The most recent chapter in the story of America’s relationship with its Confederate past began in church.
Since Dylann Roof, a rebel flag-waving white supremacist, opened fire at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal in Charleston two years ago, the debate over historical markers of the Civil War South has taken on more urgency and more widespread concern.
The flags came down first, starting with the contentious one that flew on South Carolina’s capitol grounds. A year after the Mother Emanuel massacre, the Southern Baptist Convention called on Christians to stop displaying the Confederate flag. The Episcopal Church made a similar statement, and its National Cathedral in Washington, DC, opted to remove two images of the flag in its stained glass windows.
Communities and institutions shifted their discussions around their own landmarks, namesakes, and long-ago history; most notably, New Orleans spent two years eliminating its Civil War monuments, the last of which—a statue of General Robert E. Lee—came down last month. Protestors with torches challenged plans to do the same in Charlottesville, Virginia. But despite the new pressure around Confederate history, these cases remain the exception.
“Few public Confederate monuments have been changed, moved, or razed since 2015,” USA Today reported, estimating 700 to 1,000 such monuments remain across 31 states. “While flags can be lowered, songs censored, mascots switched, and schools renamed, monuments are the most tangible and least mutable memorial symbols.”
The debate over such markers inevitably involves the church buildings that housed—and the many more that later memorialized—the history of the Confederate States of America. The most striking example may be St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, nicknamed the Cathedral of the Confederacy.
Over the past two years, the historic church, where Jefferson Davis learned that the war was coming to an end, decided to remove plaques honoring Lee and Davis and place them in an exhibit. Gone are the kneelers with the Confederate flag in needlepoint. The church will retire its coat of arms. Leaders are now discussing how to move forward with presenting a history that acknowledges racism and slavery in its past.
“It shouldn’t take a tragedy to turn the tide against racism. Why did it take the murder of nine black people in a Bible study for some people to finally reject the racism associated with the Confederate emblem? Why do people have to literally be killed before we confront racial prejudice?” asked Jemar Tisby, president of the Reformed African American Network. “Christian leaders should be able to challenge racism in the midst of the church without waiting for a public disaster as an entry point to conversation.”
Confederate ties are not restricted to a single locale or tradition. The major US denominations divided to coincide with secession, defending the aims of their new government.
“There is no such thing as an anti-slavery church in the South at this point,” said Michael Altman, an expert in American religious history at the University of Alabama. “The slavery question was argued on a biblical basis. It was a biblical issue.”
In Southern cities like Montgomery, Alabama; Louisville, Kentucky; and Augusta, Georgia; America’s Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Baptists made their splits official by forming new denominations.
Decades before the Civil War, Southern Baptists left their northern brothers and sisters to meet at Augusta’s First Baptist Church and form the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). The congregation left the historic site back in the 1970s for a new location, and the old building went up for sale last year.
But just two blocks up the road, the city’s First Presbyterian Church—now a Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) congregation—continues to meet and worship in the building that hosted the first gathering of the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America.
Over a decade ago, early in his tenure as senior pastor at “First Pres,” George Robertson thought of the bronze plaque at the front of the sanctuary that commemorated the location of the Confederate Presbyterian meeting—and the balcony that one time segregated slaves during worship—as he hosted a prayer breakfast with African American clergy.
“Though it is not mentioned, it is obvious from history that the ultimate reason we were breaking away to form a separate denomination was to protect the institution of slavery,” he said. “I used the plaque as an occasion to ask for forgiveness and publicly repent for our racist past.”
Churches, like local governments and universities, have to decide what to do and say about the problematic parts of their history, especially when markers call it out. The plaque was moved from the sanctuary to the narthex, but Robertson chose to keep the hand-carved wooden chair where the meeting’s moderator sat 156 years ago, a humble reminder of an honored theologian and Christian who was “profoundly wrong and in need of repentance.”
“I use it to … point out our own history too, to say, ‘This is where we came from, and this is where we must not go back to,’” he said. “That whole history has been an important catalyst for us in pursuing racial reconciliation in our community and diversity in our congregation in particular.”
Churches can opt to let their Confederate history remain, remove symbols altogether, shift them away from places of prominence, or add more background information to contextualize ideas the congregation no longer endorses.
There’s a fear of “erasing history” should historical markers be totally removed—one reason why Alabama last month enacted a law requiring legislative approval to change memorial street names, monuments, or buildings more than 40 years old. Some defend the markers as a heritage to celebrate, while others see them as a way to own up to past sins.
Rabbis in Germany recently adopted the latter perspective when requesting that churches retain anti-Semitic sculptures tied to Martin Luther. Monuments to the early eras of foreign missions have also been called into question; last year, Williams College made efforts to contextualize the Haystack Monument, which honors students’ call to the global mission field in 1806. Some faculty now fear endorsing “cultural imperialism” associated with such efforts.
“The primary question for the church to consider is not what to remember but how we remember it,” said Theon Hill, a Wheaton College communications professor. Hill remembers the culture shock—and crisis of faith—that accompanied his undergraduate years at Bob Jones University, where he watched classmates embrace and defend Confederate heritage.
In an essay for The Front Porch, Hill wrote:
The goal of removal efforts is not to erase history, but to recontextualize it. The Confederacy with its vicious legacy of white supremacy should not be honored but lamented. … This debate extends beyond questions of who we were to who we want to be. Commemorating the past elevates it as an example to emulate in the future. David continues to be held in high esteem within the Judeo-Christian tradition because even when he failed, his heart was bent toward what was right. The Confederacy is not an honorable example of imperfect people trying to do the right thing, but a tragic warning of what happens when we pursue our interests at the expense of others’ humanity.
Churches dating back to the Civil War period may actually serve as the final resting place for soldiers themselves. Church cemeteries haven’t avoided the recent pressure; an Episcopal congregation in Maryland cancelled annual memorials for a soldier buried on its grounds.
In Lexington, Virginia, the church where Lee worshipped after the war—renamed R. E. Lee Episcopal decades after his death—considered but ultimately voted down a name change in 2015. The church, located near the university chapel where Lee is entombed, didn’t display battle flags. Its former rector cited a quote attributed to the general that they be folded up and put away after the war.
Many Confederate memorials actually don’t date back as far as the war itself; instead, they reveal more recent social movements in America’s history. Groups like the Daughters of the Confederacy and Sons of Confederate Veterans, which are responsible for many of the country’s Confederate memorials, didn’t exist until decades after the Civil War. They were most active during the 20th century, fueled by momentum around white identity in the 1920s and 1950s.
“In the 1950s and ’60s, churches sacralized the lost cause culture of Confederate memorialism”—the belief that the war was about Southern pride rather than slavery, according to Altman.
This aspect of history—the instinct to honor, justify, and defend history in eras after—is also a significant context for the monuments in churches, campuses, and city squares today. “These symbols are lost on a lot of people because they don’t have the context,” said Altman, who works in a University of Alabama building named for its one-time president Basil Manly, a preacher involved in the formation of the SBC and a chaplain to Confederate leadership.
Tisby, a doctoral student in history, notes that the Civil War is among the most-studied and discussed periods—with or without the monuments that dot the South.
“If we really wanted to remember the Civil War, we would have monuments about the strength and resilience of people of color in this country to remind us that we put people in a place where they were oppressed and marginalized in spite of our nation’s ideals and our Christian ideals,” he said.
During the 1980s and ’90s, African Americans reclaimed and promoted Juneteenth, the June 19 celebration of the total emancipation of slaves following the Civil War. It became a state holiday in Texas, where black churches host annual events for the community, similar to the Fourth of July. Last year, a petition lobbied to get it national recognition.
Amid the racial reconciliation and social justice movements within the church, the potential exists to tell another story, just as universities like Georgetown are adding holidays and memorials in honor of the enslaved people and people of color who were part of its history.
First Pres in Augusta recently purchased a home near the church to use for its seminary program, whose enrollment is 50 percent African American. Though church leaders learned it once belonged to a Confederate general, they plan to name it for Lucy Laney, an African American and Presbyterian who pioneered education for black students in the area in the late 19th century.
At the time, the church declined to fund her efforts. Now, it is honoring her with a new library building for its seminary students.
“We view it as a sweet irony—as a victory for the kingdom—that this building, a Confederate general’s former home, could be the site of a seminary that’s educating African American ministers for the gospel,” Robertson said.