We are a small Episcopal Church on the banks of the Rappahannock in Port Royal, Virginia. We acknowledge that we gather on the traditional land of the first people of Port Royal, the Nandtaughtacund, who are still here, and we honor with gratitude the land itself and the life of the Rappahannock Tribe. Our mission statement is to do God’s Will in all that we do.

Lincoln and the Episcopal Church

Today, Feb. 12 is the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, who is also a great example of Paul’s statement.  “So I do not run aimlessly, or box as if beating the air.”  Lincoln’s sense of purpose evolved over many years as his relationship with the Episcopal Church. This post illustrates one event in that relationship. 

President-elect Lincoln first attended services at St. John’s Episcopal (across Lafayette Square from the White House) on Sunday, Feb 24, 1861, the day after arriving in Washington. His wife and sons chose to attend services elsewhere with a family friend. Lincoln accompanied William Seward, his future secretary of state, who steered him into his own pew (no. 1) near the altar, rather than the customary presidential pew. President Lincoln eventually used the presidential pew in morning services, according to Jane Wilkes, who sat three rows behind it. 

President Lincoln did not join St. John’s but instead rented a pew for his family at the nearby New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. However, he sometimes attended other services, using a pew in the last row, southwest side (no. 89). The Rev. George Williamson Smith, who served St. John’s in 1863-64, recalled seeing Lincoln slip into this pew at evensong or the evening service. Always alone, he left just before the service ended, unnoticed by others in the congregation.

Lincoln’s relationship with the Episcopal Church during his presidency was mainly through  Bishop Henry B. Whipple (1822-1901) who served as the first Bishop of Minnesota.  He was connected to Lincoln through an episode involving the Indians and massacres in that area. In Minnesota Whipple  saw firsthand how the federal Office of Indian Affairs conducted itself, and he soon concluded that the agency was corrupt and that its agents were mostly political hacks who cared little about those they were supposed to serve. He also came to regard the traders licensed to do business with Indians as a problem: greedy, dealing illegally in liquor and abusive of Indian women. And, as with so many other social reformers through history, Whipple regarded the situation not only as an injustice but as an offense to religious principles that demanded action

In Minnesota, things were also chaotic. Members of the Dakota tribe, angry about what they saw as broken government promises, had risen against white settlers and attacked the state’s slim military defenses. The Dakotas had traded their land (24 million acres) for promises of a government annuity that would allow them to purchase food, farming implements and other things to help them make the transition from hunting to an agricultural economy. But much of the annuity had been siphoned off by traders who kept the Indians in debt. Worse, annuity funds that were supposed to arrive in June 1862 had not come, and no one seemed to know when the money would arrive.

When violence erupted in  August, 1862, hundreds of farming families perished in what became known as the Dakota War. Whipple — who appropriately described the attacks as a massacre — went to the settlers’ aid, establishing a hospital near the fighting, then traveling East to raise money for refugee families and to try to resolve the Indian suffering that had led to the violence.

By the time he sat down with Lincoln in the president’s office, the bishop had honed his message: Corrupt government dealings with Native Americans led to the Indians’ abuse, which endangered them and, by extension, all who lived nearby. Lincoln listened closely, enough so that he would later tell a friend that Whipple’s testimony had “shaken him down to his boots.”  He got Lincoln’s attention who was in his own struggle about whether to issue the Emancipation  Proclamation.

The conflict ended in late September, after which a military tribunal tried nearly 400 Dakotas. By early November, it had sentenced 303 of them to death by hanging. The Army general in charge and Minnesota’s governor urged Lincoln, the ultimate authority in the case, to order the executions at once.

In the meantime, Whipple persuaded his church’s Northern bishops to sign on to his call for reform — no small feat, as the bishops were loath to speak out on anything (slavery and secession, included) that they considered politics.

The president instead decided to review the cases, one by one.  We don’t know whether Whipple’s action influenced Lincoln’s decision to reduce the number to 38, but the historian of the event writes “it is difficult to imagine that Whipple’s visit did not count in the president’s decision”