The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Brothers and sisters at arms

The complex history of Lutherans during the Civil War

Gettysburg is where the Civil War and the Lutheran church most visibly intersect. Lutherans were Union soldiers and Confederates, allies of Lincoln and Southern defenders.

Slavery debate
The slavery debate came later to the Lutheran church than it did to many other denominations. Several Lutheran synods merged in 1820 to form the General Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the United States of America. While smaller church bodies continued to exist, the General Synod was dominant — and notably conservative compared to the predominant governing structures of the United Methodists, Baptists and Presbyterians, each of which split in the years leading up to the war.

Lutherans maintained a strong synod structure because “they simply agreed not to talk about it,” said Susan Wilds McArver, professor of church history and educational ministry at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, Columbia, S.C. “[General Synod Lutherans] elected to consider slavery a ‘political’ issue and, as such, one that had no place in ‘ecclesiastical’ discussions.”

That didn’t prevent individual Lutherans from taking more rigorous stands. Gettysburg College founder Samuel Simon Schmucker, for example, was known for his anti-slavery theology, and the college’s land was donated by abolitionist and Republican congressional firebrand Thaddeus Stevens.

By the 1830s, however, some smaller Lutheran bodies began to assert abolitionist sentiments. The Franckean Synod in New York adopted a resolution in 1838 that launched the broader church into a contentious debate. Franckeans declared themselves abolitionists in no uncertain terms, arguing “boldly and plainly against this great national and heinous sin.” By 1845 they declared that fellowship was impossible with any “ecclesiastical body” tolerating, apologizing for or remaining silent upon the issue of slavery.

Before the 19th century, McArver said these sentiments wouldn’t have been out of place even among Southern Lutherans. “The ‘Salzberger Lutherans,’ refugees from Europe who came to Georgia in the 1730s seeking religious freedom, did not allow slavery in their settlement in the earliest colonial period,” she said, and as late as the 1820s the Tennessee Synod briefly took an anti-slavery stand.

Lutheran churches throughout the South included black and white members. In fact, the percentage of African-American Lutherans in the U.S. reached its historic apogee in the years leading up to 1860.

But there were limits to this inclusivity. “The fear of slave uprisings led Southern states to outlaw any type of independent gathering of African-Americans, including church meetings,” McArver said. This meant they joined a white church, met in secret or “as was most common, participat[ed] in some combination of both,” she added.

Some Southern Lutheran churches became known as hospitable places for free people of color. In particular, John Bachman, pastor of St. John Lutheran, Charleston, S.C., led a large congregation including almost 200 enslaved and free African-Americans. Bachman and these members supported the ministry of Jehu Jones, the first ordained African-American Lutheran pastor, and Boston Drayton, who became “not the first African-American missionary, but the first Lutheran missionary, period” to work in Africa, McArver said.

But most Lutherans weren’t as willing as their colonial-era forebears or the Franckeans to assert abolitionist sentiments so strongly — and many from the South were of a different mindset altogether.

As secession began in winter 1860, tensions within the General Synod boiled toward the surface. Over time Southern Lutherans dismissed abolitionism as theologically incorrect and proclaimed Northerners’ bad theology to be sufficient grounds for secession. Postponed for a year, a General Synod meeting finally met in Lancaster, Pa., in May 1862, but the synods of South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, western Virginia and Texas failed to send delegates.

With so many Southern delegates absent, synod opinion favored a much more strident assertion of Union support. The General Synod condemned secession as “wicked in its inception, unjustifiable in its cause, unnatural in its character, inhuman in its prosecution, oppressive in its aims, and destructive in its results to the highest interests of morality and religion.”

The war itself was a “righteous judgment of God” visited upon Americans for their individual and national sins, but most notably for “the continuance and spread of domestic slavery in our land.”

Hailing calls for emancipation, the delegates went on to pray God’s wisdom upon Lincoln and the military struggle to deliver the Union from “treason and anarchy.”

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