Religion & Ministry
Education & Academia
BACHMAN'S INVOLVEMENT IN
POLITICS & SOCIAL REFORM
The Rev. John Bachman considered it a moral responsibility to educate Charlestonians of African descent, so well before the Civil War he set up schools to teach both slaves and freemen how to read and cipher. This was a radical concept in the antebellum South; in fact, not only was it "politically incorrect," it was also against the law (above). Bachman baptized many African Americans at St. John's Lutheran Church; as pastor, his congregation was as much as 40% black.
This steel engraving (below) of the Rev. John Bachman appeared on the front of Harper's Weekly for 18 January 1861, when Bachman would have been 71 years old. The main topic for this issue was South Carolina's highly emotional and controversial secession from the Union on 20 December 1860. Also on the cover were engravings of South Carolina's newly elected governor Francis Wilkinson Pickens, secretary of state Andrew Gordon Magrath, and a group of Charleston Zouave soldiers. (It was Pickens who authorized troops from Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor to fire on the Star of the West--a Union ship--in the war's first military engagement, 9 January 1861.) On inside pages of the weekly magazine were maps and an article about the port of Charleston--destined to be a critical location during the Civil War.
The Harper's Weekly text about Bachman reads:
We publish . . . the portrait of the Rev. Dr. Bachman, of South Carolina, the minister who was selected by the Secession Convention to ask a prayer on the ratification of the Ordinance of Secession. Dr. Bachman is distinguished as a naturalist, but has made himself more conspicuous, latterly, by his strong political leanings to the side of disunion. The Charleston Mercury thus describes the scene which attended the signing of the Ordinance of Secession:
"The scene was one profoundly grand and impressive. There were a people assembled through their highest representatives--men most of them upon whose heads the snow of sixty winters had been shed--patriarchs in age--the dignitaries of the land--the High Priests of the Church of Christ--reverend statesmen--and the wise judges of the law. In the midst of deep silence an old man, with bowed form and hair as white as snow, the Rev. Dr. Bachman, advanced forward, with upraised hands, in prayer to Almighty God, for His blessing and favor in this great act of his people about to be consummated. The whole assembly at once rose to its feet, and, with hats off, listened to the touching and eloquent appeal to the All-Wise Dispenser of events.
"At the close of the prayer the President advanced with the consecrated parchment upon which was inscribed the decision of the State, with the great seal attached. Slowly and solemnly it was read unto the Last word'dissolved'; when men could contain themselves no longer, and a shout that shook the very building, reverberating long continued, rose to heaven, and ceased only with the lots of breath. In proud, grave silence the Convention itself waited the end with beating hearts."
After the Civil War started, Bachman turned his energies to ministering to the sick and dying--including soldiers at nearby military hospitals (below) and the bereaved families of casualties.
There is understandable controversy about whether Bachman should be thought of as a "social reformer," particularly with regard to his position on slavery. Bachman's own father had a slave who taught John Bachman much about the out-of-doors and was probably instrumental in creating in the youngster a lifelong interest in nature study. It may be that during his days as a Lutheran pastor in antebellum Charleston Bachman himself had slaves. Bachman even visited Pres. Millard Fillmore in Washington to persuade him--unsuccessfully--to make concessions to Southern states riled up over what they considered to be a loss of states' rights--including the right to determine the legality of slavery.
As a result, some modern-day observers have been critical of Bachman's apparent LACK of action with regard to slavery. They see a contradiction in his scientific writings (in which he argued that slave and master were one species) and his day-to-day life (during which he either supported or at least accepted slavery). One anonymous writer put it like this:
John Bachman was only able to accomplish all that he did because he benefited financially from slavery; i.e., white slave owners of his congregation paid his salary out of profits they made by exploiting cheap labor they "owned" as slaves. That kind of financial support can weaken even the most principled pastors and leave them silent on the crucial moral issues of the day (witness the silence of so many white church leaders during early civil rights days in the mid-20th century). But John Bachman didn't seem to have any moral qualms about slavery. He was undoubtedly familiar with the writings of abolitionists. He just chose to ignore them. Even though he came from the North, he was like the "proverbial fish in water" down South. Being white and male probably helped, too. After all, he and his church were the beneficiaries of slaveholder generosity and slaveholders made good profits. From John Bachman's perspective, what was there to complain about when he was doing so well?
Bachman's support of South Carolina's secession from the Union--as witnessed by his giving the invocation prayer at the start of secession proceedings--stands in sad contrast to his own personal motto: "Nature, Truth, and No Humbug." But his tacit support for slavery is not insignificant. Had he been alive today, he probably would have been the subject of protests by civil rights leaders for that kind of tacit racism and counter protests by the Ku Klux Klan who would have appreciated his sympathetic support of the same. (Then again, the Klan probably would have disliked his writings about blacks and whites both being Homo sapiens.) Despite his many accomplishments, Bachman must have wondered if his life had amounted to anything after the Civil War when he saw loss, devastation, and the repudiation of slavery.
The ugly reality of slavery is long gone, time has passed, and the John Bachman Symposium is helping rescue "the baby from being thrown out with the bath water" by bringing to light the significance of Bachman as the renowned naturalist, educator, writer, and clergyman he truly was.
Undoubtedly there are elements of truth in what this person writes. Nonetheless, other observers would say it is important we judge Bachman by the standards and mores of his day, rather than by those of modern times. Slavery is reprehensible and ethically unacceptable in the 21st century, but it was a way of life in antebellum Charleston and even in parts of the North. Although there IS an apparent contradiction in Bachman's life with regard to slavery, it may be that he had no choice but to accept the practice; by directly challenging slavery and slave owners, he might have lost all credibility and support and been unable to accomplish anything. That doesn't make right any of Bachman's perceived actions (or non-actions), it merely makes them understandable.
You can access detailed information about Bachman's life and work by clicking on the links in the column at left.
Please check back later as we add to this section.
Please revisit this Web site often at www.johnbachman.org and plan to attend the Symposium on Nature, God & Social Reform in the Old South: The Life & Work of the Rev. John Bachman in April 2006.