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  • Writer's pictureObbie Tyler Todd

Richard Fuller: A Northern Southern Baptist

From Charles Finney invoking Puritan Jonathan Edwards to defend his “new measures” to Unitarians citing Presbyterian Charles Hodge to critique other Unitarians, American religious history is full of strange ironies. Perhaps one of the strangest is a President of the Southern Baptist Convention who did not live in the antebellum South. Amazingly, Baltimore pastor Richard Fuller served as president during the first half of the Civil War (1859–1863) and even gave his approval to the so-called “Savannah Resolutions” in 1861 which formally endorsed the Confederacy. The Harvard-educated and Southern-bred Fuller was, one might say, a Northern Southern Baptist. In 1845, as a pastor in Beaufort, South Carolina, Fuller preached the Sunday sermon following the inaugural Convention and chaired the committee that authored the preamble. (At Beaufort, Fuller converted a young James P. Boyce) A year later, he accepted a call to pastor Seventh Baptist Church in Baltimore, Maryland where he remained until his death in 1876 (he was replaced by W. T. Brantly Jr.) In a letter to the church on February 4, 1846, he anticipated friction over the issue of slavery in a city prone to division. “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.” Nevertheless, Fuller judged slavery to be lawful before God, and he would not waver from his Southern beliefs. During his tenure, Fuller faced more than a few challenges resulting from his Confederate allegiance in a Northern border state, including being labeled “The Most Dangerous Rebel in Maryland” by the Baltimore press.

In some ways, Fuller was a Baptist between two worlds. On one hand, Fuller unequivocally defended slavery. His literary debates with anti-slavery Baptist Francis Wayland in the 1840s proved to be one of the most civil discussions on the issue in American history. Mark Noll has called their exchange “one of the United States’ last serious one-on-one debates where advocates for and against slavery engaged each other directly, with reasonable constraint, and with evident intent to hear out the opponent to the extent possible.” However, on the other hand, Fuller believed in peacemaking and his debate with Wayland was described by some Southerners as “too moderate.” As a result, Fuller was initially critical of secession and was averse to speaking publicly on the issue from the pulpit. As a pastor in a border state where differing positions on slavery were often found in the very same congregation, Fuller was reticent to preach politics. Despite his unflinching views on slavery, Fuller’s position was perhaps the most amicable that could be found among his Southern brethren. By 1865, after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, Fuller again played the peacemaker when he preached A City or House Divided Against Itself, demonstrating his desire for union.

After the Civil War, Fuller was still an unmistakable Southerner. In 1867, in Memphis, he recounted “with graphic power” the march of General William Tecumseh Sherman through Georgia and South Carolina. According to Fuller, General Sherman himself had told him of the violence of Northern soldiers against South Carolina due its central role in the Confederacy. Fuller even told the story of a Baptist deacon in Robertsville whose farm had been ravaged by Yankee soldiers, evincing Fuller’s sympathies with the white people of the South during Reconstruction. However, Fuller also proved to be a black sheep of sorts in the Southern Baptist Convention, as his attempts at ameliorating relations between whites and blacks and Northerners and Southerners brought him into conflict with fellow Southern Baptists. On one occasion, at the Southern Baptist Convention in Macon, Georgia in 1869, Fuller and A. M. Poindexter engaged in “a very earnest debate” regarding the relation of the Convention to former slaves. Poindexter, who had lost two sons during the war, became so heated during the debate that he began “walking from one side of the platform to the other like a chafed lion.” (Life of Richard Fuller, 188–89) After Poindexter approached Fuller with such force and turned yet again to the audience, Fuller grabbed his hat and exited through the rear entrance! Among Southern Baptists, despite unimaginable bloodshed, the Civil War had not solved some of the most basic questions of race and Christian fellowship. But Fuller apparently labored for improved relations among Baptists, black and white. In 1867, he wrote a letter to Northern Baptists in Chicago requesting their attendance at the next Southern Baptist Convention in his adopted city of Baltimore. In a remarkably candid letter, he beseeched, “It is not to be denied that the differences which led to the late conflict were commenced in the churches, and that their cause was a deep religious conviction. Now that no further reason for dissension exists, does it not become the churches to commence the work of healing the wounds which have been inflicted upon our Zion?” (169) Richard Fuller, a Southern Baptist in the antebellum North whose writings had helped precipitate the Civil War, was making overtures to attempt reunification among the nation’s Baptists. Although this unity was never realized, Fuller’s life and ministry demonstrate the geographical and political complexity of the Southern Baptist Convention before and after the Civil War. Despite what their name suggests, Southern Baptists were never an entirely “Southern” people. In fact, for these Northern Southern Baptists, their vision of postbellum America did not always align with their fellow Southern Baptists.

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29 sept. 2022

Obbie, fantastic post! I would make one rejoinder as regards your statement "Fuller ... even gave his approval to the so-called 'Savannah Resolutions'...." Cuthbert notes this approval, even authorship of the resolutions, "[grew] out of a misunderstanding of facts." (Cuthbert, 262-63). Fuller actually voted against the resolutions, however, ever the consummate denominational statesman, he accepted responsibility for the document as the committee chair.


Dick Fuller Fan

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