The Civil War caused numerous churches and denominational bodies to deliberate over secular matters and oftentimes to pass political resolutions. Indeed, many patriotic church members entirely disapproved of pastors who failed to give outspoken support to the federal cause, because they considered the Civil War to be a providential means for refining and preserving the sacred Union. The story of one Presbyterian minister who resisted that pressure to bring politics into pulpit, Samuel B. McPheeters, illustrates the perils of public neutrality and reveals how the war complicated church-state relations.
Born in North Carolina in 1819, McPheeters graduated from the University of North Carolina and Princeton Seminary before becoming a pastor in Virginia and Missouri, ending up in St. Louis. On sabbatical in the New Mexico Territory when the war began, he urged his home congregation at Pine Street Presbyterian in St. Louis to refrain from discussing politics in church. Upon his return he pursued a neutral course, believing that it accorded with the Gospel’s teachings on political matters, and that such neutrality would promote congregational unity among residents living in that divided city. Still, he took an oath of allegiance to the United States government, and from all appearances everyone seemed satisfied with his loyalty.
But some members of Pine Street Church wondered if their pastor’s silence was merely a pretext for hiding disloyal sentiments. After publicly articulating his apolitical views during the annual meeting of the Old School Presbyterian General Assembly in 1862, McPheeters returned to St. Louis to find a letter from 31 members of his church demanding that he divulge his personal sympathies or again publicly proclaim his loyalty. He refused, explaining that the church must stand above the political fray since its welfare was not linked to any particular administration or form of government but instead sought to advance the interests “of a Kingdom not of this world.”
Unpersuaded by this response, the disgruntled members threatened to leave the church in mid-October if McPheeters did not condemn the Confederacy. On Dec. 13 the ringleaders of the discontented party — George Strong, James Corbitt and John Ferguson — published their grievances in The Missouri Democrat, a staunchly Republican paper. Portrayed as a Confederate sympathizer, McPheeters drew the attention of local military authorities, and on Dec. 19 Gen. Samuel Curtis and Provost Marshal Franklin Dick issued Special Order No. 152, which prohibited the clergyman from preaching, banished him and his wife from the state on the grounds of “unmistakable evidence” of disloyalty and handed over control of Pine Street Church to Strong, Corbitt and Ferguson. The primary proof of McPheeters’s disloyal behavior, it seems, was that he had allowed a baby to be baptized as Sterling Price, after the former governor and Confederate general. After circulating the order, Dick boasted, “If the President will sustain me, I will rid the State of Rebel Preachers.”
Given 10 days to leave Missouri, the resolute minister determined to fight for the church’s freedom from civil interference. Journeying to Washington to present his case, McPheeters sought assistance from his former congregant, Attorney General Edward Bates, who secured an interview with Abraham Lincoln. When the three men met on Dec. 27, McPheeters was surprised that the president not only knew of him but was evidently predisposed against him from reading papers that his opponents had forwarded. After listening to the Presbyterian’s defense, Lincoln reportedly declared, “If this order should be revoked it would be considered a secession triumph.”
The president probed further about specific details, remarked that the war had blurred the line separating church and state, and concluded that McPheeters had not violated his oath of allegiance or committed any act justifying the harsh order. Aware of the implications of his decision, Lincoln proceeded cautiously, choosing to temporarily suspend the order of banishment until he reached a definitive judgment.
Lincoln’s directive was not well received. General Curtis immediately protested against allowing the “bad rebel doing injury here” to remain in St. Louis. Although he had been reprieved from exile, McPheeters was disappointed that he had failed to protect the church from governmental intrusion, since the military still banned him from preaching. Unrelenting in his pursuit of McPheeters, George Strong traveled to Washington and met with Lincoln himself.
Having heard both parties in person, on Jan. 2, 1863, Lincoln advised Curtis how to proceed. He believed that McPheeters truly sympathized with the South, yet he found no reason for expelling the minister, since he had taken an oath of allegiance and had not been charged with committing any act or neglecting any duty worthy of such treatment.
However, even though he doubted the propriety of punishing a citizen on the mere suspicion of disloyal sentiments, he gave Curtis permission to act in whatever manner he thought best for securing “the public good.” Lincoln then appended one of the most important statements made during the war regarding the proper relation between church and state: “The U.S. 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.”
The president clearly disapproved of civil and military authorities becoming entangled in religious affairs by removing certain ministers and appointing others without conclusive evidence of traitorous activity, but by deferring to the judgment of local officials, he practically ensured that such abuses would continue to occur.
After receiving word from Lincoln, Curtis revised Special Order No. 152 to permit McPheeters to remain in the city. Pine Street Presbyterian remained closed until early March 1863, when Strong and his allies relinquished control of the building. Still forbidden to preach, McPheeters refused a salary from the church. He found employment, ironically, in a municipal government office, and throughout the spring and summer of 1863 watched almost helplessly as Strong and a few sympathetic members of the Presbytery of St. Louis connived together in an attempt to have him officially expelled from the church.
After almost a year had elapsed with no change in his condition, he complained to Gov. Hamilton Gamble that the military allowed him to enjoy all the rights of a citizen apart from engaging in pastoral ministry, the one thing that he maintained the state had no power to deprive.
Things were moving, though: A short time earlier several individuals had appealed to Lincoln to have the Presbyterian reinstated to his pulpit. On Dec. 22, 1863, the perplexed president, who thought that the case had been settled, reiterated that the government had no business deposing or appointing ministers, and any person who did so acted without his approval. “The assumption that I am keeping Dr. M. from preaching in his church is monstrous,” an irritated Lincoln wrote.
After speaking with Bates, on Dec. 31 the attorney general notified McPheeters that “the President considers you as free in the enjoyment of your ecclesiastical rights.” In January 1864 McPheeters resumed preaching at Pine Street Presbyterian, albeit briefly, for later that year the Presbytery of St. Louis, in an effort to bolster its patriotic credentials, barred him from ministry. After the Presbyterian General Assembly declined to overrule this decision, McPheeters moved to Kentucky.
McPheeters’s troubles demonstrate the fine line that ministers who wanted to keep politics out of the pulpit had to walk during the war. Lincoln’s lip service to the separation of church and state cleared him from direct responsibility for any violations of religious freedom, yet at the same time he turned a blind eye as generals and provost marshals carried out policies that contradicted his known personal views. Within weeks he would learn that the government had authorized an extensive takeover of Southern churches, and he would draw on the opinions formed during the McPheeters affair for damage control.
Sean A. Scott is a history instructor at Huntington University and the author of “A Visitation of God: Northern Civilians Interpret the Civil War.”