Basil Manly (1798-1868) was a leading Baptist minister and educator who served as second president of the University of Alabama from 1837 to 1855. Throughout his tenure at the university, Manly was also an evangelist, preaching across the state and helping lead the First Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa, Tuscaloosa County. He was an early proponent of secession and an ardent supporter of slavery who used the Bible and Christian teachings to justify the institution. While working as pastor at the First Baptist Church of Montgomery in 1861, Manly was appointed the official chaplain to the newly formed Confederate government.
Basil Manly Basil Manly was born in North Carolina in 1798 to Captain John Basil Manly and Elizabeth Maultsby Manly. His older brother Charles served as governor of North Carolina, and his younger brother Mathias became a state Supreme Court justice. Like his brothers, Basil attended the Bingham Academy, a private school in Orange County, North Carolina. His brothers went on to the University of North Carolina, but Basil pursued his degree at the South Carolina College, which later became the University of South Carolina. Manly married Sarah Murray Rudulph in 1824, and they had six children who lived to adulthood. Basil Manly Jr. became an important leader among Southern Baptists. Charles Manly also became a Baptist preacher. Daughters Sarah and Abby married prominent southern men, and sons James and Richard Fuller Manly served in the Confederate military and survived the war.
After a conversion experience in 1814, Manly believed he was called to be a preacher and strove to fulfill that calling. He graduated as valedictorian of his college class in 1821 and then moved to the Edgefield District in South Carolina. He was ordained as a minister in 1822 and led the Edgefield Revival, a religious awakening that converted many and won him fame. Richard Furman, another famous Southern Baptist, selected Manly as his successor at the First Baptist Church of Charleston, South Carolina, which Manly led from 1826 to 1837. Under his leadership, the congregation increased in size, and Manly promoted the Baptist denomination in the surrounding areas, the state, the South, and the nation as a whole. He served as a leader of the national Triennial Convention for missions and preached widely as an evangelist, and his sermons and essays on various topics were published for distribution. In 1826 Manly helped found Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, and he continued to support the institution in later years, including traveling on fundraising tours. His efforts on behalf of education helped him earn an honorary doctorate in divinity from the University of North Carolina in 1837.
Michael Tuomey Manly accepted the presidency of the University of Alabama in 1837 during a time of disarray and held the post until 1855. His 18-year tenure was the longest in the university’s history, and he shaped the school in many ways. He instituted reforms borrowed from both the University of Virginia and Brown University, especially with regard to student discipline, that included his support for the Anti-Dueling Society, which aimed to prevent young men from settling even minor disputes with pistols. In all of these efforts, Manly balanced ideals of Southern honor with the need for order on campus. He also improved the school’s science programs by hiring several important faculty members, including astronomer F. A. P. Barnard and geologist Michael Tuomey, both of whom made significant contributions to their fields. Manly fought long and hard to maintain a traditional classical education curriculum but also saw the need for liberal arts and professional education. His position as president of the university increased his influence among Baptists, whom he continued to serve as a minister.
Manly’s work as an evangelist took him across the state of Alabama, and his preaching continued to win converts. He also worked in church politics, leading the denomination at the local, state, and national levels in various offices and serving as a delegate to the Triennial Convention of the Baptist Missionary Boards. He also helped found the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Greenville, South Carolina, which later moved to Louisville, Kentucky, as well as other denominational schools across the South.
Manly was a staunch defender of slavery and hoped for the peaceful secession of southern states, but said that he was willing to perish in pursuit of southern rights. In 1845, when the controversy over slavery and abolition divided Baptists along sectional lines, Manly argued in the Alabama Resolutions, a series of demands that he wrote and presented to the national convention that ministers could own slaves, leading to a split between northern and Frederick Barnard southern Baptists. Although he defended the institution, Manly also believed the hardships of slavery should be tempered by Christian behavior. He preached that slaveowners should treat enslaved workers fairly and provide for both their spiritual well-being and their physical needs. He acknowledged the humanity of enslaved African Americans, a notion that conceded the argument over the rightness of slavery to abolitionists. Indeed, some southern slaveowners saw evangelical preaching about slavery as a threat to the institution because if slaves were viewed as humans with souls, then they deserved equal treatment under the law. Manly reconciled such tensions through his Calvinist theology, with its doctrines of duty and acceptance of one’s place in God’s divine plan. Manly himself owned more than 40 slaves and oversaw a plantation along the Black Warrior River. Although Manly acknowledged the humanity of slaves in his sermons and sought to guide them spiritually, he also believed in and practiced corporal punishment. His life and career exemplified the complexity of slavery in the Old South, as he tried to reconcile support for human bondage with Christian principles.
Manly served as chaplain at the Alabama Secession Convention, was appointed first chaplain to the Confederacy, and participated in Jefferson Davis’ presidential inauguration. Manly opened congressional sessions with prayer, and his reputation as a prominent clergyman lent spiritual guidance and legitimacy to the government through his official duties as chaplain and his status as the most famous Baptist in the state. He continued as chaplain to the government until the capital was moved to Richmond, Virginia. He saw the new government as the fulfillment of his dreams for a separate southern nation for which he had worked for 30 years. His official role ended when the government moved, but he continued to support the Confederacy on the home front, delivering sermons on Fast Days and providing comfort with his preaching at the many funerals for fallen soldiers.
University of Alabama Rotunda, 1859 Manly also worked for certain social reforms, leading organizations dedicated to prison reform and aid for the mentally ill. He promoted agricultural reform and hoped to bring scientific methods to the South’s agrarian economy. He also invested in industrial ventures in hopes of diversifying the southern economy while making a profit. In addition, his public leadership included founding the Alabama Historical Society, a move that built on his own work as a historian in South Carolina, where he had written a history of the First Baptist Church of Charleston and delivered it as a sermon.
In his work as a minister and educator, Manly defended southern institutions, including the ethics of honor and slavery. But he worked primarily to spread the Gospel of Christianity. He brought together these various themes in his understanding of how the world should be ordered. He expressed his vision for a separate southern nation in sermons and public addresses and sought to bring that vision to reality. When secession came and the Confederacy formed, he saw it as God’s plan for the South, but his faith was not diminished when the Confederacy surrendered. In 1864 he suffered a stroke and was forced to retire, and his health declined until his death on December 21, 1868.
Flynt, Wayne. Alabama Baptists: Southern Baptists in the Heart of Dixie. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1998.
Fuller, A. James. Chaplain to the Confederacy: Basil Manly and Baptist Life in the Old South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000.
Nettles, Tom. The Baptists: Key People Involved in Forming a Baptist Identity. Vol. 2, Beginnings America. Fearn, Scotland: Mentor, 2005.