The building before you, now owned by Amherst College and converted for secular purposes, was the town’s Baptist church at the time of the Civil War.
In the period leading up to the war Western Massachusetts was one of the most vibrantly Abolitionist regions in the country. While never a completely mainstream movement, many in Amherst were comfortable with the goal of ending slavery itself, rather than simply containing it. Nearby Amherst College was a training ground for many young Abolitionist activists, including Henry Ward Beecher and Robert Purvis. But the Abolition movement was not so much academic as it was religious.
Worship remained a central organizing force in social life in Amherst in the 1860s. The town’s ministers were among its most prominent citizens, and they were deeply involved in the town’s efforts to support the Union soldiers, calling for the contribution of blankets and other comforts to be sent to the front, and even, in one case, hosting a gathering at home that brought local women together for the purpose of knitting socks to be sent to the front. But, more dramatically, it was the ability of local clergy to influence public opinion from the pulpit that had important consequences during the Civil War period.
On September 26th, 1861 Reverend William Stearns, who was serving as the President of Amherst College, delivered a sermon at the nearby Village Church on what he called the “Necessities of the War.” His audience contained the students and faculty of Amherst College, as well as the congregations of the various churches in town, who gathered together for the occasion. Hope for a swift victory and a restoration of order had been dashed two months previously, with the bloody defeat of Union forces at Bull Run, in the first major battle of the war. Reverend Stearns words were a call for perseverance in what he called a “lawful war,” and he warned that Confederate victory “human slavery would be tolerated, extended, perpetuated, admired in the land.”
Yet the moral crusade that Reverend Stearns described was not simply a mission to bring justice into the Southern states. He said also that the North had sinned, and that God had ordained that the North should atone for these sins in sacrifice and war. If slavery was the great injustice to be corrected, Stearns reminded his audience that the North had also profited from the institution. “We condemn southern manners and institutions,” he said, but pointed out that “the black ships which have cleaved the main, freighted with groans, have been northern vessels, manned by northern seamen.. . For all these sins and many more, the judgements of heaven have come upon us, and let us confess it. We have deserved war, deserved to be involved in complications which made war a necessity. I know not that God could have been an impartial governor of the nations, and not sent this judgment upon us.”