We stand to-day, dear brethren, in the midst of circumstances of great doubt and anxiety, with provocations tending to kindle the bitterest and most vehement passions, and with the line of duty in many instances difficult to trace, and difficult to follow, even when traced. Never did we stand more in need of right counsels, deliberate and conscientious reflection, earnest purpose to do our duty, and heartfelt dependence on God our Saviour, for guidance and strength to enable us for its performance.
We stand to-day, face to face with civil war, a calamity, which, unless the experience and universal testimony of mankind deceive us, is direr and more to be deprecated than foreign war, than famine, than pestilence, than any other form of public evil. The cloud we have all been so long watching, which we have seen, day by day, and month by month, enlarging its skirts, and gathering blackness, is now beginning to burst upon us.
It seems to me that no one but an Atheist, or an Epicurean, can doubt that it is God who rides in this storm, and will direct the whirlwind, and that He now calls upon us to look to Him, to consider our ways and our doings, to remember the offences by which we have heretofore provoked Him, and to determine on the conduct we will hereafter pursue towards Him, toward our fellowmen, and towards ourselves.
I feel that we have some solid grounds of encouragement to hope for His favour. This Commonwealth, with whose fortunes our own are linked, cannot be said to have had any hand in causing, or precipitating the issue before us. She has sought, till the last moment, to avert it, and she his incurred censure by these efforts. But when compelled to elect between furnishing troops to subdue her nearest neighbors and kindred, and to open her Territory for the passage of armies marshalled to accomplish that odious, unauthorized and unhallowed object, or to refuse to aid, and to seek to hinder such attempts, she chose the part which affection, and interest and duty seems manifestly, and beyond all reasonable question, to require. What she has done, and is about to do, she does, as an old writer finely says in such a case, “willingly, but with an unwilling mind,” as an imperative, but painful duty. Such is the temper, we may be well assured, in which it best pleases God, that strife of any sort, especially strife of this sort, should be entered on.
There is another consideration from which I derive great comfort, and which is certain to give comfort to all who receive it. It is that whatever we may think of some of the earlier steps in these disputes, yet as to the present questions between the North and the South, we can calmly, conscientiously, and, I think, conclusively, to all impartial men, maintain before God and man that now at least we of the South are in the right. For we are on the defensive, we ask only to be let alone. That old Union to which we were all at one time so deeply attached, is now dissolved. It cannot be, at this time, amicably reconstructed. No one proposes it shall be done–no one supposes it can be done. Shall there then be a voluntary and friendly separation, or an attempt at subjugation? This is really the question before the people, lately known as the people of the United States. How strange that there should be any doubt as to the answer! That men should hesitate which to prefer, a peaceful separation of those who cannot agree, or civil war, with all its horrors, and all its uncertain issues! We ask the former–those so lately our brethren demand the latter. Should they insist on this, and should they succeed in this detestable strife to the very height of their hopes, it would be worse than a barren victory. It would be a victory that would cost the conquerors not only material prosperity, but the very principles of government on which society with them, as with us, rests.
Extract from a sermon delivered by the Rt. Rev. Thomas Atkinson, (Protestant) Bishop of North Carolina, at St. James Church, Wilmington, 6 May 1861 (Fifth Sunday after Easter).