Project Canterbury

History of the American Episcopal Church 1600-1915

By the Reverend S. D. McConnell, D.D., D.C.L., LL. D.

Milwaukee: Morehouse Publishing Co., 1934.
London: A. R. Mowbray & Co., 1934.

Part Second. The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States.

Chapter XI. In War Time

Division of Churches upon the question of Slavery; political division furthered thereby; Episcopal Church not divided; general sentiment in the Church; the Church faulted; mutual understanding; Southern Bishops oppose secession; Southern idea of the Church and the States; Secession; the Church and the Union; the Church in the Confederacy; conflict with Federal authorities; General Butler as a Canonist; fall of the Confederate Church.

The same institution whose presence in America ultimately caused secession had long before caused ecclesiastical divisions. The great secession in 1845 had split the Methodist Church in two. One of its bishops had been found to be "an owner of slaves, by marriage." [Stevens: American Methodism, pp. 525-6.] He was required to purge himself of his fault or lay down his office. The Southern delegates stood by him, and the Methodist Church South was organized.

In 1857 the "New School Presbyterian Church" took similar ground in an expression of opinion upon the Fugitive Slave Law, whereupon several Southern presbyteries withdrew from their connection, and became the nucleus around which the Southern Presbyterian Church was built in 1861. [Schaff-Herzog Encyci., p. 1908.]

Among the Baptists, and all denominations of Congregational type, there had been, of course, no formal separation, for there had never been any organic union, but their formal "fellowship" had long stopped at Mason and Dixon's line.

The Church of Rome had never divided upon the question for quite a different reason. Her unity has nothing to do with the unity of national life, but is centred in a foreign potentate. But all American churches, except the Protestant Episcopal, had ranged themselves toward the same question of negro slavery, which was working to a settlement in the national life.

These foregone ecclesiastical divisions had much to do with making political separation possible. [Johns: Life of Bishop Meade, pp. 492, 494.] They had familiarized people's minds with the idea. They had withdrawn members of the same spiritual family so far away from each other that mutual understanding became impossible.

In the Episcopal Church this was not the case. Its members North and South were in more friendly relation, and had a better comprehension of each other's thought upon the fundamental question, than had the members of any other organization, religious or secular. The Church had never called slaveholding a sin. It had never made it a matter of discipline. It saw more clearly than did the divided denominations what were the real difficulties involved in its settlement. At the organization of the Church, its members felt about the matter as did the great mass of the Christian people of their time. Slavery was then common to all the colonies. It was accepted as part of the constitution of things. Its practical evils were evident to many, but in itself it was generally accepted to be warranted by Scripture and ancient custom. But a sentiment against it was even then rising. The social and political ills attached to the institution were becoming apparent. There was an instinct that it was antagonistic to the fundamental conception of American political life. This sentiment gained ground slowly, but surely, in the Northern States. As it spread it produced gradual emancipation. But this had taken effect so recently in many Northern States that the old way of regarding slavery, in theory, had not been changed. It had been seen to be practicably undesirable, but not morally indefensible. The great mass of Northern people did not think themselves to be partakers of other men's sins by living in a government which permitted it within its borders. They did not forget that they had lately shared the sin, if it were one. So late as 1850 there were still slaves in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. [Williams: History of the Negro Race in America, vol. ii. p. 99. This history, written by a negro, a member of the Ohio Legislature, is valuable in many regards.] In 1860 there were still living in the prime of life colored men who had been born bondsmen in the Northern States. But for a generation the relation of the general government toward slavery had been the burning question. It had engaged men's thoughts and emotions far more deeply than any issue that has confronted them, before or since. The Church was blamed for her attitude. Some of her own children thought and spoke of her with shame. They begged her to bear her testimony against this "sum of all villanies"; to break out of this "league with death and covenant with hell." The great Bishop Wilberforce exclaims with horror that "the Spirit of Missions, edited with the sanction of the Church, and under the eye of the Bishop of New York, proposes to endow a mission school in Louisiana with a plantation to be worked by slaves." [Wilberforce: History of the American Church, p. 427. The writer has but seldom referred to Bishop Wilberforce's History. It is not of great value. It bears the mark of the haste with which it was prepared, and the scantiness of the authorities at its author's command. See Life of Bishop Wilberforce, p. 87.] Churchmen offered no protest when the Bishop of Georgia proposed to maintain the "Montpelier Institute" by slave labor, or when the Bishop of South Carolina denounced the "malignant philanthropy of abolition." With the Abolitionists as a party, the Church had but little sympathy. The intemperance of their denunciations, their incapacity to understand the facts, their close affiliation with infidelity, [Caswall: American Church and Union, p. 278.] all offended her. Church people held rather with President Lincoln. They saw the evils of the institution, and looked for its abolition, but they saw also how closely it was interwoven with the structure of society, and were not ready for heroic surgery. [Nicolay and Hay: Life of Abraham Lincoln, in loc. Raymond: Life and State Papers of Abraham Lincoln, p. 759.] The Church preserved the same policy toward slavery that she has always done toward intemperance and poverty. They are evils to be eradicated by strengthening the constitutional life, rather than by the exhibition of specifics.

The manner of life in the South was more familiar to her than it was to any other religious body. There had been no separation or cessation of intercourse. Every three years the representatives of all the dioceses sat together for weeks in General Convention. The bishops, North and South, were in constant correspondence, Meade with M'Ilvaine, Whittingham with Hopkins. [Johns: Life of Bishop Meade, p. 492.] The Bishops of Virginia, Ohio, Tennessee, and Louisiana had kept the promise mutually given long before that they would pray for each other by name every Sunday morning. [Ib., p. 237.] Each section was fully aware of the others' sentiments. Northern Churchmen had often heard the Bishop of Virginia say, and in general they agreed with him, that slavery was never to his taste; but that he had no conscientious scruples as to its lawfulness. [Ib., p. 476.] They knew that he had, like many others, emancipated slaves himself, only to find the poor creatures helpless vagabonds in the midst of a slaveholding community. [Caswall: American Church and Union, p. 276.] Indeed, manumission of individuals was a very doubtful kindness. When that sturdy Vermonter, Bishop Chase, went to live in New Orleans, he was compelled to purchase his negro Jack, because he could not obtain a servant in any other way. But having ended his residence there, he was at his wit's end to know what to do with Jack. [Chase: Reminiscences, vol. i. p. 75.] Northern Churchmen knew that their brethren in the South were not altogether unmindful of the religious welfare of their slaves. They knew that in South Carolina there were a hundred and fifty congregations of negroes for a hundred of whites; [Caswall: p. 273.] that the Bishop of Virginia had preached his Convention Sermon upon the duty owed by the whites to negroes; that thousands of them were regular and faithful communicants.

All these things did not change their opinion of slavery. It was bad, only bad, and that continually. But this mutual understanding and sympathy kept the Church together while the Union lasted, and brought it together again as soon as that was restored.

In 1860 it became evident that a slaveholding people and a free people would not live in the same house. But when secession was first proposed it was strenuously resisted by the leading Southern bishops. The Bishop of Virginia used his great influence against it. [Johns: Life of Bishop Meade, p. 492. "You see that I am almost in despair. I am told that our clergy in Charleston preach in favor of disunion. I fear some of our bishops consent, or why have I heard of no remonstrance?"] The Bishop of Maryland was still more outspoken, and remained steadfast to the Union through all. [Brand: Life of Bishop Whittingham, vol. ii. pp. 11, 20.] In its defence he sacrificed the love of lifelong friends, and nearly broke his heart. Otey of Tennessee wrote to Bishop Polk, "It is God alone that can still the madness of the people. To what quarter shall we look when such men as you and Elliott deliberately favor secession? What can we expect, other than violence among the masses, when the fathers of the land openly avow their determination to destroy the work which their fathers established at the expense of their blood?" [Green: Life of Bishop Otey, p. 90.]

But when secession became a political fact, the Southern Churchmen maintained that it carried with it ecclesiastical separation. They contended that they had no choice. When the States in which they lived went out of the Union, they bore the Church with them as really as a ship bears her company out to sea. To their minds the separation was as complete as though a physical chasm had suddenly yawned between the North and the South. [Wilmer: The Recent Past, p.226. "As if an abyss had suddenly yawned between the two sections."] Bishops Polk and Elliott say in a circular letter, "This necessity does not arise out of any division which has occurred within the Church itself, nor from any dissatisfaction with either the doctrine or discipline of the Church. We rejoice to record that we are today, as Churchmen, as truly brethren as we have ever been, and that no deed has been done, or word uttered, which leaves a single wound rankling in any breast." The Southern Churchmen had retained the original idea that the general Church was made by a voluntary compact of autonomous State Churches, long after that idea had faded out of mind in the North. Bishop Meade had not taken kindly to the General Missionary Society, and had opposed the General Seminary for this very reason. They seemed to him to be movements toward a centralization which he believed to be contrary both to the spirit and the policy of the Church. [Johns: Life of Bishop Meade, pp. 109, 504.] When the States seceded one by one, the Churches within them reverted to their primitive diocesan independence. No violent revolution in their ecclesiastical ideas was needed to bring them into harmony with their new situation. When the States confederated themselves into a new nation, it was the most natural thing for the dioceses to confederate themselves into a new Church. All their previous habits of thought made the way easy for them. [Green: Life of Bishop Otey, p. 121.]

When the General Convention met in New York in 1862, the chasm had opened between the two sections, and war was already raging. The Southern dioceses were absent. What should the Church do in this new exigency?

Once, long before, the delegates from a geographical section had been absent. A belt of yellow fever had cut off New England from the other States. At that time, the Church had accepted the physical explanation, and proceeded without the absent brethren. The same thing was done now. The Convention tacitly adopted the same theory which had controlled the action of the Southern dioceses. There was a physical obstacle in the way of their coming. But every day the roll of all the States was called. [General Convention Journal, 1862.] The delegates might come and take their seats if they would or could. The possibility of any diocese being voluntarily absent was ignored. By the next triennial Convention they had returned. The General Convention continued to act as the representative of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States. The Nation did not acknowledge that any States had gone; no more did the Church.

But it was confronted with the question of what was its duty to the Nation in this its hour of need. The deliverance of a body so influential as the Episcopal Church would carry weight, and was anxiously looked for. It was given without hesitation in favor of the Union. A committee of nine was appointed to prepare a fitting declaration. [General Convention Journal, 1862.] When reported and adopted, after long and earnest discussion, it set forth: That obedience to civil authority is a Christian's duty and a Churchman's habit; that while the Convention had no hard words for its brethren in the South, it could not be blind to the fact that they were "in open and armed resistance to regularly constituted government;" that as individual citizens the members of the Convention will not be found wanting in word or deed to aid the country in its struggle; that as the council of a Church which hath ever renounced all political action, they can only pray that the National Government may be successful in this its rightful endeavor.

A lay deputy from Maryland opposed the action, on the ground that a Church council may not concern itself in any way with political questions. The Presiding Bishop, Hopkins of Vermont, took the same position, and refused to read the Pastoral Letter which expressed the same general sentiment of patriotism. [Brand: Life of Bishop Whittingham, vol. ii. p. 32.] These objections were brushed aside. The issue was felt to be moral rather than political. Ecclesiastical precisians could not be heard upon it. The whole weight of the Church's influence, which was not small, was given to the Union side throughout the struggle. In the very darkest hour, when it became almost a matter of life or death to change the drift of English sympathy from the Southern to the Northern side, Bishop M'Ilvaine was one of the ambassadors at large to the English people, chosen and informally accredited by President Lincoln. Together with Thurlow Weed, Henry Ward Beecher, and Archbishop Hughes, he went to England. He had entertained the Prince of Wales while visiting this country, and was well known among that class who most needed to be set right upon the true nature of the conflict. Few men effected more for the Union cause than did the Bishop of Ohio by this embassage. [Dyer: Records of an Active Life, p. 280.]

Meanwhile the absent dioceses had organized the Church in the Confederate States. [The material for this sketch of the Church in the Confederate States is chiefly taken from a monograph of that title by the Rev. Dr. John Fulton in Perry's History of the American Church, vol. ii. pp. 561--692.] Its leaders were Polk, the Bishop of Louisiana, and Elliott, the Bishop of Georgia. The Bishop of Virginia was with them now in sympathy, but he was old and near to die. In March of 1861 Polk and Elliott met at Sewannee, Tenn., on business connected with the University of the South. By that time South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas had seceded. The Church in each was an ecclesiastical fragment, floating in space. They were only more fortunate than the colonists had been at the close of the Revolution, in that they had diocesan organizations and bishops. Some one must volunteer to lead them if they were to confederate. Polk and Elliott took up the task. They addressed a circular letter, asking each seceded diocese to send delegates to a conference to be held at Montgomery, Ala., in July. In response to their call thirty delegates came. Four bishops were present, Elliott of Georgia, Green of Mississippi, Rutledge of Florida, and Davis of South Carolina. Cobbs of Alabama had just died; Otey of Tennessee was ill; Meade of Virginia was old and infirm; Atkinson of North Carolina did not respond; Gregg of Texas was cut off by the blockade; Polk had entered the Confederate Army. Six dioceses were represented by clergy or laymen. All three orders sat in one House. There were no rules, in the nature of the case. The Convention was not a Church, but the material out of which one might be framed. They agreed that it was "necessary and expedient" that the dioceses of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the seceded States should form among themselves an independent organization. It was urged that the eyes of the Confederacy were upon them, and that they owed the new government the moral support which they could give it by acting as if they expected it to be abiding. An ecclesiastical reason also pressed. Alabama was without a bishop. If it should elect a man to that office, as was likely, who would take order for his consecration? The situation was difficult. The Convention was not large enough or representative enough to go forward to a complete organization; it was too large and too conspicuous to go back and leave nothing done. They therefore took a recess until the following October, appointing a committee, of three of each order, to prepare a constitution and canons meanwhile. When October came, all the States in the Confederacy were represented save Texas, and all the bishops present except General Polk. Then they went forward and adopted the constitution and canons, substantially the same as those they had been familiar with in the general Church, thus perfecting the Church in the Confederacy. The name of "Reformed Catholic" was proposed for the new organization, but failed of adoption. Following the guidance of existing facts, as the Conference in Maryland had done eighty years before, they called it the "Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States of America." The Prayer Book was changed by substituting Confederate States for United States throughout. [Dr. Fulton calls attention to the curious fact that in the only edition of this Prayer Book ever published (by Eyre and Spottiswoode, London), the words United States remained by an oversight in the Forms of Prayer to be Used at Sea. So that aboard the "Alabama" (if the company prayed at all) they must pray, "That we maybe a safeguard to the United States of America, and a security for such as pass on the seas on their lawful occasions"!] Arkansas, then a Missionary Jurisdiction of the old Church, was admitted as a diocese in the new one. Shortly afterward Alabama elected Dr. R. H. Wilmer to be its bishop. This compelled the new Church to discharge the functions of a General Council. The consent of the several standing committees was secured, and the senior bishop in the Confederacy took order for his consecration. In all respects the new organization proceeded to act as a national Church.

But in the daily life of its members it encountered grave difficulties. Apart from the hardships and privations which arose from their territory being the seat of war, their liturgical worship brought them constantly into conflict with the Federal military authorities. Their Liturgy put into their mouths words of prayer for the Confederacy instead of for the United States and its President. Its use put them at a disadvantage as compared with the other Christian people in the Confederacy. The Romish Liturgy, being in a language not understanded of the people, and recognizing no ruler but the Pope, could be used in the United States or in the Confederacy or in the planet Jupiter with equal fitness. Non-Liturgical clergymen could avoid words of constructive treason by any periphrases they chose. If their petitions were only intelligible by God, they need not offend any earthly authority. But Churchmen were in an evil case. If they held public worship at all, they must offend. To use the prayers for the rulers or to omit them was equally dangerous. In 1862 General Butler issued an order that "the omission, in the service of the Protestant Episcopal Church in New Orleans, of the Prayers for the President of the United States, would be regarded as evidence of hostility to the Government of the United States." In a lengthy correspondence which ensued, the general undertook to show the clergy what the Canon Law required in the premises. His canonical knowledge was equal to his military skill. But the discussion was terminated by the forcible closure of the churches. The rectors were arrested and sent North as military prisoners, but upon their arrival at New York were at once set at liberty. Similar conflicts were constantly occurring as the Federal forces gained control of more and more territory. Dr. Wingfield of Portsmouth, Va., was condemned to the chain gang for a similar offence. Dr. Smith of Alexandria was arrested in his chancel for refusing to use the Prayer for the President of the United States at the command of a military officer who was present. [Slaughter: Memorial of the Rev. George Archibald Smith, p. 41.] General Woods inhibited the Bishop and all the clergy of Alabama. For a time, the churches in that State were closed, and armed guards stationed at the doors to keep them from being opened. [Wilmer: The Recent Past, p. 146.] The Bishop was followed to his retreat by an officer instructed to see that he should pray for the President of the United States. One of his clergy consented to use the prayer for the President, but "under protest"! [The Bishop, very properly, wonders what would be the precise effect of such a prayer?] A letter from the Bishop to President Lincoln produced an immediate revocation of the obnoxious order. Such instances might be multiplied indefinitely. The Church in the South had set itself in antagonism to the United States by the very fact of its existence. Its raison d'ĂȘtre was the assumption that certain States had actually withdrawn from the Union. From the Northern point of view, they not only had not gone out, but by attempting to do so they had committed a flagrant offence. The Church became particeps criminis in the offence. Its Liturgy made it impossible for it to evade the consequences of its original act of organization. The only final justification of revolution is success. In this case success was wanting. In its absence, all concerned in the attempt bore their share of the awful cost of failure. None bore it with a better grace or a more patient dignity than the short-lived Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States.

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