Modern American society seems to have little understanding of what really happened before, during and after the War Between the States. To see evidence of this one need look no further than the shocking success in eradicating and censoring Southern monuments and artwork, the names of various buildings and roads, or even symbols of Southern history itself. And while some attempts to educate through popular media have been made, such as in the 2013 movie Copperhead or Redford’s The Conspirator, the predominance of radical northern views on Southern history has predictably glossed over the truth of what many communities experienced at the hands of the government.
Such is the case with an important and fascinating book, Martyrdom in Missouri: A History of the Religious Proscription, The Seizure of Churches, And the Persecution of Ministers of the Gospel in the State of Missouri During the Late Civil War and Under the “Test Oath” of the New Constitution. Written by Rev. W. M. Leftwich, and published in 1870, this work has largely been forgotten in today’s America. But if society truly desires to build a better community of freedom and justice for all, we’d do well to look back on those times when freedom and justice were brutally denied in our country – and hopefully avoid such horrifying abuses of power in the future.
For the present day reader, it might be hard to understand how Christian persecution could have occurred under a Constitution that was supposed to protect freedom of speech and freedom of religion. But the Constitution and natural rights mattered little to those who engaged in such behavior. Loyalty to “the Union” was the driving force behind such blatant violations of the rights of their neighbors. Leftwich writes, “Missouri will ever be conspicuous in the annals of history as the only State in the American Union to inaugurate and authorize a formal opposition to Christianity, as an institution, and legalize the persecution of ministers of the gospel as a class. The fact will not be denied, and the history furnishes the saddest, wisest lessons. Ministers of the gospel have been robbed, arrested, imprisoned and even murdered, for no other cause than that they were ministers of the gospel. They have been indicted by grand juries, arrested and imprisoned with common felons, mobbed and put to death for no other cause than that of preaching the gospel without taking the ‘Test Oath’ of the New Constitution.”
Furthermore, “Both Federal and State legislation shield those who committed the crimes of the war from legal prosecution; but such enactments possess no control over the pen and the press…it is well the record of these horrible deeds be preserved, that the better portion of the people in this and other States may have some knowledge of what was done and suffered here during the dark and bloody days, from 1861 to ’65…Many of those, directly or indirectly, implicated in these deeds of cruelty and shame are now loud and earnest in their entreaties for ‘by-gones to be by-gones’ and profess great grief that anything should be said or done ‘to keep alive the feelings of the past…’”
Following is a mere handful of summarized accounts that can be found in much greater detail within the pages of Martyrdom in Missouri, volumes 1 and 2.
In a scenario that seems it could have inspired modern day notions of flag reverence, Rev. Jesse Bird of Holt County was arrested and cursed by Federal soldiers for neglecting to walk beneath a flag that had been hoisted by the church door. He was then ordered to take a loyalty oath, which he declined – but did take a civil oath to observe the Constitution and laws. He was released, but then the Commander at St. Joseph demanded that he cease preaching and take the loyalty oath or be banished from the State. Rev. Bird refused to take the oath, and was forced to leave his home and his crops during winter. His wife was in feeble health, but they managed to find a place of safety for a time until they were able to return. He was again jailed 6 years later for “preaching the gospel to the people in violation of the Fundamental Law of the State of Missouri.” He was later released after severe public indignation.
Arrested for preaching in a “rebel” camp, Rev. Wm. Cleaveland was a Baptist preacher hailing from Marion and Lewis County, Missouri. Imprisoned in Hannibal, he was the subject of ridicule by his captors until taken before Col. David Moore. Moore determined that since Rev. Cleaveland prayed for rebels, he needed to do some loyal praying by offering “each day a public prayer for Old Abe”. Later he was taken to a cannon and forced to mount the cannon and offer a prayer for Mr. Lincoln. This scene was repeated each day until Col. Moore and his command was ordered South – where Moore reportedly lost his leg by a shot from a cannon. Despite the experience, Cleaveland notes that his prayers caused some of the soldiers to profess repentance.
Rev. A.P. Williams, who later became the first vice-president of the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote of an experience in summer of 1862. “Today I reported to the provost-marshal at Marshall, and, not withstanding he had no charges against me excepting that I am a Southern man in sympathy and feeling. I was compelled to take what is called an oath of allegiance, not only to support the Constitution of the United States, but also to the Government thereof, and to give a bond of three thousand dollars, with two securities. What will future generations say when they read these facts? Such arbitrary tyranny and oppression and such reckless disregard of the Constitutional rights of unoffending citizens will most assuredly sink the nation that practices it. My appeal is to the God of the oppressed and wronged.”
Sadly, a shocking number of Christian pastors actually lost their lives in acts of profound violence. For example, in the summer of 1862, Rev. Green Woods of Dent County was taken prisoner while out in his field planting as Jayhawkers plundered his house in front of his wife and little children. Upon discovering Woods, the Jayhawkers took him about three miles from home and shot him. When his body was eventually discovered, his left hand was missing – allegedly to show as proof that the man was actually dead. It was said that he didn’t take the oath of allegiance. Also of note is the murder of Baptist Rev. Nathaniel Wollard by Capt. Morgan Kelley’s militia in Dallas County. After seriously wounding him with a gunshot to the face, they set fire to his house while his son attempted to keep the blood from suffocating his father. However, upon finding the Reverend was still alive, they shot him again in the head and he instantly died. He was accused of feeding Southerners, although it was said he fed anyone who came to his door. And in the fall of 1864, Rev. Edwin Robinson was residing in Howard County (near Glasgow) when he encountered a squad of soldiers commanded by Capt. Merrideth. When he affirmed that he was a Southern Methodist preacher, the captain turned to his men and said, “Blow his damned brains out,” which was instantly done.
In conclusion, Martyrdom in Missouri is an important historical work that seeks to remember the numerous men, women and children who suffered for their Christian beliefs at the hands of Federal soldiers and armed mobs. As Bishop E. M. Marvin states, “I have met with some who say, ‘Let the past sleep; let all its crimes and the bad blood engendered by them, be buried forever.’ I have not so learned Christ. He, the Incarnate Love, charged the blood of the prophets upon the sons of their murderers. The true work of Christian charity is to eradicate crime, not to ignore it.”