The Lutheran Church and the War Between the States

Since Joel has been talking about the war between the States, I thought I would post a paper I wrote for my Lutheranism in North America class.

Raymond Bost and Jeff Norris put it best: “The visible bonds of Lutheran unity which transcended state and region were strained but not ruptured prior to the outbreak of the Civil War.” The national politics of the 1860s was represented in the Lutheran church split. The Lutheran church was bitterly divided by theological and political issues; the same issues that divided a nation in a Civil War.

The Lutheran Church before 1861

The issue of slavery was being debated well before the United States was divided by the Civil War. “In fact, long before the creation of the Confederacy and the call for establishing a general church body for Lutherans in the South, the institutions of chattel slavery and a growing sense of distinctiveness between North and South had prepared the ground for these developments.” It was, however, surprising that the Lutheran church entered into the debate on slavery relatively late when compared to other denominations. Other denominations such as the Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists had been discussing the question of slavery since the late 1700s.

Prior to the 1830s, the Lutheran church had no official stance on slavery. It was not until the Abolitionist Movement began to gain national prominence that the issue of slavery came up within the Lutheran church. The slavery debate existed in other denominations from much earlier in the nations history. By 1836, “the Church in general throughout the United States began active anti-slavery propaganda.” Within the Lutheran Church, one of the early opponent of slavery was the Franckean Synod of New York State.

At the 1838 convention of the Franckean Synod, just one year after their formation, they unanimously adopted a resolution that would eventually become the springboard for the debate on the slavery issues within the Lutheran church. The resolution read, “That we conceive it to be our imperative duty to speak boldly and plainly against this great national and heinous sin.”

By 1845, the Franckean Synod strengthened its position on slavery by passing a more defined resolution stating:

That this Synod, form a conscientious sense of duty cannot hold fellowship with any Synod, Presbytery, Conference, Classis or other ecclesiastical body, while under its jurisdiction, or in its connection it tolerates, apologizes for, or is silent on the sin of American slavery especially if said ecclesiastical bodies justify and defend the above specified sin by an appeal to the Holy Scriptures which in the judgment of this Synod is blasphemy against Almighty God and a shocking prostitution of the Word.

Within the General Synod as a national entity, however, the issue of slavery was not addressed prior to the beginning of the war. Other denominations struggled with the slavery question and fractured. Lutherans were quite content not to discuss the question of slavery. Hugh G. Anderson states, “While Lutherans held strong opinions on the slavery question, and their opinions tended to follow the prevailing views of their particular section, they evidently avoided even private expression of opinion when attending conventions.”  The issue of slavery would come to a head in the General Synod in 1862 and would set the stage for the split between northern and southern Lutherans within the General Synod.

The first factor which contributed to the “fracturing of the body politic” and with the General Synod was slavery.  The second was sectionalism, “a consciousness of regional identity that became so strong and virulent as to rupture the republic and cause American to take up arms against Americans.”  This sectionalism set the two halves of the nation at odds. The North began to view the agrarian and slave-holding South as an embarrassing backwater and the South came to view their neighbors as a cold industrial machine who wanted to dictate their lives. The major issues arose for the South when the North attempted to control the South through legislation. This lead to feelings of animosity towards the North as well as the cohesion of a distinctively Southern identity. “As the conviction grew in the South that it was different, not only in its economic interests, but in its culture and values as well, the region betrayed an increasingly widespread willingness to make political realities correspond with these feelings of distinctiveness and independence.”  These feelings were very much prevalent throughout the Lutheran churches in the South.

Issues of states rights and sectionalism would climax in December 1860 when South Carolina would become the first state to secede from the Union.  By May 1861, the total of number of states that had seceded from the Union was eleven. With the Civil War now being fought, the Lutheran Church was divided by more than just geographic location. It is within this context that the Lutheran Church suffered a physical and theological split.

The Lutheran Church in the South from 1861-1865

The Lutheran church hotly debated two issues following the secession of the South: abolition and the validity of the secession. On the issues of abolition, the Lutheran churches in the South dismissed abolition as being theologically incorrect “since the argument had been already established that abolition had no theological basis, any theological or ecclesiastical support of abolition was, eo ipso, bad theology.” The debate on secession stemmed from the debate on slavery and abolition. Therefore, since abolitionism was bad theology, the South was justified in seceding. At the beginning of the war, abolition and secession were fiercely debated within the church, but it should be kept in mind that the General Synod would not break apart for two more years. “Although the southern synods may have been reluctant to break ecclesiastical ties with their northern brethren, politically they voiced wholehearted approval of the secession.” Josiah Smeltzer writes concerning the secession,

Lincoln was elected & the only alternative left the South was to submit to the destruction of her principles or leave the Union & fight for them. She chose the latter…. When the South seceded she wished to be left alone but the north would not submit to her leaving, but was determined to keep her in the union. Hence this unhallowed Fratricidal war! is waged against us & the result is not yet known. The North feels the loss of Southerner wealth & this perhaps is the great reason they are compelling us to remain in the Union.

Both the northern and southern churches resorted to a war of rhetoric prior to the separation in 1862/63. Both sides accused the other of fanaticism. The meaning of fanaticism varied depending on which side was speaking. Kleckley explains, “For northern Lutherans, fanaticism meant the spirit of secession, while Lutherans in the South defined it as the inseparable spirits of abolition and Union Aggression.” The longer the disagreement within the church continued, the stronger the language became.

Within Lutheran churches in the South, the separation language in relation to the General Synod began to appear in 1861. At its Synod Convention in 1861, the Southwest Virginia Synod called for the Southern Synods to form their own alliance similar to the General Synod. The proposal was to “appeal to the Lutheran Synods in the South to form such an alliance for the present; for the maintenance of our standing among the churches of our system denominations, and for the fulfillment of our mission as a church with brighter hope of success.”

The General Synod was scheduled to meet in 1861, however, the meeting was postponed for a year. At the General Synod convention in 1862, the following Synods did not send delegates to Lancaster, Pennylvania: South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Western Virginia, and Texas.  At this meeting of the General Synod, a resolution was accepted concerning the secession of the Southern States that condemned the secession as: “wicked in its inception, unjustifiable in it cause, unnatural in its character, inhuman in it prosecution, oppressive in its aims, and destructive in its results to the highest interests of morality and religion.” The resolution went on and called for:

all our people to lift up holy hands in prayer to the God of battles, without personal wrath against the evil doer on the one hand, and without doubting the righteousness of our cause on the other, that He would give wisdom to the President and his counsellors, and success to the army and navy, that our beloved land may speedily be delivered from treason and anarchy.

This resolution added fuel to the fire, and helped to further divide the Lutheran Churches in the North from the Lutheran churches in the South as the Southern churches would later see this as threatening and oppressive. It would also be one of the reasons that the southern churches would not reunite with the northern church after the war ended.

In the 1862 South Carolina Synod Assembly, the delegates unanimously adopted a resolution officially ending the South Carolina Synod’s relationship with the General Synod and called upon other Lutheran Synods in the South to do the same by stating,

we have now arrived at the solemn conviction that it is essential to the good of our church and the promotion of the glory of God, that the Evangelical Lutheran Churches of these Confederate States withdraw all connection with the Northern General Synod, and by this solemn and unanimous act we declare this connection as dissolved.

Within this same statement, the South Carolina Synod adopted a resolution to send delegates to the convention that was to be held in Salisbury, North Carolina in May 1863. The Synod also affirmed the secession of the Southern States and recognized the legitimacy of the government of the Confederate States of America.

Resolved, That we recognize the hand of God in the wisdom of those councils and the heroism of our brave defenders, which have enabled us to form a Government of our choice. Resolved, that we recognize the right of these States in having seceded and formed an independent government, to which our undivided allegiance is due.

Other southern synods soon followed the lead of the South Carolina Synod and severed ties with the General Synod.

The first meeting the General Synod South was held in Concord, North Carolina from May 22 to May 26, 1863. In his address to the Convention, Nicodemus Aldrich, the provisional President of the General Synod South stated,

Brethren of the Convention: The circumstance which have called us this day together are widely different from those which assembled us in former years. We meet, not to rejoice, but to lament – not to speak of the prosperity of Zion, but to consider her distracted condition, and to behold her once fair proportions marred by the evil passions of misguided men. We meet to consider our duty under the circumstances by which we are surrounded; to obtain wisdom by united counsel, and, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to devise such measures as my ultimately enlarge the borders of our Church in this Southern land, and make her successful in the accomplishment of her high and holy mission.

Aldrich goes on to state that just as in the realm of politics, there comes a time in which an ecclesiastical body needs to sever ties with other ecclesiastical bodies. However, Aldrich states that in the severing of ties, reasons need to be given. Aldrich claims that the Northern and Southern churches had been divided for years before he lists other complaints against the General Synod.

While we have always cheerfully conceded to the Northern Church the right to judge for themselves in matters of conscience, we at the same time have demanded that this privilege be extended to us. But how often has it been denied! And, in our General Assemblies, how frequently of late has Christian courtesy been violated, and all the generous emotions of our nature mortified, by the intemperate zeal of those in whom we confided as ‘brethren of the same household of faith’! And now, that a cruel and sanguinary war is waged against us by the Government of the United States, with a spirit of malignity that disgraces our common humanity, so far from uttering a word of remonstrance or protesting against its continuance, the Northern Church has actually gloried in these scenes of blood and carnage, and, by a formal resolution, declared it to be the duty of the government to prosecute this war even to our subjugation. It is under these circumstances, and for these reasons, we renounce them as brethren; and it becomes us this day to make our separation form them final and complete.

His words completed the split between General Synod and the General Synod South.

The split within the Lutheran church came at a time when those in the South still believed that the Confederates States of America would gain independence from the Union. Josiah Smeltzer writes,

The war has gone on steadily. Sometimes the South victorious & sometimes the North. On the whole the South has been rapidly gaining ground & no doubt will ere long gain her independence…I believe the South had a right to secede & if the North would let us alone all would have been well.

As the war dragged on, however, this confidence faded and sentiments within the synods in the South began to change. By late 1863, congregations that were once within the Confederate States of America were now in enemy territory. Minutes from the Virginia Synod from 1863 convey this reality, “This has been no ordinary year with us. A goodly number of our churches and some of our ministers, were during the greater part of the year, within the lines of our common Enemy.” Synods began to reflect the change in the tide of the war. At the South Carolina Synod convention in October 1863, the President reports, “At the time of our last meeting the prospects of our country a brighter aspect than at present. For some wise purpose, known only to Him who sways the scepter of universal dominion, a cloud has been permitted to gather over our political sky, and our national cause has been doomed to suffer sad reverses.” Some synods began to question the earlier assumption that God was on their side. The President of the North Carolina Synod mimicked the South Carolina Synod president’s emotions, stating, “This past year has been one of blood and tears, and it is to hoped, this terrible scourge of the Almighty, will make us a better people.” These sentiments were even reflected in the General Synod South as a whole, “We cannot, however, deny that the sins of our nation have brought down upon us the visitations and punishments of God.” As more Southern territory fell to the Union, these types of lamentations only grew.

The Lutheran Church after 1865

Following the end of the Civil War in 1865, there was an attempt to re-unite the General Synod South and the General Synod. This attempt was advocated by the Lutherans in the northern church. First, Lutherans in the north said that “the outcome of the Civil War had removed all sectional difference.”  The Confederate States of America no longer existed and the churches in the South and “he necessity for a southern Church organization had, therefore, been removed….” Since there was no reason for the General Synod South in the eyes of northern Lutherans, there should be a reunification of the southern churches with the northern. Second, the prominent Lutherans in the South who had originally pushed for the formation of the General Synod should, in the eyes of northern Lutherans, “still feel a deep interest in it and attachment thereto.”

The Lutheran church in the South did not agree with the church in the North for several reasons. First, they maintained that independence was still necessary for the progress of the church in the South. Second, “roblems particular to the South demanded southern Lutheran institutions and literature.” Third, the General Synod was anything but stable. It was preparing to undergo another split with the admission of the Franckean Synod. Fourth, the fiery language, to say the least, of the resolutions adopted by the General Synod in 1862 prevented the reunification of the northern church and the southern church.

In 1866, the Lutheran church saw another division as the General Council of Evangelical Lutheran Churches in North America was formed. The division came about because of the admission of the Franckean Synod into the General Synod in 1864. The Franckean Synod “had not adopted the Augsburg Confession as its doctrinal basis” and this caused a heated debate within the General Synod when they were considering the Franckean Synods petition to be included in the General Synod. Several delegates, led by the Pennsylvania Synod protested and the Pennsylvania Synod withdrew from the convention. At the 1866 convention of the General Synod, separation became complete when the Pennsylvania Synod withdrew from the convention. A few weeks later, the Pennsylvania Synod withdrew from the General Synod and was instrumental in organizing the General Council.

In 1876, the Lutheran Church in the United States saw a move towards cooperation between the General Synod, the General Synod South, and the General Council with the beginnings of a common worship book. The move towards cooperation continued into 1878, when “official fraternal relations were resumed” between the General Synod South and the General Synod. In 1882, the General Synod South passed a resolution stating that they were prepared to cooperate with other Lutheran bodies. The process culminated in 1918 when the General Synod, the General Council, and the United Synod South (the former General Synod South) merged and formed the United Lutheran Church in America.

Throughout the Civil War, the national politics were represented within the Lutheran church. Like the country, the church divided along theological and political lines. Unlike the nation, however, the church healed the wounds of separation faster than the nation.


Raymond M. Bost and Jeff L. Norris, All One Body: The Story of the North Carolina Lutheran Synod 1803-1993,  (Salisbury: North Carolina Lutheran Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 1994), 69.
 Ibid., 69.
Charles William Heathcote, The Lutheran Church and the Civil War, (Burlington: The Lutheran Literary Board, 1919), 47.
 Ibid., 55.
 Ibid., 61.
Hugh G. Anderson, Lutheranism in the Southeastern States 1860-1886, (The Hague: Mouton & Co. N.V., 1969), 23.
Bost, 94.
 Ibid., 92.
 Ibid., 102.
Russell C. Kleckley, “Abolution and Confessionalism in ‘Our Southern Zion’ The Civil War and Southern Lutheran Identity” in Raymond M. Bost, ed,Lutheranism…with as Southern Accent, The Lutheran Historical Conference volume 16, 1994, 163.
Anderson, 49.
Josiah Smeltzer,  1861, The Journal of Josiah Pearce Smeltzer, 247-248.
Kleckley, 164.
Minutes, Southwest Virginia Synod, 1861, 3.
Minutes, General Synod, 1862, 30.
Minutes, General Synod, 1862, 30.
Minutes, South Carolina Synod, 1862, 24.
Minutes, South Carolina Synod, 1862, 24.
Minutes, General Synod South, 3-4.
Minutes, General Synod South, 4-5.
Josiah Smeltzer, July 12, 1863, 252
Minutes, Virginia Synod, 1863, 4.
Minutes, South Carolina Synod, 1863, 6.
Minutes, North Carolina Synod, 1863, 5.
Minutes, General Synod South, 1863, 4.
Heathcote, 127.
 Ibid., 128.
 Ibid., 129.
 Ibid., 132.
 Ibid., 143.

This article was originally posted at Simul Iustus et Peccator.

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