Baptists and the American Civil War: December 22, 1863

Abraham LincolnAlthough white Baptists of the Confederacy revile U.S. President Abraham Lincoln as (variously) the “black president,” an infidel, heretic, barbarian and an evil abolitionist (among other disparaging labels), and some Baptists of the North lament the President’s seeming lack of interest in religion, Lincoln maintains an open door in regards to ministers of the Gospel. Many Northern Baptist ministers (and other Christian ministers in the North) to date during the war have made a pilgrimage to the President’s office and spoken with him regarding faith, abolitionism, and the war.

Today Lincoln pens a letter in response to a recent written request of three dozen Presbyterian citizens of St. Louis, Missouri. The Presbyterians want Lincoln to intervene in a local church matter. The president will have none of it. His letter echoes the church state separation beliefs of his Baptist upbringing, whether consciously or not.

DECEMBER 22, 1863

I have just looked over a petition signed by some three dozen citizens of St. Louis, and three accompanying letters, one by yourself, one by a Mr. Nathan Ranney, and one by a Mr. John D. Coalter, the whole relating to the Rev. Dr. McPheeters. The petition prays, in the name of justice and mercy that I will restore Dr. McPheeters to all his ecclesiastical rights.

This gives no intimation as to what ecclesiastical rights are withheld. Your letter states that Provost Marshal Dick, about a year ago, ordered the arrest of Dr. McPheters, Pastor of the Vine Street Church, prohibited him from officiating, and placed the management of the affairs of the church out of the control of it’s chosen Trustees; and near the close you state that a certain course “would insure his release.” Mr. Ranney’s letter says “Dr. Saml. S. McPheeters is enjoying all the rights of a civilian, but can not preach the gospel!!!” Mr. Coalter, in his letter, asks “Is it not a strange illustration of the condition of things that the question of who shall be allowed to preach in a church in St. Louis, shall be decided by the President of the United States?”

Now, all this sounds very strangely; and withal, a little as if you gentlemen making the application, do not understand the case alike, one affirming that the Dr. is enjoying all the rights of a civilian, and another pointing out to me what will secure his release! On the 2nd. day of January last I wrote Gen. Curtis in relation to Mr. Dick’s order upon Dr. McPheeters, and, as I suppose the Dr. is enjoying all the rights of a civilian, I only quote that part of my letter which relates to the church. It is as follows: “But I must add that 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 the churches, as such must take care of themselves. It will not do for the U.S. to appoint Trustees, Supervisors, or other agents for the churches.” This letter going to Gen. Curtis, then in command there I supposed of course it was obeyed, especially as I heard no further complaint from Dr. M. or his friends for nearly an entire year.

I have never interfered, nor thought of interfering as to who shall or shall not preach in any church; nor have I knowingly, or believingly, tolerated any one else to so interfere by my authority. If any one is so interfering, by color of my authority, I would like to have it specifically made known to me.

If, after all, what is now sought, is to have me put Dr. M. 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.

Yours Respectfully


Lincoln’s commitment to the government remaining out of church affairs, however, will soon be questioned by Southern Baptists when, in the coming months, the President grants permission to Northern Christian denominational leaders to assist empty churches in Union-controlled areas of the South in the task of rebuilding their congregations … to the anger of Confederate Christians.

Source: Abraham Lincoln Letter to Oliver D. Filley, Dec. 22. 1863 (link)