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The Burning of a Church

January 24, 2011

This year, 2011, marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Deep divisions over why the war was fought still persist. The debate continues over whether or not slavery was the principal cause of the war.

In mid-nineteenth century America churches were not exempt from the conflict. In the North abolitionists ministers like The Reverend Lyman Beecher were outspoken opponents of slavery. Beecher had two clergymen sons who also objected to slavery. His daughter, Harriet Beecher Stowe, stirred up the most controversy with the publication of her popular book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. When President Abraham Lincoln met her he said, “So this is the little lady who started this big war.”

Many churches in the South supported slavery. “Slaves be obedient to your masters” was an oft quoted Biblical text from the Apostle Paul. The Southern Baptist Convention and the American Baptist Convention separated over the issue. In May 1845 at the First Baptist Church of Augusta, Georgia, delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention heard sermons proclaiming that slavery was ordained by God

Columbia’s First Baptist Church hosted the South Carolina Secession Convention on December 17, 1860, with delegates selected a month earlier at Secession Hill. The delegates drafted a resolution in favor of withdrawing from the Union with no dissenting votes, 159-0, creating the short-lived Republic of South Carolina.

On February 17, 1865, near the end of the long bitter war, Columbia surrendered to William Tecumseh Sherman, and Wade Hampton’s Confederate cavalry retreated from the city. Union soldiers took advantage of ample supplies of liquor in the city and began to drink. Fires were set in the city, and high winds spread the flames across a wide area. Most of the central city was destroyed, and municipal fire companies found it difficult to operate in conjunction with the invading army, many of whom were also fighting the fire.

The burning of Columbia has engendered controversy ever since. Some claim the fires were accidental. Some say they were a deliberate act of vengeance on the part of Sherman’s Army. Perhaps the blazes were set by retreating Confederate soldiers who lit cotton bales to destroy supplies Union forces might confiscate.

On February 18, Union forces destroyed virtually everything of military value in Columbia, including railroad depots, warehouses, arsenals, and machine shops.

Tradition holds that Columbia’s First Baptist Church, the site of the vote to secede, narrowly missed being torched by Sherman’s troops. As the story goes, the soldiers marched to the church and asked the sexton if this was the church where the Declaration of Secession was signed. The crafty janitor directed the men to Washington Street Methodist Church, just a few blocks away. The invading Northern Army burned to the Methodist Church to the ground.

In 1995, the Southern Baptist Convention apologized for slavery in a resolution just 150 years after declaring it to be ordained by God.

The Baptists have yet to apologize to the Methodists.

Kirk H. Neely
© January 2011

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