A Lutheran Resolution on the Civil War and President Abraham Lincoln’s Response to a Lutheran Delegation

[1] The General Synod met in May 1862 for the first time since the beginning of the Civil War and adopted a resolution on “the State of the Country” prepared by a committee headed by W.A. Passavant. By this time ecclesiastical ties between the Southern synods and the Northern synods were broken, and no delegates from the South were present at this meeting.[1] The resolution is the first time the General Synod spoke on slavery; its strong language reflects the attitude of Northern Lutherans toward the “rebellion.”[2]

[2] In then voting to send a delegation to present the resolution to the President, the synod initiated an event that is noteworthy, most probably unique, in the history of American Lutheran social statements. “The Synod adjourned on Saturday and the following Monday [May 12] the committee went to Washington. Upon arrival they went to Secretary Seward’s office where arrangements were made to meet the President at eleven o’clock.”[3] The Rev. Dr. Pohlman, Albany, New York, spoke for the delegation. He said that “the Lutherans represented the German element in our country; and that the Germans had saved Missouri to the union.” He invoked “the Divine benediction upon the President and on their beloved country.”[4]

[3] In spite of the optimism of the synod resolution, the war was not going well for the North at the time: “By the end of May 1862 [Lincoln’s] administration could point to few successes….The prospects for Lincoln’s presidency were not good.”[5] In his reply to the delegation the President welcomed these Lutheran representatives, praised Lutheran citizens and spoke of the war and of his dependency on God.

[4] The synod resolution and Lincoln’s response are given in full below.

From “Proceedings of the Twentieth Convention of the General Synod of the

Evangelical Lutheran Church in the United States”

Assembled in Lancaster, Pa.

May 1862[6]

The Synod then proceeded to the special order of business for the morning [Tuesday, May 6]. Rev. Dr. Passavant, from the committee of the State of the Country, presented the Report, which was taken up seriatim, discussed and adopted.

Report of the Committee on the State of the Country

The Committee, appointed to prepare a minute, expressive of the views of this body in the present crisis of our Country, respectfully report:

WHEREAS, Our beloved Country, after having long been favored with a degree of political and religious freedom, security and prosperity, unexampled in the history of the world, now finds itself involved in a bloody war to suppress an armed rebellion against its lawfully constituted Government; and whereas, the word of God, which is the sole rule of our faith and practice, requires loyal subjection to “the powers that be,” because they are ordained of God, to be a terror to evil doers, and a praise to those who do well, and at the same time declares, that they who “resist the power” shall receive to themselves condemnation; and whereas, we, the representatives of the Evangelical Lutheran Synods in the United States, connected with the General Synod, assembled in Lancaster, Pa., recognize it as our duty to give public expression to our convictions of truth on this subject, and in every proper way to co-operate with our fellow-citizens in sustaining the great interests of law and authority, of liberty and righteousness, be it therefore

Resolved, That it is the deliberate judgment of this Synod, that the rebellion against the constitutional Government of this land is most 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.

Resolved, That, in the suppression of this rebellion and in the maintenance of the Constitution and the Union by the sword, we recognize an unavoidable necessity and a sacred duty, which the Government owes to the nation and to the world, and that therefore we call upon all our people to lift up holy hands in prayer to the God of Battles, without personal wrath against the evil doers 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 counselors, and success to the army and navy, that our beloved land may speedily be delivered from treason and anarchy.

Resolved, That while we recognize this unhappy war as a righteous judgment of God, visited upon us because of the individual and national sins, of which we have been guilty, we nevertheless regard this rebellion as more immediately the natural result of the continuance and spread of domestic slavery in our land, and therefore hail with unmingled joy the proposition of our Chief Magistrate, which has received the sanction of Congress, to extend aid from the General Government to any State in which slavery exists, which shall deem fit to initiate a system of constitutional emancipation.[7]

Resolved, That we deeply sympathize with all loyal citizens and Christian patriots in the rebellious portions of our country, and we cordially invite their co-operation, in offering united supplications at a Throne of Grace, that God would restore peace to our distracted country, re-establish fraternal relations between all the States, and make our land in all time to come, the asylum of the oppressed, and the permanent abode of liberty and religion.

Resolved, That our devout thanks are due to Almighty God for the success which has crowned our arms, and while we praise and magnify his name for the help and succor he has graciously afforded our land and naval forces, in enabling them to overcome our enemies, we regard these tokens of his divine favor, as cheering indications of the final triumph of our cause.

Respectfully submitted,


Resolved, That a committee of five be appointed to proceed, immediately after the adjournment of this Synod, and present to the President of the United States a copy of the report, adopted by this Synod, in reference to the state of the country, accompanied with the assurance that our fervent prayers shall ascend to the God of nations, that Divine guidance and support may be vouchsafed to him, in the trying and responsible position, to a which a benignant Providence has called him.

Committee—Prof. L Sternberg, G.A. Lintner, D.D., H.N. Pohlman, D.D., T. Stork, D.D., and Hon. H.H. Van Dyke.

President Abraham Lincoln’s Response[8]

[5] I welcome here the representatives of the Evangelical Lutherans of the United States. I accept with gratitude their assurances of the sympathy and support of that enlightened, influential, and loyal class of my fellow-citizens in an important crisis which involves, in my judgment, not only the civil and religious liberties of our own dear land, but in a large degree the civil and religious liberties of mankind in many countries and through many ages. You well know, gentlemen, and the world knows, how reluctantly I accepted this issue of battle forced upon me, on my advent to this place, by the internal enemies of our country. You all know, the world knows the forces and the resources the public agents have brought into employment to sustain a Government against which there has been brought not one complaint of real injury committed against society, at home or abroad. You all may recollect that in taking up the sword thus forced into our hands this Government appealed to the prayers of the pious and the good, and declared that it placed its whole dependence upon the favor of God. I now humbly and reverently in your presence, reiterate the acknowledgement of that dependence, not doubting that, if it shall please the Divine Being who determines the destinies of nations that this shall remain a united people, they will, humbly seeking the Divine guidance, make their prolonged national existence a source of new benefits to themselves and their successors, and to all classes and conditions of mankind.

[1] Abdel Ross Wentz, A Basic History of Lutheranism in America (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, Revised Edition, 1964), 161. Wentz’s statement needs qualification since one delegate from Tennessee was present. When presenting the resolution to the President, the spokesperson said that the delegate from Tennessee stated at the convention: ‘“I am the only minister who dares to pray for President Lincoln and the reason I am allowed to do it is because I pray in German and the rebels don’t understand German, but the Lord does.’” Charles William Heathcote, The Lutheran Church and the Civil War (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1919), 81. For the South’s position on slavery and the war, see Hugh George Anderson Lutheranism in the Southeastern States, 1860-1886 (The Hague, Mouton, 1969), especially the chapter, “A Great Gulf Fixed,” 26-48.

[2] For a brief overview of Lutheran attitudes toward slavery and the Civil War, see L. DeAne Lagerquist (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1999), 68-72.

[3] Heathcote, 80.

[4] Heathcote, 80-1.

[5] David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (London, Jonathan Cape, 1995), 352.

[6] Pages 29-31. ELCA Archives. I thank Joel Thoreson for his assistance in locating this resolution.

[7] According to Heathcote, the Lancaster Daily Express reported “that the first and second resolutions were unanimously adopted with the most hearty endorsement, but that the third resolution brought forth heated discussion.” The objection was not to freeing the slaves but to the idea of paying to free slaves, which meant that slaves were “chattel” and thus the policy was an endorsement of slavery. Passavant argued that the resolution represented the middle ground, between abolition and slavery, and that is where the synod should be. After more discussion, the resolution was adopted. Pages 76-78. See Donald, Lincoln, for a discussion of this Congressional resolution urged by Lincoln, which was meant to keep the Border states from joining the Southern states and leaving the Union. Yet as a result of this resolution, “nothing happened.” 346-348. The very different Emancipation Proclamation was issued later in 1862, on September 22, and became effective on January 1, 1863.

[8] Lincoln’s response is found at www.abrahamlincolnsclassroom.org , on the page “Abraham Lincoln and the Clergy.” It is also found in Heathcote, 81-82

John R. Stumme

Dr. John R. Stumme is a retired ELCA Pastor. When he wrote this piece, he was Professor of Systematic Theology at the Instituto Superior Evangélico de Estudios Teológicos in Buenos Aires and Vice-President of the Iglesia Evangélica Luterana Unida in Argentina. After ten years in Argentina, he worked for almost two decades with the ELCA's Church in Society unit as Associate Director and Director for its Department for Studies.