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  • The Religion of Proslavery Unionism:Kentucky Whites on the Eve of Civil War
  • Luke E. Harlow (bio)

On May 6, 1861, just a few weeks after Confederate artillery fired on Fort Sumter and started the Civil War, the Kentucky annual statewide meeting of Baptists, the General Association, petitioned the legislature to "preserve the peace of the state." A report in the Western Recorder, the chief organ of the denomination in the Commonwealth, took great pride in noting that the document lacked partisan animus. Demonstrating that Baptists were not "attempt[ing] to make political capital" in that moment of sectional strife, the petition had been affirmed by coreligionists from a variety of perspectives, "Secessionists and Unionists, women and children." The appeal itself called upon Kentucky politicians to "rise above the excitement and confusion of party, and of the times, and deliberately, in the fear of God, seek only, first, the good, the very best possible good, of our Commonwealth, and, then, of other portions of our country." The logic of this argument was straightforward: Kentucky Baptists hoped "to avert from our soil, our homes, our women, and our children, the dreadful scourge of civil war." In the coming conflict, they wanted to remain neutral.1

That opinion was common among religious whites and among white Kentuckians as a whole. Located just south of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, only 664 miles of the Ohio River were all that separated [End Page 265] the slave state of Kentucky from free soil—the longest of any slave state-free state border. Thus "truly a border state" in both geography and politics, Kentucky whites labored to remain detached from the divisive sectional controversy.2 Their sentiment of neutrality stood out vividly in the notably complicated and controversial presidential election of November 1860. A plurality of the electorate (45.2 percent) sided with the conservative Constitutional Union Party candidate, slaveholder John Bell of Tennessee, over the Southern Democratic Party nominee, native Kentuckian John C. Breckinridge (36.3 percent). The other two candidates, Democrat Stephen A. Douglas and Republican Abraham Lincoln, both from Illinois, received 17.5 and 0.9 percent, respectively. Almost everywhere else in the United States, Constitutional Unionists were unpopular; Kentucky joined only Tennessee and Virginia in giving its largest vote to Bell. The party itself was an amalgam of former Whigs and Know-Nothings and famously ran on a platform that "recognize[d] no political principle other than the Constitution . . . the Union . . . and the Enforcement of the Laws." Most significantly, Constitutional Unionists took no stance on the most pressing issue of the day—slavery.3

Such reluctance to speak on the slavery question, if unappealing almost everywhere else in the United States, singularly suited a border slave state unwilling to push for secession but also unwilling to tamper with the institution within its boundaries. Slavery, in fact, had much to do with the variety of political conservatism of white Kentuckians. If the Union were to be preserved, it was the Union without modification—that is, the Union as it existed in 1860. In other words, neutral Kentuckians defended a slaveholding nation they refused to leave and opposed changing.4 [End Page 266]

The political neutrality of Kentucky drew considerable justification from religious sources. As elsewhere in the South, white evangelicals represented a preponderant political majority in the Bluegrass State in 1860—perhaps more than 75 percent of the white population and more than 60 percent of the total population.5 In their view, God had ordained slavery as a properly Christian institution. To be sure, the future course of Kentucky was anything but certain on the eve of the Civil War. As a slave state that bordered free soil, Kentucky fostered a small but vocal evangelical antislavery movement throughout the antebellum era—often connected to colonizationism—which culminated with a failed attempt in 1849 to enter an emancipationist clause in the state constitution.6 However, while the [End Page 267] conservative believers of the state once found themselves arguing over the will of God for American slavery as it existed in reality, they never denied that the Bible sanctioned slavery as a method of social and labor organization for some times and places...


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