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:


JANUARY 2, 1863




MY DEAR SIR:–Yours of December 29 by the hand of Mr. Strong is just received. The day I telegraphed you suspending the order in relation to Dr. McPheeters, he, with Mr. Bates, the Attorney-General, appeared before me and left with me a copy of the order mentioned. The doctor also showed me the Copy of an oath which he said he had taken, which is indeed very strong and specific. He also verbally assured me that he had constantly prayed in church for the President and government, as he had always done before the present war. In looking over the recitals in your order, I do not see that this matter of the prayer, as he states it, is negatived, nor that any violation of his oath is charged nor, in fact, that anything specific is alleged against him. The charges are all general: that he has a rebel wife and rebel relations, that he sympathies with rebels, and that he exercises rebel influence. Now, after talking with him, I tell you frankly I believe he does sympathize with the rebels, but the question remains whether such a man, of unquestioned good moral character, who has taken such an oath as he has, and cannot even be charged with violating it, and who can be charged with no other specific act or omission, can, with safety to the government, be exiled upon the suspicion of his secret sympathies. But I agree that this must be left to you, who are on the spot; and if, after all, you think the public good requires his removal, my suspension of the order is withdrawn, only with this qualification, that the time during the suspension is not to be counted against him. I have promised him this. But I must add that 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. It will not do for the United States to appoint trustees, supervisors, or other agents for the churches.

Yours very truly,


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