RICHMOND, April 7, 1865.
General E. H. Ripley, Commanding Post of Richmond.
General—It is with great reluctance that I presume to trespass upon your time, now so fully occupied with most important matters. In recalling to your mind the communication you made to the clergy of this town on yesterday, I do so with the sincere acknowledgment of the courtesy and spirit of conciliation manifested by you in the discharge of a duty which you stated yourself to be of a delicate and in part painful nature, and also in the earnest conviction that a respectful and clear statement of the circumstances and principles which direct our views (clearer than any that could be made in a loose and rambling conversation on the part of those who unexpectedly were called on to appear before you in this matter) might not be without its effect upon the ultimate decision of the question on your part. It has been stated upon credible authority that in the discussion of the question whether the oath of allegiance to the United States should be administered to the citizens of Richmond, President Lincoln said that his mind was not made up as to the expediency of the measure, and that he referred it to the military authority; whereupon Major-General Weitzel is reported to have said that his mind was fully made up, and that his experience had convinced him of the inexpediency and uselessness of the measure, and that then it was decided that the oath should not be enforced for the present. It is not my province to prove that the wisdom of this decision is indorsed by all the lessons of history, and unless I mistake in accordance with the almost universal practice of nations. But I would most respectfully put the inquiry whether the principle of that decision does not apply with even greater force to the question presented by you yesterday in its bearing upon the services of the Episcopal churches in this city. Allow me, as briefly as possible, to state my views. In their civil capacity clergymen can claim no exemption, nor do they claim any exemption, from the duties incumbent upon the inhabitants of the Commonwealth in general, though under the constitutions of several of the States they cannot claim all the rights which other citizens possess, being by their position excluded from some public positions open to others. But on general grounds they stand in the same position, being bound to loyalty and obedience to the laws of the land and liable to prosecution and penalty for dis- loyalty and violation of those laws. If, for instance, the Government should demand the oath of allegiance of the citizens of Richmond, it is clear that the clergy would be included by the provisions of that order. If the policy of the Government at this time foregoes this demand, it would necessarily operate alike upon the ministers of the gospel.
But in the capacity as ministers we stand under ecclesiastical, not under civil law. This is in accordance with the fundamental laws of this country. There is no legal power in this land to interfere there, and it never has been done. Whether there shall be one undivided Episcopal Church on this continent or two, or any number of them, does not come within the cognizance of the civil courts; and should any one diocese act contrary to the laws of the church of which it formed a part, and separate from it, it might make itself liable to ecclesiastical censure and perhaps excommunication; but the church could not call upon the secular authority to enforce its decision or accompany it with penalties. Whatever may have been the occasion of the separation of the Southern dioceses from the Episcopal Church in the United States, that separation may involve ecclesiastical misdemeanors; it cannot be construed into a civil misdemeanor, and there is no court in the United States before which the case could be tried. If, according to the firm belief you expressed yesterday, the time is near at hand when the authority of the United States Government will be established over the whole of its former extent, the question whether the church in the South would reunite with that in the North, or remain in a state of ecclesiastical separation (like the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist churches North and South) entirely distinct or connected by a concordat, or whether the single dioceses would in future exist in their isolated condition or unite in provinces, this question will be discussed in the church, and not in the councils or courts of the civil authority. There is not in this country a union of church and state. As clergymen of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the diocese of Virginia we are subject to the ecclesiastical authority of that diocese and in our ministerial functions bound by her laws. As far as known to me, our clergy have been guided by this from the beginning. When the secession of the Southern States took place, and it was expected and by many desired that Virginia should adopt the same course, the clergy of Virginia (whatever their individual views or wishes on that question might have been) felt it their duty to continue the prayer for the President of the United States as prescribed by the ritual of the church to which they then belonged. They were frequently urged to omit it; but the political question was not theirs; they had no right in any way to anticipate the action of the State. When Virginia seceded, the political condition of the country made it necessary for them to omit that prayer; but they did not, nor could they lawfully substitute for it any other prayer until the church in convention assembled acted in the premises and prescribed by her authority a modified ritual. Individual action of the clergy was not attempted. We are now living under the ecclesiastical law of the diocese of Virginia. In deference to the circumstances existing, and acknowledging the power which the providence of God has given the Government of the United States over us, we feel bound to omit the prayer furnished us by our church for the President of the Confederate States. We do so because the continuance of that prayer would be construed to involve an act of disloyalty; we do so because we deem it our Christian duty to avoid offense, and do all we can to conscientiously, and as far as the law under which as clergymen we live will allow, to promote peace and good will. But whilst we continue to live under the ecclesiastical authority of this diocese, and until that diocese orders otherwise, we cannot conscientiously, by our own unauthorized action, introduce a prayer which is not found in our ritual, but has been removed from it by the only authority which has that power. We stand now on the same ground on which we stood in the beginning of this war. As we conscientiously then refrained from individual action and resisted outside pressure and even opprobrium until our lawful authority had acted, I do not see how our course can be changed now.
This I beg leave respectfully to remark is the legal side of the question, as I understand it. But allow me to refer to the question of equity and fair, impartial dealing. It is evident, and was acknowledged by you on yesterday that the difficulty raised affects chiefly, if not solely, the services of the Episcopal Church. Permit me to ask in all humility, is it generous and fair to exact of us what is not wanted of others? You may suppose that, until by your late successes you obtained possession of Richmond, the feeling and conduct of the different denominations in this city was the same, sincerely or at least outwardly, in obedience to and in favor of the cause of the Confederate States. The extempore mode of worship enabled the ministers of other denominations to indulge their feelings of loyalty or patriotism to any extent, and you know too much of human nature to expect that this should not have been done in times of excitement and commotion. The ministers of the Episcopal Church were content to use the sober collect which their church prescribed and could not go beyond. Now, however, those other ministers, not having a form which is binding, can readily conform to the present state of things and the demands of the United States Government, without being required to go beyond the general terms in which the Scripture exhorts all Christians to pray for those in authority. Would it be fair and according to equity to exact more of the ministers of the Episcopal Church than is demanded of others? We yield all and avoid every allusion to the Confederate States, praying in our litany for all in authority. We comply with everything done by ministers of other denominations. Shall we be singled out as alone bound to use a special prayer, which to use at present would be in violation of our ecclesiastical obligations? Is the Episcopal Church an established church, that the State has authority over its ritual? The omission of the collect, which in either ritual, the prayer book of the church in the United States or that of the church in the Confederate States, refers to the Chief Magistrate, involves the perfect admission of the state of things and submission to the actual power possessed by your Government. We go further than all other ministers, for we omit a prescribed prayer. But the reintroduction of a prayer not found in our ritual, nor authorized as yet by our ecclesiastical authority, would exact more of us than is demanded of all others, make an invidious distinction which would be oppressive to the consciences of the ministers of our church and its members alike, who both, I am sure, desire, by their quiet and inoffensive conduct, to respond to the liberal policy pursued by those now in command. It was with unfeigned gratification that the expressions of your desire to pursue a conciliatory course were listened to. If it is the purpose of the United States Government to heal dissensions and promote peace in this way, then a course which, under the present circumstances and the feelings naturally existing among many of the people and an influential and valuable class of the community, would wound them and mark them out beyond all others, and most probably drive them for a while from their own churches, would appear to be so much at variance with that purpose, that I humbly hope it may be the pleasure of the Government not to insist upon the use of the prayer in the prayer book of the Episcopal Church in the United States for the President of the United States, and allow us quietly to use our own ritual, omitting everything which could have the least tendency to give offense or sanction opposition.
I have the honor to be, general, your obedient servant,
Rector Saint Paul’s Church.