Circuit Riders, Secret Missions & the Trials of a Civil War President
by Matthew May
In Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, the protagonist, Howard Roark, is told that though he does not believe in God, he is “a profoundly religious man, in your own way.” While he did believe in God, Abraham Lincoln, too, was a profoundly religious man, but he was so in his own inimitable style—so much so that close friends and associates considered him an agnostic. A friend of Lincoln’s who was a member of the bench spoke of Lincoln’s complete lack of taste for the rituals and ceremonies of traditional Christianity, and others at times even considered him an infidel.
While it is true that Lincoln outwardly disdained many of the trappings of organized religion, he was wisely never dismissive of organized religion itself. This was especially true of his dealings with Methodism. As we will see, despite the accusations and insinuations of infidelity leveled at him by one of the American West’s premier Methodists during his first run for national office, Lincoln found that the support and zeal of the Methodist Episcopal Church in his favor were vital to the successful prosecution of the Civil War and to the success of his presidency.
From Rowdy to Circuit Rider
In 1846, Lincoln clashed with a prominent representative of early American Methodism in the person of Peter Cartwright, a circuit rider who vied against Lincoln for a seat in the US House of Representatives from Illinois.
Peter Cartwright was born in Virginia in 1785 and raised in Logan County, Kentucky. The son of a Revolutionary War veteran, he was also, like Lincoln, a true child of the frontier. As he wrote in his memoirs, he was able to “turn in and split rails, go to the harvest field, reap, cradle, mow, plow or dig.”
Cartwright often witnessed worship services conducted right in the family cabin by a Methodist circuit rider—the Reverend John Lurton—when Lurton stopped in Logan County. The growth of Methodism on the American frontier led to the Western Conference being organized in 1801 at Cane Ridge; 2,000 people were converted to Methodism on and near the Cartwright property. Peter was not among those called; he was rambunctious and rebellious, interested in gambling on horses and cards while imbibing at a frightening pace.
A few years of such activity came down hard on Cartwright when, after a night of drunken debauchery at a wedding, he recognized his sloth and began to pray. As he later described it,
Divine light flashed all round me, unspeakable joy sprung up in my soul. I rose to my feet, opened my eyes, and it really seemed as if I was in heaven; the trees, the leaves on them, and everything seemed, and I really thought were, praising God.
Soon he was preaching as a “local,” and he was received into the ministry in 1804 and ordained as an elder in 1806 by Bishop Asbury. He rode the circuit in the Cumberland district until moving to Sangamon County, Illinois, in 1824.
Cartwright quickly made a name for himself among the prairie pioneers. He could preach a sermon lasting as long as three hours on anything from the doctrine of the water baptism to the excess of wealth. He obeyed impulsive calls to evangelize, such as when he would sometimes accept a lady’s invitation to dance, then fall to his knees to start a revival. He was an early and vociferous opponent of slavery and co-sponsored a resolution at the 1828 Methodist General Conference calling for inhumanity toward slaves to be treated as cases of immorality.
A contemporary preacher, Peter Akers, later said in praise of him that Cartwright preached “when the settlements were few and far between. . . . With your horse, saddle, or saddlebags underneath, you often sat and inquired . . . not for the way, which might not be open, but for the course to the next place.”
Sparring with Lincoln
One of the “next places” was the Illinois state capital, where, as a Democratic member of the legislature, he distinguished himself as a rough-and-tumble debater, unwilling to flee from a fight. As Paul Findley noted in Lincoln: The Crucible of Congress, Cartwright “had a ready wit, dealt with deriders at his meetings with force, and was widely admired and respected.” In the election of 1832, he defeated the Whig candidate for office, a young man named Abraham Lincoln.
Fourteen years later, Cartwright ran against Lincoln again, this time for a seat in the US House of Representatives, and he brought the flamboyantly aggressive traits he had displayed in the statehouse and on the circuit to this race. He ran, in the words of Lincoln’s first biographer, John Scripps, a campaign strategy chosen of “his own peculiar way of electioneering.” This included branding Abraham Lincoln as an infidel, a scoffer of Christianity in general, and one who disdained its practice within particular denominations.
The 1846 congressional campaign began in the typical fashion of the day, with thrusts and parries, and with the sort of witty eviscerations by each candidate against the other that makes today’s plaintive wailing about contemporary partisanship sound laughably soft. Consider Cartwright’s blatant insult to his opponent as Don Seitz relates it: “This Lincoln is a man of six feet four inches tall, but so angular that if you should drop a plummet from the center of his head it would cut him three times before it touched his feet.”
For his part, Lincoln unleashed his preferred method of mockery, the use of homespun stories, entertainingly recounted by Rufus Rockwell Wilson. In one instance, writes Wilson, Lincoln responded to Cartwright’s elusiveness on a particular economic issue by saying that his opponent’s non-answer
reminded him of a hunter he once knew who recognized the fact that in summer the deer were red and in winter gray, and at one season therefore a deer might resemble a calf. The hunter had brought down one at long range when it was hard to see the difference, and boasting of his marksmanship had said “I shot at it so as to hit it if it was a deer and miss it if it was a calf.”
A Trap Foiled
Cartwright’s popularity within the heavily Methodist district presented a significant obstacle to Lincoln, as the Methodists seemed certain to overwhelmingly support the circuit rider. Cartwright himself was greatly bothered by what he perceived as Lincoln’s shortcomings in religious matters. He was convinced that Lincoln was not a Christian but a Deist and, as such, unworthy to represent the people of the district.
Certainly not without the clergyman’s approval (“I’m Peter Cartwright and I approve this message”?), many of Cartwright’s supporters spread the accusation of infidelity throughout the district. Characteristically, Lincoln chose to meet the charge with both pen and a well-timed public appearance, namely, at one of Cartwright’s evangelistic rallies.
Noticing his political foe in the audience and keen on producing a dramatic effect, Cartwright gave a rousing presentation calling for the conversion of those in attendance. He demanded to receive their reply instantly. He instructed those who desired to give their hearts to God to stand, and did the same for those who did not wish to proceed to the underworld. Everyone at the rally stood with the exception of Abraham Lincoln.
Believing his trap well laid, Cartwright went in for the kill, declaring gravely,
I observe that many responded to the first invitation to give their hearts to God and go to heaven. And I further observe that all of you save one indicated that you did not desire to go to hell. The sole exception is Mr. Lincoln, who did not respond to either invitation. May I inquire of you, Mr. Lincoln, where you are going?
Lincoln rose to deliver a short reply that demonstrated his precision of mind, punctuating his response with a confident prediction documented by Carl Sandburg:
I came here as a respectful listener. I did not know that I was to be singled out by Brother Cartwright. I believe in treating religious matters with due solemnity. I admit that the questions propounded by Brother Cartwright are of great importance. I did not feel called upon to answer as the rest did. Brother Cartwright asks me directly where I am going. I desire to reply with equal directness: I am going to Congress.
Respecter of Religion
To disseminate the similar message that his religious beliefs were his and his alone, Lincoln published a pamphlet to combat Cartwright’s offensive. He did not attempt to claim to be something he was not (in this case, a member of a particular denomination), nor did he necessarily disagree with the basic proposition that religious observance was a requirement for public officials. He wrote:
That I am not a member of any Christian Church, is true; but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular. . . . I do not think I could, myself, be brought to support a man for office whom I knew to be an open enemy of, and scoffer at, religion. Leaving the higher matter of eternal consequences between him and his Maker, I still do not think any man has the right thus to insult the feelings, and injure the morals, of the community in which he may live.
Lincoln made good on the prediction he made at Cartwright’s rally and won the 1846 election, serving in the US House for one term. He then wandered in the political wilderness until the great controversies over the extension of slavery and his debates and Senate races against Stephen Douglas brought him national attention and, ultimately, world renown.
From Adversary to Supporter
While Cartwright supported fellow Democrat Douglas over Lincoln for the Senate and the presidency, the preacher came not only to admire Lincoln, but also to defend him publicly in own his blunt manner once Lincoln did reach the White House. As Henry Rankin recalled, Cartwright scorched for their pettiness a dinner party of New Yorkers vehemently opposed to President Lincoln:
Once we were opposing candidates for a seat in Congress, and, measured up in the ballot-box, I went down in defeat. But it was defeat by a gentleman and a patriot. I stand here tonight to commend to you the Christian character, sterling integrity, and far-seeing sagacity of the President of the United States, whose official acts you have, in your blind money-madness, so critically assailed tonight. I am confident that he is the man to meet and go forward in this crisis to lead his countrymen amid and through the terrible strife in which we are now engaged. He has a cool-headed, God-fearing, and unselfish love of his country, and knows from top to bottom the life and spirit of men both North and South.
When you go from here to your homes tonight I want you to bear with you the assurances of his neighbour and once-political opponent that the country will be safe in his hands. I wish to have you understand that back of him will stand an unflinching host of Western men, who have no financial ghosts that terrify them and who are destined to rescue this nation from the perils now before us. We have got the men who have got the right kind of grit in them out West. Why stand ye here idle critics? May God send patriotic light into your stingy souls!
For his own part, Cartwright forged ahead as a cornerstone figure in the growth of Methodism in the American West. He published a well-regarded autobiography and a number of influential pamphlets. Remarkably, he never mentioned the 1846 congressional race against Lincoln in his autobiography.
His leadership as a presiding elder, and his service and contribution to the denomination as a whole were lauded at the 1869 Illinois General Conference, whose hierarchy laid aside the usual order of the Discipline to hold a day in honor of Cartwright, then age 84. At this jubilee, many ministers praised his life and career at length. Then Cartwright at last took the rostrum, slumped and with shirt collar loose and voice weakened. He declared to the assembled that
with all the labors and sufferings peculiar to the life of a Methodist traveling preacher, I would take, if it was left to my choice, the same track over again with the same religion to bear me up, rather than be President of the United States.
These remarks were delivered in the town of Lincoln, Illinois, at Lincoln Methodist Church.
Hicks Holds Maryland
Lincoln’s ultimate success during the Civil War was due in no small part to the contribution of loyal Methodist clergy and laymen, as well as to the significant relationship he shared with one of the nineteenth century’s most esteemed Methodist leaders.
Beset by the division of opinion and the threat of disunion immediately upon becoming president in 1861, Abraham Lincoln had at least one prominent Methodist to thank for the Union’s tenuous hold on the state of Maryland. With the notable exception of the Baltimore Conference (part of which lay in Virginia), the border Conferences all passed resolutions in 1861 expressing loyalty to the national government and to the Lincoln administration.
But Maryland was governed by Thomas H. Hicks, an active member of the Methodist Episcopal Church, and Union to the core. Throughout the South, special sessions of the several state legislatures were called to debate and vote on secession. Governor Hicks refused to call such a session in Maryland, and that state’s symbolic and strategic importance was thereby held for the United States.
The Baltimore Conference retaliated at its 1862 session, when 66 ministers and over 22,000 members withdrew, many of whom resurfaced among three independent churches in Baltimore. Throughout the remainder of the war, these congregations and clergy were under constant scrutiny for disloyalty; in fact, one minister—John H. Dashiel—was imprisoned by the military in 1863 for disloyalty.
On the other hand, according to William Warren Sweet in The History of American Methodism, the Philadelphia Conference—which also lay partly in slave territory—required every candidate for admission at its 1862 session to answer the following question: “Are you in favor of sustaining the Union, the Government, and the Constitution of the United States against the present Rebellion?”
Northern Methodist Fervor
Methodists in the North were swept up in patriotic fervor. Various Conferences passed resolutions, administered oaths of allegiance to the Union, and listened to orators expound on causes related to putting down the rebels. The 1862 Cincinnati Conference declared its will to “besiege the Throne of God in behalf of the cause of liberty and good order.” Likewise, the Central Ohio Conference the next year announced that “loyalty to our government is our motto; that we hate treason under whatever garb it appear.”
As Sweet notes, many clergy took part in recruitment drives—which were often held inside Methodist churches—and in 1862 it was reported that 63 Methodist ministers held Union army commissions as colonels, lieutenant colonels, captains, and other officers. It has often been cited that Methodists comprised 15 percent of the Union ranks, and that among those Methodist ranks were the future presidents Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, and William McKinley.
President Lincoln himself publicly acknowledged the extraordinary contribution Methodists made to the war effort and the Union cause. The General Conference of 1864 sent a committee to the White House carrying the sympathy and support of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Lincoln’s response, which he read aloud to the committee, stated in part:
Nobly sustained as the government has been by all the churches, I would utter nothing which might in the least appear invidious against any. Yet without this it may be fairly said that the Methodist Episcopal Church, not less devoted than the best, is by its greater numbers the most important of all. It is no fault in others that the Methodist Church sends more soldiers to the field, more nurses to the hospitals, and more prayers to heaven than any. God bless the Methodist Church! Bless all the churches! and blessed be God, who in this our great trial giveth us the churches.
Fighting Preacher for Peace
One Methodist in the Union ranks was the Reverend James F. Jaquess, who was integral to the organization of the 73rd Illinois Regiment, also known as the “Preacher Regiment” because of the inordinate number of ministers in it.
The paths of Jaquess and Lincoln had crossed in the 1840s in Illinois during each man’s trips upon his respective circuit: Lincoln on the barrister’s, Jaquess on the circuit rider’s. The two men roomed in the same home in Petersburg, and they began a warm friendship. They had had similar boyhoods of great toil on the frontier, though, unlike Lincoln, Jaquess had gone on to receive the benefits not only of a college degree (Depauw University) but also of a doctorate in divinity. Jaquess and Lincoln remained friends for the rest of the latter’s life, and Lincoln’s respect for and trust in Jaquess eventually led him to place the minister in circumstances necessitating a secret mission to the Confederate capital.
The circumstances were these. Despite the fervor of the Northerners, as exemplified by the various Conference resolutions and proclamations, by the summer of 1864 the Union cause looked like a lost one. As James McPherson points out in Tried By War, by July 4 of that year, two main Union armies were seemingly trapped, one near Richmond and the other near Atlanta, after having suffered 95,000 casualties combined. Grant’s Army of the Potomac suffered nearly two-thirds as many casualties in two months as it had in the preceding three years. The North was tired of war and grief-stricken over what seemed to be senseless, aimless slaughter. Pressure mounted on Lincoln to heed the several calls by Democrats for a cease-fire and peace talks.
Jaquess had been one step ahead of such an action, though not for tactical or political considerations. Already in May 1863, moved by the gruesome spectacle of Christians killing fellow Christians, he proposed sending a mission to the Confederacy with the aim of mobilizing anti-war Methodists. He enlisted journalist James R. Gilmore to present Lincoln with details of his plan.
While telling Gilmore that Jaquess was extraordinarily level-headed (“I never saw a man more so,” Gilmore credits Lincoln with saying), and after seeking more details directly from Jaquess, Lincoln ultimately concluded that he could not give government authority for such a mission. He also worried that if Jaquess persisted on his own, he would expose himself to great personal risk, such as being apprehended and executed as a spy. The plan fizzled.
Encounter with Davis
But 1864 changed everything. Not only did Lincoln have military strategy and the costs of war on his mind, there was the 1864 general election to consider. By summer, to say that his prospects for reelection looked bleak would be an understatement. Northern Democrats were agitating for peace at any price, and the Confederacy was basing its own military strategy on achieving decisive victories and on seeing the North suffer inordinate casualties, both of which it saw as helping the electoral chances of Democrats in the Union.
As casualties indeed mounted, Confederates grew more confident that Northerners would go so far as to accept Confederate independence as a condition of armistice. Lincoln found himself in the uncomfortable position of being unable to reject all of the various plans floating around to seek peace with the rebels.
The Jaquess-Gilmore peace initiative was thus revived. On furlough from the 73rd Illinois, Colonel Jaquess—along with Gilmore—was given a presidential pass through Union lines in Virginia on the auspices of unofficial business. Confederate president Jefferson Davis agreed to meet them in Richmond.
Upon meeting the Confederate executive, Jaquess and Gilmore reiterated Lincoln’s terms from the previous December’s “Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction,” which were, simply, amnesty, reunion, and emancipation. According to Gilmore, Davis became irate: “Amnesty, sir, applies to criminals. We have committed no crime. At your door lies all the misery and crime of this war.” Davis argued that the Confederacy’s cause was independence, regardless of any and all acts of emancipation issued by the United States government. He rejected the overture.
Following their meeting with Davis, Jaquess and Gilmore inspected several hospitals to see how Union prisoners were being treated. Altogether, they spent about 48 hours in Richmond, but were fortunate not to be forcibly required to stay longer. According to an October 8, 1898 review of Gilmore’s memoirs in the New York Times, they “narrowly escaped detention” in Virginia when Judah P. Benjamin pleaded with Davis to detain the two Northerners until after the 1864 Union elections. Davis wisely refused, saying, “Probably a bad business for us anyway, but it would alienate our Northern friends should we hold these gentlemen.”
Gilmore published an account of their mission in Atlantic Monthly, which, in showing that Davis was unwilling to reunite under any circumstances, somewhat shifted the burden of negotiation from Lincoln to the Confederate leader. Davis’s rebuff of Jaquess and Gilmore thus served Lincoln’s immediate purposes, but it still did not quiet the Peace Democrats, who focused on Lincoln’s insistence upon emancipation as a term of any cease-fire. As a Democratic newspaper bluntly put it, “tens of thousands of white men must bite the dust to allay the Negro mania of the president.” Lincoln nearly reached the point of conceding, but Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan saved his presidency and the Northern cause in the autumn of 1864.
After the war, Jaquess returned to ministry. Very belatedly, in 1872, Congress reimbursed him for the expenses of his mission to Richmond. He died in St. Paul, Minnesota, in June 1898.
Of all the Methodists serving the war effort on the battlefields, in the church, or in and among the counsels of government, none was perhaps more valued by Lincoln than Matthew Simpson, one of six Methodist Episcopal Civil War bishops.
Simpson was born on June 21, 1811, in Cadiz, Ohio. Methodist historian Charles Ferguson writes that he was baptized by no less a figure than Bishop Francis Asbury, who enjoyed the hospitality of Simpson’s parents when traveling through the area. Simpson enrolled in Madison College in Pennsylvania, taught school, and practiced medicine until 1833, when he felt compelled to enter the Methodist ministry. The Pittsburgh Conference received him, and he was elected a bishop in 1852.
Lincoln and Simpson first became acquainted when the latter was living in Evanston, Illinois, and serving as president of Garrett Biblical Institute there. After the 1860 election, Simpson traveled to Springfield to visit the president-elect regarding support for Northwestern University. At the outbreak of war, he moved to Philadelphia and quickly became one of the nation’s leading orators in support of the Union, Lincoln, and emancipation.Rousing Speaker
Nearly as flamboyant on the stump as Peter Cartwright, Simpson spared no quarter in weighing the costs of war against the costs of surrender, as illustrated in this speech, cited by biographer George Richard Crooks:
I tell you here to-day I would not give one cent on the dollar for your national liabilities if you allow a single dividing line to be run through your country from the Atlantic to the Pacific. I deprecate war, it is terrible; much of the best blood of the nation has flowed, and more, possibly, will moisten the earth; but if we should divide this land into petty sections, there will come greater strife, which will waste the blood of your children and grandchildren, and there will be sorrow and wailing throughout the generations to come. When I look at this dark picture, much as I dislike war, I yet say, better now fight for twenty years and have peace than stop where we are.
Simpson traveled throughout the country delivering such speeches, and Lincoln came to trust and respect both his views and his gauges of public opinion; in the days before instant polling data, such a widely traveled ally was indispensable. Simpson’s main device was a lecture entitled “Our Country,” which was more than once announced as his “War Message.”
Wherever he happened to speak, he extolled the virtues of the local regiment. For example, Ferguson tells us that in Pittsburgh, Simpson spoke of the 73rd Ohio Regiment, describing the tattered colors it flew on the battlefield as having “been baptized in blood,” and their beauty as “some patch of azure, filled with stars that an angel had snatched from the heavenly canopy to set the stripes in blood.” It is no exaggeration to say that the thousands who gathered to listen to Simpson responded to his speeches with unmitigated patriotic fervor.
Lincoln himself said of him: “‘Bishop Simpson is a wise and thoughtful man. He travels extensively over the country, and sees things as they are. He has no axe to grind, and, therefore, I can depend upon him for such information as I need.” The president sometimes called Simpson to the White House specifically to discuss the people’s sentiment in various parts of the nation, as well as other matters relating to the war. Simpson more than once persuaded Lincoln toward leniency in cases of Confederate sympathizers.
His presence always warmed the president’s heart. On one occasion, Methodist minister Thomas Bowman happened to be conversing with Lincoln in the executive mansion when the door to the Blue Room opened and in walked Simpson. Bowman recalled to author Edgar DeWitt Jones that the president “raised both arms and started for the bishop almost on a run,” expressing how grateful he was to see him, and retiring with him to a private area for an extended discussion.
Such proximity to Lincoln, as well as to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (who shared the hometown of Cadiz with Simpson) must have seemed somewhat providential to Methodists of the day, who were looked upon as anything but a highly esteemed class. Methodists, Ferguson notes, “were a religious body still fairly far down the social scale. Their humble origins among the rejected and their early appeals primarily to the outcasts could not be forgotten.” Because of Simpson’s renown, Methodism not only became respectable, but also came to be continuously linked to the actions of Lincoln and the leaders of government.
Despite his access, Simpson refused to allow the esteem of President Lincoln to cause him to overstep proper bounds in relation to his duties to the church. Indeed, he seemed to take remarkable care in this regard. For example, both Lincoln and Stanton wanted him to accept an appointment to a national commission regarding the war effort. Simpson declined on the grounds that it would be inappropriate to do so considering his station in the Methodist Episcopal Church. Indeed, biographer Robert D. Clark argues that Simpson was, all things considered, “cautious and a little uncomfortable in the presence of Lincoln and official Washington, whether he sought political preferment for his friends, or bounties for his church.”
An Appropriate Coda
Lincoln felt no such discomfort, and it must have amused (or bemused) his old nemesis Peter Cartwright to read of such a public embrace of a Methodist minister. Lincoln sometimes worshiped at the historic Foundry Church in Washington when Simpson preached there. Another Simpson biographer, George Richard Crooks, describes a scene in which, following one such service, Lincoln greeted the bishop warmly and congratulated him, in a voice that all could hear, on a “splendid lecture.” On another occasion, Lincoln sent Simpson in his stead to address the Philadelphia Sanitary Fair, providing the bishop with the opportunity to congratulate and thank its organizers on behalf of the president and the government of the United States.
Ironically enough, Lincoln’s death brought a most appropriate coda to his interactions with American Methodism. In the wake of his assassination, Bishop Simpson attended the Lincoln family, delivered a prayer at the White House funeral service, and was chosen to preach the funeral sermon in Springfield. Near the place where, seemingly a lifetime before, the foremost Methodist of the West had attempted to gain political office by sticking Lincoln with the moniker of “infidel,” a Methodist bishop presided over the bier of the slain president.
Standing beside the coffin at Oak Ridge Cemetery, Simpson tacitly acknowledged the ongoing mystery surrounding Lincoln’s faith and his distance from formal religious ceremony and ritual. Yet this leader of an organized Christian denomination perhaps best described that faith. The bishop said of Lincoln, according to Crooks, that he
read the Bible frequently, loved it for its great truths, and he tried to be guided by its precepts. He believed in Christ the Saviour of sinners, and I think he was sincere in trying to bring his life into harmony with the principles of revealed religion. Certainly if there ever was a man who illustrated some of the principles of pure religion, that man was our departed president.
Matthew May is the historian and archivist for the Detroit Conference of the United Methodist Church and co-editor of Michigan Methodism, Methodists, and More. He is a frequent contributor to the American Thinker website and has written for The American Spectator and Good News Magazine.
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