Samuel Brown McPheeters (1819-1870)

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Samuel Brown McPheeters, clergyman, was the fifth child of the Rev. William McPheeters, D. D., and his wife, Margaret Ann Curry. He was born in Raleigh, North Carolina, September 18, 1819. His ancestors were Scotch and Scotch-Irish, whose descendants settled, first in Pennsylvania, and then in Virginia, where the father was born, educated and spent the early years of his ministry. From 1810 until the close of his life he resided in North Carolina, engaged almost continuously in educational work in connection with the duties of the pulpit.

Samuel Brown McPheeters was so named in compliment to the Rev. Samuel Brown, of New Providence, Virginia, his father's preceptor in theology, and the husband of his father's cousin, Mary Moore, whose capture by Indians and restoration to her people make a thrilling story.

The subject of this sketch was graduated from the University of North Carolina, in June, 1841. A fellow-student says of him: "He was nervous in temperament, brilliant, witty, tender of heart, and 'of a spirit great as Caesar's.' “The late Hon. F. P. Blair, Jr., who was his classmate and roommate, bears this testimony: "He had a charm of manner and a sweetness of expression which won the hearts of all who approached him; but to the outward graces were added the sterling qualities of head and heart which formed the solid foundations, distinguished for vigorous intellect, purity and devotion to principle, and which commanded the respect and admiration of all who were associated with him through life."

His first service after the completion of his studies in that institution, in 1846, was as a missionary among the negroes in Virginia, to whose spiritual interests he gave himself indefatigably and with most cheering results.

Five years later he was called to this city as a pastor of the Westminster Presbyterian church, which, by consolidation with a neighboring congregation, became the Pine street church, and this, by change of location, has, since his day, become the Grand Avenue church.

As the pastor of the Pine Street church his career became historic. God used him to illustrate and emphasize the total separation of church and state under our republican form of government, and honored him to suffer greatly in defense of the independence of the church and the kingly rights of her Lord. This service was rendered during the war between the states. In the summer of 1860, for reasons of health, he betook himself and family to Fort Union, New Mexico, with the commission of a chaplain in the United States Army. While here, preaching to the soldiers and teaching the children of the officers, news came of the outbreak of hostilities. "The war tidings produced a profound and depressing effect upon the mind of Dr. McPheeters, for he was no secessionist, but clung to the union of the States with honest pride and unaffected devotion. And when there were rumors of an intended attempt on the part of the Confederates to capture the fort, although a Southerner by birth and in all his personal sympathies, he declared: 'Though the United States government did not commission me to fight, but to preach the gospel, yet should this fort be attacked, I shall be one of its defenders.' He also exerted decisive influence on the officers who, under the strong temptation of sectional sympathy appeared to waver in their fealty. 'As a citizen,' he said, 'I hold it to be my duty to God to obey the law, to submit to the authorities, to pray for them, to render them the honor due their several stations, and to promote peace and quietness. These things, I solemnly declare, I have habitually aimed to do.' "

His thoughts and heart were with his Pine Street flock, from whom he was temporarily separated. Apprehensive that in those times of high excitement, intense feeling on political* questions might engender strife in the church, he addressed to them a pastoral letter, expressive of his affectionate solicitude that there should be no divisions among them, but that they should preserve "the unity of the spirit in the bonds of peace." Said he: "Of the purely civil and political questions which now'shake the country to its center, I do not feel called upon, either as your pastor or as a minister of Christ, to speak. I am rejoiced that my duty as well as my inclination leads me into a higher, purer and better sphere than this. No, dear brethren, I wish to address you not as a friend or advocate of any party or section, but as an ambassador of one whose kingdom is not this world—I wish to say something about your duties to Christ and His kingdom— something about your obligations and dangers as Christians in the circumstances which now surround you."

As soon as practicable, after the dispatch of this pastoral letter, Dr. McPheeters returned to St. Louis, and was most warmly welcomed by his congregation. All was harmony among his people, but fully realizing how quickly that harmony might be marred by reason of the diversity of political thought which divided the community, he was confirmed in his determination, on the one hand, to set an example of loyalty by scrupulous discharge of the obligations of the oath of allegiance which he had taken as a chaplain in the army, and, on the other hand, as a minister and pastor "not to know anything save Jesus Christ and Him crucified." Nevertheless he was to be made a victim of the unreasoning, fierce passions of the times.

As a commissioner to the general assembly of the Presbyterian church in 1862, he felt in conscience bound to oppose the adoption of a paper on "The State of the Country," on the ground that the constitution of the church prohibits its courts "to handle or conclude anything save that which is ecclesiastical, or to meddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth." For this opposition the author of the paper, the late Rev. Dr. Robert J. Breckinridge, having exhausted invective on the Christian people of the southern states, "turns to the gentle pastor of the Pine Street church and proclaims him a traitor

To this cruel accusation Dr. McPheeters replied: "Sir, the church, as such, owes its allegiance only to Jesus Christ. His kingdom is the only kingdom she is bound to uphold. His word is the only constitution that she recognizes as authoritative or is at liberty to interpret."

It soon became apparent that there were a few in the Pine Street church whose views and spirit were in accord with Dr. Breckinridge's paper and temper, and who, discrediting or not appreciating their pastor's alleged reasons for his dissent, were determined to put him and the church in a partisan attitude or to drive him from their pulpit. The limits to which this sketch must be confined, and the character of the present work, do not permit a record of the details of the profoundly important conflict which was now begun.

For such particulars the reader is referred to the "Memoir of S. B. McPheeters, D. D.," by Rev. John S. Grasty. Suffice it to say that the factionists, under pretense of desiring to have it -in their power to contradict the "very current report that he sympathized with the rebellion," and "to correct the very general opinion of his disloyalty at heart," addressed to him a communication "inquiring whether he was a friend of the government and desired its authority reestablished, or a friend of the rebellion and desired its success." Replying, Dr. McPheeters reminded his interrogators that he occupied the twofold relation of minister and citizen, and that it is of the utmost importance that "the duties, obligations and responsibilities which grow out of this twofold relation should not be confounded. It is not a distinction without a difference, unless the distinction between the church and state is a distinction without a difference." He goes on to say that, as a minister, he is bound by the word of God and his responsibility is to Christ, and, under Him, to the Presbytery; and as a citizen, he is bound by the laws of the land and is responsible to the civil authority; "but, since my civil duties are, at the same time, religious duties, my Presbytery may also inquire into my neglect of any of my civil duties."

He mentions these very plain truths, in order to show that those who had questioned him could not "demand, as a matter of right, an answer to such a paper as that which had been presented." Said he: "It is perfectly manifest that no such right exists, and if it were distinctly and formally claimed, I would be compelled to resist it. It is, moreover, with me a question of very grave doubt whether I should permit feelings of courtesy and personal regard to lead me even to appear to lend the influence of my example to a practice which, if it should become common, would, I am persuaded, destroy the harmony and mar the peace of all our churches. For, brethren, if you may ask of me, as your pastor, a written answer to a paper going over the whole field of a great national convulsion, involving not simply questions of moral right and wrong, but also questions of constitutional law and most intricate questions of State policy, then what questions may you not ask and demand of me my answer? Jf a pastor begins such a course, upon what principle can he ever stop? If one portion of his congregation may rightfully and wisely call upon him to define his position on public affairs, may not another portion do the same? Do not the principle, if once admitted, and the practice, if once established, throw every pastor helpless into the hands of any party or faction that may arise at any time in his congregation? But, while I feel constrained to call your attention to the very dangerous principle which such a course involves, and while I must and do solemnly declare that I will not admit this to be a precedent by which I will be governed in the future, yet, such is my disposition to treat you personally with courtesy, and your wishes with respect, I shall proceed to make such statements as in my judgment should be satisfactory."

Continuing his reply, he called them to bear witness that during his nearly twelve years as their pastor, he had "never on any occasion, or under any pretext, introduced into the pulpit any matter of a political kind," and that "over and often, and long before the present troubles began," he had explained to them his views of the relation of the church and the state; "how both are ordained of God, but ordained for different purposes; that they move in different orbits, have different ends to accomplish, and are independent the one of the other." On these points his convictions were not changed, but confirmed; they were religious convictions, and, therefore, it was not possible to turn him from them. He proceeded to say that, as always, since he became a minister, he offered public prayer for the president of the United States, though seldom using that precise form, but rather the more scriptural one and the one more generally employed in Presbyterian pulpits: "For kings, and all who are in authority, especially for those who are in authority over us." As to his purposes as a citizen, the word of God is his authoritative guide. Whatever it enjoins, he endeavors to perform. Before coming to Missouri, he "did on two occasions take an oath of allegiance to the Constitution of the United States. To me that oath has not grown old. The God by whose name I swore is the 'living God.' When the convention of the State of Missouri, at its last session, enacted a law requiring an oath from those who solemnize the civil part of the marriage contract, I felt it to be my duty to take it. I have taken it."

The foregoing clearly sets forth Dr. McPheeters' position and the principle for which he contended; a principle on which his questioners put no value, and a position, from which, or from his church, they were determined to drive him. They "unanimously resolved that his answer was not satisfactory, for the reason that it entirely omitted to inform us whether Dr. McPheeters was a friend or an enemy of the government of the United States."

In his rejoinder to this second communication, Dr. McPheeters reiterates: "The true and only point at issue between us this: You claim the right, in virtue of the relation which exists between us as pastor and people, to ask and receive my written opinion and personal position upon civil and political questions no way connected with my office and duty as a minister of the gospel. I must tell you plainly that this claim I utterly deny, and feel compelled to resist. And this position I take, not from any disposition to stand - out captiously upon an abstract question of right, nor from any disposition improperly to conceal my views on political questions, but from a conscientious conviction that I cannot yield the thing you claim, without, to the full extent of my example, compromising the rights of every minister and endangering the peace of all our churches. The pastoral relation is in no sense and to no degree a civil and political relation. It has no concernment with men, viewed in any other light than as citizens of 'a kingdom not of this world.' By resisting what you claim, I testify against the whole system of church secularization, which I solemnly believe is a sign of the times, and which, if carried out, will end in degrading ministers of the gospel into politicians, and the Church itself into a thing of state."

The handful of factionists, their evil scheme intent, privately and in the public prints made most shameless, and false assaults upon his character as a citizen and minister, and capped the climax by persuading the military authorities of the department to order Dr. McPheeters to cease immediately to exercise the functions of his office within this state, and with his wife, to leave Missouri in ten days for exile in a northern state, and remain there during the war. President Lincoln countermanded the order. His behest was obeyed by his under-officers at St. Louis to the extent of permitting Dr. McPheeters to remain in the state, but not removing .the prohibition to preach or perform other ministerial duty. Learning this fact, Mr. Lincoln issued his famous order, declaring that the government could not attempt to run the churches. Under this order Dr. McPheeters was free to resume his pastoral work; but his persecutors resorted to other tactics. They prevailed upon the Presbytery (which, at their instance, was composed only of those whom the provost-marshal permitted to be present), to oust him from his position as pastor of the Pine Street church. Against this high-handed outrage, complaint was made to the general assembly, May, 1864, but in the excitement of the times was not sustained by that highest court of the church. This ended the conflict in favor of the factionists. "But," said one of the most loyal and most distinguished members of that assembly, "mark these words, moderator: when the history of the struggles for religious liberty and the rights of conscience in this land is fairly written, this suffering man will occupy a position on the roll of its honored champions which the best of us may envy."

Another eminent minister, revered and beloved by the whole church, the late Dr. H. A. Boardman, of Philadelphia, wrote Dr. McPheeters: "I can not refrain from expressing to you- my sense of the injustice with which you have been treated. Unwittingly, as I believe, our assembly has succumbed to the passions of the hour, and 'rendered to Caesar the things which are God's. The wrong done you is very great, but is small in comparison with the injury inflicted upon the church. My own convictions as to the essential wickedness of the rebellion, and the duty of suppressing it, are, as they have always been, very strong. But the spiritual independence of the church of Christ, of the church as a whole, and of each of every branch of it, must be maintained at all hazards and at whatever sacrifice. The intolerance of the day, in striking at' you, has aimed a deadly blow at this vital principle. You may assure yourself of the true sympathy of very many who love both our church and country."

Having been, by the assembly's decision, torn from his devoted Pine Street people, Dr. McPheeters accepted a call to the Mulberry church, Kentucky. Here his health, never robust, and most severely taxed by his contention against unreasonable and perverse men, gave way rapidly, until, unable to sit or stand, he was confined to a couch, on which he was borne to the house of worship, and, in a recumbent position, conducted the services of the sanctuary.

About this time, the war being ended and military rule abolished, and the factionists having therefore become impotent, the Pine Street church made the first use of their restored liberty by recalling him to be their pastor. In response, he came on his couch to look once more in the faces of those with whom and for whom he had suffered, and to say that his enfeebled physical condition compelled him to decline their invitation.

Returning to Kentucky, his disease made quick progress, and "on the 9th of March, 1870, Samuel Brown McPheeters fell asleep in Jesus, and another spirit joined the noble army of martyrs and confessors in the paradise of God." He left a widow, who was Miss Eliza C. Shanks, of Virginia, and two sons and two daughters. One daughter and the sons—-Mr. Thomas S. McPheeters, of this city, and Professor W. M. McPheeters, D. D., of the Theological Seminary, Columbia, South Carolina,—survive their parents. Rev. Samuel Brown McPheeters was the first person on whom Westminster College, at Fulton, Missouri, conferred the degree of doctor of divinity, and he was the worthy recipient of the honor in 1859.

The late General F. P. Blair, his intimate friend at college and in mature life, wrote of him: "It has never been my fortune to know a better or purer man, or one more upright and conscientious in the discharge of the duties of the most difficult and highest calling among men, and I feel it presumptuous in me, even at the request of friends, to attempt the delineation of a character which excites my highest admiration, but which I have shown so little capacity to imitate."

From the Public Domain Book: Centennial History of Missouri: (the Center State) One Hundred Years in the Union, 1820-1921, Author Walter Barlow Stevens

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