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 LINCOLN AND THE CHURCHES By John G. Nicolay and John Hay
Note.—Some of the important material bearing upon Lincoln's religious convictions which was collected by Nicolay and Hay and published in the Century Magazine, has, through faulty indexing, been almost lost. The words "churches" and "religion" are not in the thick index in the tenth volume of their great work. Finding in the Century Magazine for August, 1889, an important article on this subject, I searched in vain for any way of finding it in the book by means of the index, and two librarians, working in separate libraries, searched for it and reported to me that it was not in the book. I came to the conclusion that in the editing of the work for its publication in book form, the two former secretaries of the President had deemed some of this matter too personal for their title, "Abraham Lincoln: a History." But I have discovered the missing passage in the sixth volume, pages 314-342. Its testimony is in full accord with that subsequently given by Mr. Hay in the address delivered by him from Mr. Lincoln's old pew, which is printed in the volume of John Hay's addresses. The article in the Century is so important that the first and last portions of it will justify reprinting here. The omitted portions relate to the relations of Mr. Lincoln and of the Government to particular churches or denominations.
W. E. B.
In a conflict which was founded upon the quickened moral sense of the people it was not strange that the Government received the most earnest support from the churches. From one end of the loyal States to the other all the religious organizations, with few exceptions, moved by the double forces of patriotism and religion, ranged themselves upon the side of the Government against the rebellion. A large number of pulpits in the North had already taken their places as tribunes for the defense of popular freedom, and it was from them that, at the menace of war, the first cry of danger and of defiance rang out. Those ministers who had for years been denouncing the encroachments of slavery did not wait for any organized action on the part of their colleagues, but proclaimed at once in a thousand varying tones that peace was "a blessing worth fighting for." The more conservative churches were but little in the rear of the more advanced. Those who had counseled moderation and patience with the South on account of[Pg 378] the divided responsibility for slavery which rested on both halves of the nation speedily felt the sense of release front the obligations of brotherhood when the South had repudiated and renounced them, and rallied to the support of the insulted flag with an earnestness not less ardent, and more steadily trustworthy, than that of the original antislavery clergy. As the war went on, and as every stage of it gave a clearer presage of the coming destruction of slavery, the deliverances of the churches became every day more and more decided in favor of the national cause and the downfall of human bondage. To detail the thousand ways in which the churches testified their support of the national cause, to give even an abstract of the countless expressions of loyalty which came from the different religious bodies of the country, would occupy many volumes; we can only refer briefly to a few of the more important utterances of some of the great religious societies.
In all the church conventions which met after the President's preliminary proclamation of the 22d of September, 1862, that act of liberation was greeted with the heartiest expressions of approval and support.
As the national authority began to be re?stablished throughout the States in rebellion, not the least embarrassing of the questions which generals in command were called upon to decide was that of the treatment of churches whose pastors were openly or covertly disloyal to the union. There was no general plan adopted by the Government for such cases; in fact, it was impossible to formulate a policy which should meet so vast a variety of circumstances as presented themselves in the different regions of the South. The Board of Missions of the Methodist Church sent down some of their ablest ministers, with general authority to take charge of abandoned churches, and to establish in them their interrupted worship. The mission boards of other denominations took similar action, and the Secretary of War[75] gave general orders to the officers commanding the different departments to permit ministers of the gospel bearing the commission of these mission boards to exercise the functions of their office and to give them all the aid, countenance, and support which might be practicable. But before and after these orders there was much clashing between the military and the ecclesiastical authorities, which had its rise generally in the individual tempera[Pg 379]ments of the respective generals and priests. There was an instance in one place where a young officer rose in his pew and requested an Episcopal minister to read the prayer for the President of the United States, which he had omitted. Upon the minister's refusal the soldier advanced to the pulpit and led the preacher, loudly protesting, to the door, and then quietly returning to the altar himself read the prayer—not much, it is to be feared, to the edification of the congregation. General Butler arrested a clergyman in Norfolk, and placed him at hard labor on the public works for disloyalty in belief and action; but the President reversed this sentence and changed it to one of exclusion from the union lines.[76] The Catholic Bishop of Natchez having refused to read the prescribed form of prayer for the President, and having protested in an able and temperate paper against the orders of the commanding general in this regard, the latter ordered him to be expelled from the union lines, although the order was almost immediately rescinded. General Rosecrans issued an order[77] in Missouri requiring the members of religious convocations to give satisfactory evidence of their loyalty to the Government of the United States as a condition precedent to their assemblage and protection. In answer to the protestations which naturally resulted from this mandate he replied that it was given at the request of many loyal church members, both lay and clerical; that if he should permit all bodies claiming to be religious to meet without question, a convocation of Price's army, under the garb of religion, might assemble with impunity and plot treason. He claimed that there was no hardship in compelling the members of such assemblages to establish their loyalty by oath and certificate, and insisted that his order, while providing against public danger, really protected the purity and the freedom of religion.
In the course of these controversies between secessionist ministers and commanding generals an incident occurred which deserves a moment's notice, as it led to a clear and vigorous statement from Mr. Lincoln of his attitude in regard to these matters. During the year 1862 a somewhat bitter discussion arose between the Rev. Dr. McPheeters of the Vine Street Church in St. Louis and some of his congregation in regard to his supposed sympathies with the rebellion. Looking back upon the controversy from this distance of time it seems that rather[Pg 380] hard measure was dealt to the parson; for although, from all the circumstances of the case, there appears little doubt that his feelings were strongly enlisted in the cause of the rebellion, he behaved with so much discretion that the principal offenses charged against him by his zealous parishioners were that he once baptized a small rebel by the name of Sterling Price, and that he would not declare himself in favor of the union. The difference in his church grew continually more flagrant and was entertained by interminable letters and statements on both sides, until at last the provost-marshal intervened, ordering the arrest of Dr. McPheeters, excluding him from his pulpit, and taking the control of his church out of the hands of its trustees. This action gave rise to extended comment, not only in Missouri, but throughout the union. The President, being informed of it, wrote[78] to General Curtis disapproving the act of the provost-marshal, saying, in a terse and vigorous phrase, which immediately obtained wide currency, "The United States Government must not, as by this order, undertake to run the churches. When an individual in a church, or out of it, becomes dangerous to the public interest he must be checked; but let the churches, as such, take care of themselves." But even this peremptory and unmistakable command did not put an end to the discussion. Taking the hands of the Government away from the preacher did not quench the dissensions in the church, nor restore the pastor to the position which he occupied before the war; and almost a year later some of the friends of Dr. McPheeters considered it necessary and proper to ask the intervention of the President to restore to him all his ecclesiastical privileges in addition to the civil rights which they admitted he already enjoyed. This the President, in a letter[79] of equal clearness and vigor, refused to do. "I have never interfered," he said, "nor thought of interfering, as to who shall, or shall not, preach in any church; nor have I knowingly or believingly tolerated anyone else to so interfere by my authority"; but he continues, "If, after all, what is now sought is to have me put Dr. McPheeters back over the heads of a majority of his own congregation, that too will be declined. I will not have control of any church on any side." The case finally ended by the exclusion of Dr. McPheeters from his pulpit by the order of the presbytery having ecclesiastical authority in the case.
In this wise and salutary abstention from any interference[Pg 381] with the churches, which was dictated by his own convictions as well as enjoined by the Constitution, the President did not always have the support of his subordinates. He had not only, as we have seen, to administer occasional rebukes to his over-zealous genera............
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