–19; Jesse H. Fletcher, The Southern Baptist Convention: A Sesquicentennial History (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1994), 43–72; Thomas S. Kidd and Barry Hankins, Baptists in America: A History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 127–29, 131.

[10] In 1841, when William B. Johnson was welcomed to the floor after being voted the fourth president of the Triennial Convention, he began his acceptance speech by paying homage to “the sainted Furman,” the man he’d admired since childhood (Hortense C. Woodson, Giant in the Land: The Life of William B. Johnson [Springfield, MO: Particular Baptist Press, 2005], 98).

[11] For a treatment of Oliver Hart, see Eric C. Smith, Oliver Hart and the Rise of Baptist America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020).

[12] See David Jones, A Journal of Two Visits Made to Some Nations of Indians on the West Side of the River Ohio, in the Years 1772, 1773 (Burlington, NJ: Isaac Collins, 1774).

[13] Samuel W. Lynd, Memoir of the Rev. William Staughton, D. D. (Boston: Lincoln, Edmands, & Co., 1834), 27.

[14] John B. Boles, “Henry Holcombe: A Southern Baptist Reformer in the Age of Jefferson,” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 54 (1970): 403.

[15] For an examination of evangelical reform in the antebellum period, see Leo P. Hirrel, Children of Wrath: New School Calvinism and Antebellum Reform (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1998).

[16] Boles, “Henry Holcombe,” 396.

[17] One of these sermons was A Sermon, Containing a Brief Illustration and Defence of the Doctrines Commonly Called Calvinistic (Charleston: Markland & M’Iver, 1793).

[18] Boles, “Henry Holcombe,” 395.

[19] Plain Truth, “Letter II,” in Henry Holcombe, The Whole Truth, Relative to the Controversy Betwixt the American Baptists (Philadelphia: J. H. Cunningham, 1820), 20.

[20] Luther Rice established Columbian College in Washington DC in 1821 with the help of William Staughton, who served as its first president.

[21] Boles, “Henry Holcombe,” 397.

[22] James P. Byrd, A Holy Baptism of Fire and Blood: The Bible and the American Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), 193.

[23] Plain Truth, “Letter VIII,” 32–33.

[24] For an engagement with the historiography over the curse of Ham, see David Whitford, “A Calvinist Heritage to the ‘Curse of Ham’: Assessing the Accuracy of a Claim about Racial Subordination,” Church History and Religious Culture 90 (2010): 25–45.

[25] Richard S. Newman, Freedom’s Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church, and the Black Founding Fathers (New York: New York University Press, 2008), 54, 180.

[26] Boles, “Henry Holcombe,” 388.

[27] This is not to suggest that First Baptist Church was the only congregation that exhibited racism. The city of Philadelphia had a contentious history between whites and blacks. For instance, after the yellow fever outbreak of 1793, Matthew Carey’s best-selling pamphlet “A Short Account of the Yellow Fever” (1793) stigmatized blacks as untrustworthy, even blaming many blacks for exploiting whites during the catastrophe. Blacks were referred to as “persons,” not citizens.

[28] Robert A. Snyder, A Southern Unionist: The Ministry of William T. Brantly and the State of Evangelical Unity in the Triennial Convention (Jonesville: Spring Branch Book House, 2013), 51. I have borrowed the phrase “Southern Unionist” from Snyder. In regard to Holcombe, in 1822 he published Primitive Theology which contained three sermons that espoused a form of pacifism. According to Boles, “The ideas they contained also signified a complete recasting of Holcombe’s attitudes toward civil government, Christianity, and war” (“Henry Holcombe,” 399). The result was more controversy.

[29] See Romeo Elton, ed., The Literary Remains of the Rev. Jonathan Maxcy, D.D. (New York: A. V. Blake, 1844).

[30] See Jarrett Burch, Adiel Sherwood: Baptist Antebellum Pioneer in Georgia (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2003).

[31] For an overview of John C. Calhoun’s advocacy of internal improvements, see Robert Elder, Calhoun: American Heretic (New York: Basic Books, 2021), 125, 141–48, 221–22, 333–34.

[32] For some insight into the Denmark Vesey plot as it pertained to the Nat Turner slave revolt of 1831, see Patrick H. Breen, The Land Shall Be Deluged with Blood: A New History of the Nat Turner Revolt (New York: Oxford University Press, 14, 26, 31, 43.

[33] William T. Brantly, “Extracts from Dr. W. T. Brantly’s Sermon Delivered in 1825,” in The Life and Works of Dr. Richard Furman, D.D., ed. G. William Foster Jr. (Harrisonburg: Sprinkle Publications, 2004), 217.

[34] Snyder, A Southern Unionist, 53.

[35] Snyder, A Southern Unionist, 54.

[36] Snyder, A Southern Unionist, 52.

[37] Lester, “History of the Christian Index,” 25, as quoted in Jack U. Harwell, An Old Friend with New Credentials: A History of the Christian Index (Atlanta: Christian Index, 1972), 56.

[38] W. T. Brantly, “Objects of Attention,” The Christian Index, 1 January 1831.

[39] First Baptist Church of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to W. T. Brantly, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, ALS, c. 22 September 1828, The Archives of the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia, American Baptist Historical Society, Valley Forge, PA.

[40] John Leland, “The Rights of Conscience Inalienable,” in The Writings of the Late Elder John Leland (New York: G. Wood, 1845), 192.

[41] W. T. Brantly, “To the Patrons of the Southern Watchman,” The Southern Watchman, 24 November 1837.

[42] For Dagg, the choice between North and South came literally in the same mail. On 1 December 1824, Richmond and Philadelphia requested a visit from him. A month later, within a few weeks of each other, Dagg received invitations to pastor churches in both Richmond and Philadelphia. See John L. Dagg, Autobiography of Rev. John L. Dagg (Rome, GA: J. H. Shanklin, 1886), 27.

[43] John Leland, “Oration,” in The Writings of the Late Elder John Leland (New York: G. Wood, 1845), 268.

[44] Newman, Freedom’s Prophet, 174.

[45] William T. Brantly, Our National Troubles: A Thanksgiving Sermon (Philadelphia: T. B. Peterson & Brothers, 1860), 16, 18, 19.

[46] Brantly, Our National Troubles, 25–26.

[47] For an exploration into Harriet Beecher Stowe’s spirituality, see Nancy Koester, Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014).

[48] In J. H. Cuthbert, Life of Richard Fuller (New York: Sheldon and Company, 1878), 163.

[49] Cuthbert, Life of Richard Fuller, 162.

[50] Noll explains, “This exchange was one of the United States’ last serious one-on-one debates where advocates for and against slavery engaged each other directly, with reasonable restraint, and with evident intent to hear out the opponent to the extent possible. The argument between Wayland, a careful reasoner and a careful biblical exegete defending an antislavery (but not abolitionist) stance, and Fuller, a resolute defender of slavery who nonetheless admitted that Southern slavery contained substantial abuses, represented a signal moment in American moral history” (Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, 36–37).

[51] J. M. Pendleton, Reminiscences of a Long Life (Louisville: Press Baptist Book Concern, 1891), 126.

[52] Cuthbert, Life of Richard Fuller, 262.

[53] Cuthbert, Life of Richard Fuller, 261–62, 264.

[54] Pendleton, Reminiscences of a Long Life, 133.

[55] James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 31.

[56] Richard Fuller, A City or House Divided Against Itself (Baltimore: J. F. Weishampel, Jr., 1865).

[57] Richard Fuller was the third president of the Southern Baptist Convention (1859–1863).

Obbie Tyler Todd

Obbie Tyler Todd is pastor of Third Baptist Church in Marion, Illinois, and is an adjunct professor of theology at Luther Rice College and Seminary.

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