Samuel McPheeters and His Commitment to Neutrality

Samuel McPheeters and His Commitment to Neutrality

            It was 1862, two days after Christmas. The American Civil War was still raging, when Samuel Brown McPheeters, Presbyterian pastor of the largest church in St. Louis, Missouri, met with President Lincoln to present his plea.

A Southern Preacher in the North

            Born in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1819, McPheeters earned a degree in law before moving to Princeton Theological Seminary. Licensed to preach in 1846, he spent two years serving as a missionary to slaves in Virginia. After a three-year pastorate in that state, he moved to St. Louis, where he married Eliza Cassandra Shank.

            In 1860, his poor health compelled him to take leave of absence. He moved to New Mexico, where he served as chaplain at Fort Union. He was still there when the Civil War broke out.

            By the time he returned to St. Louis, the war was everyone’s primary concern. Since he was born in the south, some assumed he backed the Confederacy, and pressured him to state his position.

            McPheeters refused. He didn’t think a pastor should publicly take sides. He was called to preach the gospel – not politics. Besides, he didn’t want to cause divisions in the church, which might include supporters of both sides. He took the mandatory oath of allegiance to the United States government, but continued to avoid discussing political matters. In 1862, he defended his stand at the annual meeting of the Old School Presbyterian General Assembly.

Suspicions and Accusations

            When he returned from the assembly, he found a letter, written by Elder George P. Strong and signed by 32 church members, demanding a full disclosure of his views. As evidence of his presumed Confederate sympathies, they mentioned his baptism of a baby named Sterling Price (after a Confederate general). They also objected to the fact that he prayed for rulers in general and not specifically for the President of the United States.

            McPheeters replied, in writing, that he had never, in the course of his eleven years as pastor, preached politics from the pulpit, and had always prayed a general prayer for those in authority, as Paul had taught Christians to do. As for the baptized baby, he had simply followed the prescribed formula for baptism, without asking the parents for the name beforehand. He didn’t think he had a right to demand that parents change their children’s names.

            “We are not only citizens of the State,” he continued, “but we are also citizens of a Kingdom that is not of this world. The dreadful contest now going on is one to which the Church, as such, is not a party. Let us see to it that she is not made a victim.”[1]

            Frustrated by his answers, three of the 32 men published their grievances in The Missouri Democrat, portraying him as a Confederate sympathizer.

            The article attracted the attention of the authorities of Missouri, which was then in the Union. On December 19, General Samuel Curtis and Provost Marshal Franklin Dick issued a special order, banishing McPheeters and his wife to a free state (north of Indianapolis and west of Pennsylvania), forbidding him to preach, and giving complete control of the church (including its physical property) to the clerk of the session of elders.

            The order was based on the fear that his example might influence others, especially young people, to “become active rebels.” Much of the blame was placed on McPheeters’s wife who, according to the order, “openly avows herself a rebel.”[2]

Lincoln’s Predicament

            McPheeters had ten days to leave Missouri. Racing against the clock, he wrote a public letter of defense and sent it to his friend and former congregant, Attorney General Edward Bates. Bates arranged a meeting with Abraham Lincoln.

            To McPheeters’ surprise, Lincoln had heard about his case, which he considered closed. After listening to the pastor’s defense, he questioned the wisdom of opposing Curtis’s decision. “If this order should be revoked it would be considered a secession triumph,”[3] he said.

            He asked McPheeters if he would preach differently in a different state. “No, sir,” McPheeters replied. “As a minister of the Gospel I conduct the worship of God’s house with no reference to human government. I hold that there are two kingdoms – both ordained by God – the State and the Church. I recognize in you the chief officer of the United States. With your duties I do not interfere.”[4]

            In the end, the president refrained from making a definite decision, but sent a telegram to Curtis, asking him to temporarily suspend the banishment.

            Curtis protested against this delay, which gave the “bad rebel” further opportunity of “doing injury.” He added that “rebel priests are dangerous and diabolical in society.”[5] He then sent two more letters – one delivered by Strong in person.

            Frustrated by this unexpected insistence, Lincoln replied he had – in all honesty – some suspicions about McPheeters’s political stand. “I believe he does sympathize with the rebels,” he wrote; “but the question remains whether such a man, of unquestioned moral character, who has taken such an oath as he has and can not even be charged with violating it, and can be charged with no other specific act of omission, can, with safety to the government, be exiled upon the suspicion of his secret sympathies.”[6]

Passing the Buck

            In the end, Lincoln passed the buck back to Curtis, giving him permission to act as he thought best in the interest of the public good, but reminded him of the government’s necessary limitations: “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.”[7]

            Curtis allowed McPheeters to remain in the city, but never lifted the prohibition to preach. The church remained closed, while McPheeters found employment in a municipal government office.

            McPheeters waited almost a year. When the situation didn’t change, he complained to Governor Hamilton Gamble that the military allowed him to enjoy all the rights of a citizen apart from engaging in pastoral ministry, a right which, according to Lincoln, was outside the government’s jurisdiction. In the meantime, some of McPheeters’s parishioners appealed to Lincoln again: “Is it not strange,” they said, “that the question of who should be allowed to preach in a Church in St. Louis shall be decided by the President of the United States?”[8]

            Surprised to see that the matter was not yet resolved, Lincoln ordered that the prohibition against McPheeters be lifted. On December 22, 1863, McPheeters resumed his pastoral duties.

            This seems like a happy ending to a torturous ordeal. In reality, things were not over. Far from giving up, Curtis and Dick appealed to the regional presbytery, threatening its members with imprisonment or banishment if they didn’t remove McPheeters from the church, in view of his presumed “renewed attempt to overthrow the government in Missouri.”[9]

            On May 15, 1864, McPheeters turned in his resignation as pastor of the church in St. Louis, in order to protect other ministers and their families. Although his congregation, by majority vote, asked him to withdraw the resignation, he accepted a call to a church in Mulberry, Kentucky.

            By that time, his health was giving way, so much that he had to preach while lying on a couch. When, at the end of the war, the church in St. Louis took advantage of new liberties to recall McPheeters to their pulpit, he returned on a visit and, still lying on his couch, explained that his health prevented him from accepting their much-appreciated invitation.

            He died on March 9, 1870, leaving behind his wife, two sons, and two daughters. He is remembered for his clear understanding of his pastoral duties at a time when the extreme passions of the civil war exacerbated the all-too-common confusion between church and state.

[1] John S. Grasty, Memoir of Rev. Samuel B. McPheeters, Louisville: Davidson Brothers & co., 1871, 128-129

[2] Ibid., 149

[3] Ibid., 184

[4] Ibid., 185

[5] Quoted in Preston D. Graham, ‎Stuart Robinson, A Kingdom Not of This World: Stuart Robinson's Struggle to Distinguish the Sacred from the Secular During the Civil War, Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 2002, 83

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 85

[9] Ibid, 86 (quoting the minutes of the meeting).


Simonetta Carr