January 2, 1863: Lincoln on the Government Running Churches

Major General Samuel Curtis


In examining the voluminous correspondence of President Lincoln during the Civil War, I have come to appreciate the endless difficulties and problems that confronted him each day.  One piece of correspondence underlines this fact.

Missouri was a state bitterly divided during the Civil War and for years afterwards.  Dr. Samuel P. McPheeters was a prominent Presbyterian minister in Saint Louis.  He had taken the loyalty oath to the Union, but his sympathies were clearly with the Confederacy and this would come out in some of the sermons he preached.  Major General Samuel Curtis, the commander of the Department of Missouri, took exception to one of his sermons and ordered his Church closed.  McPheeters traveled to Washington and went to see Lincoln along with Attorney General Bates and Dr. R. L. Stanton who was a leader in the Presbyterian church in the US and a friend of Lincoln.  Bates went along because as Attorney General he had always looked askance at military measures taken against civilians, and because he was a leader of the conservative faction of the Republican party in Missouri and Curtis was aligned with the radical faction of the party in Missouri that pressed for ever harsher sanctions against rebel sympathizers.

Dr. Stanton left a record of the meeting:

“I can best illustrate my position in regard to your St. Louis quarrel by telling a story.   A man in Illinois had a large watermelon patch, on which he hoped to make money enough to carry him over the year. A big hog broke through the log-fence nearly every night, and the melons were gradually disappearing. At length the farmer told his son John to get out the guns, and they would promptly dispose of the disturber of their melon-patch. They followed the tracks to the neighboring creek, where they disappeared. They discovered them on the opposite bank, and waded through. They kept on the trail a couple hundred yards, when the tracks again went into the creek, but promptly turned up on the other side. Once more the hunters buffeted the mud and water, and again struck the lead and pushed on a few furlongs, when the tracks made another diver into the creek. Out of breath and patience, the farmer said, ‘John, you cross over and go up on that side of the creek, and I’ll keep upon this side, for I believe the old fellow is on both sides.’

Gentlemen,’ concluded Mr. Lincoln, ‘that is just where I stand in regard to your controversies in St. Louis. I am on both sides. I can’t allow my generals to run the churches, and I can’t allow your ministers to preach rebellion. Go home, preach the Gospel, stand by the Union, and don’t disturb the government with any more of your petty quarrels.”

Lincoln wrote to General Curtis about McPheeters and underlined his opposition to the government attempting to run churches: (more…)

Published in: on January 2, 2022 at 5:30 am  Comments (1)  
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