The Reaper Man and the Meeting at Philippi – a Civil War Era Church Battle Turns into a Confrontation over Slavery and Union

ECW welcomes back guest author Max Longley

Cyrus McCormick

Cyrus McCormick was famous as the inventor of a mechanical reaper which made grain-harvesting ten times more efficient. After McCormick’s reaper became profitable, he moved to Chicago to better supervise his reaper business which was particularly popular among farmers in the modern Midwest, once then considered the Northwest.[1]

After McCormick’s marriage, his wife encouraged him in the direction of philanthropy and politics, which he now worked on with the same energy and determination with which he continued to promote his reaper. To McCormick in the 1850s, preserving the Union was an urgent cause, to which quieting slavery agitation was essential. The two institutions McCormick relied on to thus keep the Union together were the Democratic Party and the influential Old School Presbyterian Church – he was a fervent member of both institutions. McCormick believed that the Democrats and the Old School denomination held the Union together like two hoops holding up a barrel. He resisted any attempts to weaken the hoops, and provoke a collapse of the Union “barrel,” through divisive antislavery agitation.[2]

To McCormick’s dismay, the seeds of discord were present in both of his favorite institutions. The Democrats were divided on slavery, as were the Old Schoolers. There were three Old School factions. Southerners like James Henley Thornwell and Benjamin M. Palmer promoted slavery as what John C. Calhoun considered a “positive good”. A comparatively militant antislavery group – active in the Northwest – held slaveholding to be a sin (absent extenuating circumstances like an intention to educate them to freedom). A middle group professed moderation, sometimes opposing slavery while in practice seeing “abolitionism” as the greater threat to ecclesiastical and national unity.[3]

The Southerners and the moderates got their way in 1845, when the General Assembly (Old School governing body) deplored antislavery agitation and said it was no sin in itself to hold slaves. This South-soothing declaration saved the Old School from the fate of the Methodists and Baptists, who during the same period split into separate denominations over the slavery question.[4]

In the late 1850s, McCormick acquired a Presbyterian newspaper, the Expositor – edited by Rev. Nathan L. Rice – to promote religious conciliation of the South. He also took over a Democratic paper, the  Chicago Times, to promote conciliation in the secular sphere. McCormick sent copies of both papers to planters in the South – who were wary of buying his reaper because of distrust of Chicago Yankees – in order to assure the Southerners of McCormick’s soundness concerning the Peculiar Institution.[5]

Given the Presbyterian preoccupation with the higher education of ministers, it is not surprising that the Old School factions fought a bitter struggle over “mere” academic questions, with the issue of seminary education becoming the battlefield for the conflict over slavery.

Among the unapologetically antislavery Old Schoolers, a particular irritant to McCormick was Erasmus Darwin MacMaster, who by the 1850s was a professor at the New Albany Theological Seminary in Indiana. MacMaster started out as a member of a fringe Covenanter Presbyterian sect, which believed that there needed to be more acknowledgement of God in the U. S. Constitution, and less slavery in the U. S. MacMaster carried these beliefs into the Old School Presbyterians. He was as firm, determined and intelligent as McCormick, and as undiplomatic – but people were less willing to put up with the less-wealthy MacMaster’s lack of diplomacy.[6]

MacMaster’s fame today centers on the 1848 “Snowball Rebellion” by fraternity brothers at Miami College (now University) when he was president of the Oxford, Ohio institution. To tradition-honoring frat boys, MacMaster is remembered as their version of Animal House’s Dean Wormer figure who expelled most of the student body for their prank of massively packing the main campus building with snow and ice. MacMaster and Miami parted ways after this – the trustees wanted someone who wouldn’t throw out so many tuition-paying students – and the no-nonsense minister became a professor/administrator at the Old School’s small New Albany, Indiana, seminary.[7]

MacMaster’s clerical archfoe was the Kentucky-raised Old School minister and editor Nathan L. Rice. Rice accused MacMaster and his Albany Seminary colleague, the antislavery Thomas E. Thomas, of trying to foment abolitionism in the seminary. MacMaster denounced the charges, declaring that he did not disproportionately emphasize slavery compared to other sins. He said he focused on sins in his own (Northwestern) area, leaving the South to achieve antislavery enlightenment on their own – while arguing that slaveholders were required by the Bible to give their slaves “education, intellectual and moral and religious culture,” granting them freedom when they were ready and the laws permitted it.[8] At the same time, speaking to students at his old haunts at Miami University in 1856, MacMaster said he would speak up against attempts to nationalize slavery and  especially to extend it to the Northwest.[9]

With the New Albany seminary short of money and inconveniently situated, MacMaster and his colleagues proposed a relocation of the seminary to Chicago, the de facto capital of the Northwest. The New Albany campus closed in 1857.[10] Then Thomas E. Thomas wrote a friend with troubling news – MacMaster’s and Thomas’ influential enemy, Nathan Rice, was moving to Chicago with the support of “the reaper man,” Cyrus McCormick, to head up a local church. Rice, backed by McCormick, would be in a position to mount a takeover bid for the seminary if it was located in Chicago, and the General Assembly, with its Southern and moderate element – would be able to appoint soft-on-slavery professors.[11]

MacMaster and his supporters changed tactics – now they pressed to move the Seminary to Indianapolis rather than Chicago – away from McCormick and Rice. Indianapolis happened to be the location of the May 1859 General Assembly meeting, but there would be no home-field advantage for the advocates of putting the Seminary there. Before the meeting, Rice published letters from MacMaster in which the latter wrote that antislavery donors should insist on the Seminary remaining under the Northwestern Synods, not subject to Southerners and moderates in the General Assembly. MacMaster was sneakily and covertly plotting abolitionism, Rice proclaimed.[12]

On the question of donor influence, MacMaster and his supporters were outgunned. Cyrus McCormick came up with an offer the General Assembly did not wish to refuse. McCormick promised a $100,000 endowment – in 1859 dollars – for a renewed Seminary in Chicago: $25,000 for each of four endowed professorships.[13]

The General Assembly accepted the Chicago location (and the promised money) and for three of the four professorships it approved people acceptable to McCormick. For the fourth and most important professorship – that of theology – the contest was down to MacMaster and Rice. Before the vote, MacMaster’s friends, knowing his combative nature, told him he had a good chance at the professorship unless he ruined things by a bridge-burning, accusatory speech.[14]

Ignoring the warnings, MacMaster plowed ahead with a lengthy tirade in the General Assembly. Not deigning to mention Rice by name, he gave extensive rebuttals to Rice’s accusations. After finishing a detailed fifth point, MacMaster realized he had misplaced the rest of his prepared text, but this did not stop him. MacMaster was famous for his memory, retaining in his mind the works of Homer and the contents of the textbooks he taught. Now he continued with his attacks on Rice and shifted to a bigger theme. He said that the “Slave Power” – including Southern leaders James Thornwell and Benjamin Palmer – was plotting to take over the Old School and to purge anyone who refused to accept slavery as a positive good. Seemingly knowing that his speech had killed him politically, MacMaster compared himself to the ghost of Caesar in Shakespeare’s play. MacMaster promised Thornwell and Palmer, presumed Slave Power plotters, to meet them “at Philippi,” just as great Caesar’s ghost had made such a promise to the assassin Brutus, who was subsequently killed at the battle of Philippi. MacMaster was indeed decisively rejected in favor of Rice, and Chicago’s Theological Seminary of the Northwest got started without him.[15]

The unmarried MacMaster moved in with his brother Algernon (another Presbyterian minister) and spent the Civil War in exile from academia and then moved to Monticello, Indiana to earn his living as a farmer. Chafing under the agricultural life, MacMaster planned to publish an expose of the Slave Power plot in religion. That didn’t pan out, and he issued a prospectus for a proposed religious magazine, the Messianic Witness. That didn’t work either. Nor did efforts by his (sometimes unauthorized) supporters to get him a professorship at a Presbyterian seminary. MacMaster managed to get antislavery resolutions through the Indiana Synod. He preached an 1863 Thanksgiving sermon taking a militant stance on the war, urging national repentance, and calling for specific recognition of God in the Constitution.[16]

The fruits of McCormick’s 1859 victory went up in smoke during the war. While spending the war (sometimes abroad) dealing with the demands of his reaper business, McCormick helplessly witnessed the takeover of the Northern Old School by an increasingly-militant Unionist faction. The Confederate Old Schoolers were kicked out, with Thornwell and Palmer – the two Brutuses – helping to form a separate Confederate church.[17]

The northern Old School church, by 1864, finally condemned slavery unequivocally. Meanwhile, Rice had left for a pastorate in New York at the war’s start. The key theology professorship in Chicago remained vacant. McCormick didn’t provide the $25,000 for the unfilled position, believing that the newly-“radical” General Assembly would appoint someone unorthodox (i. e., antislavery and militantly Unionist).[18]

Finally, in 1866, the Seminary appointed MacMaster as their professor of theology. MacMaster accepted the post, but vowed not to accept McCormick’s tainted money. Before he could undertake his duties, McMaster took sick from the Chicago weather and died in December. When his body was eventually moved to Xenia, Ohio, to be buried alongside his family, McCormick chipped in to help with the monument.[19]

The former Theological Seminary of the Northwest now has McCormick’s name but probably not his theology.

Max Longley is the author of Quaker Carpetbagger: J. Williams Thorne, Underground Railroad Host Turned North Carolina Politician (McFarland, 2020), For the Union and the Catholic Church: Four Converts in the Civil War (McFarland, 2015), and many articles. He is on Substack (https://maxlongley.substack.com/about) where he is working on articles about various topics, definitely including the Civil War.


 

[1] For Abraham Lincoln’s experience trying to defend a lawsuit brought by McCormick, see David J. Kent, “Abraham Lincoln and the McCormick Reaper,” August 7, 2019, https://davidjkent-writer.com/2019/08/07/abraham-lincoln-and-the-mccormick-reaper/.

[2] William T. Hutchinson, Cyrus Hall McCormick: Harvest, 1856-1884 (New York: D. Appleton-Century Company, 1935), 1-9, 205.

[3] James Oscar Farmer, Jr., The Metaphysical Confederacy: James Henley Thornwell and the Synthesis of Southern Values (Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1986); Peter J. Wallace, “’The Bond of Union’: The Old School Presbyterian Church and the American Nation, 1837-1861,” Notre Dame 2004, http://www.peterwallace.org/bond-union/. The online version of this paper lacks pagination.

[4] Wallace; Farmer, 87-88. Thornwell took credit for the 1845 decision in a letter to his wife.

[5] Hutchinson, 9, 11, 43-46, 77-78.

[6] Wallace; Max Longley, “The Radicalization of James McMaster: The ‘Puritan’ North as an Enemy of Peace, the Constitution, and the Catholic Church,” U. S. Catholic Historian, Vol. 36, No. 4 (Fall 2018), 25-50, at 30-34; Erasmus Darwin MacMaster, “Impending Judgments Averted by Repentance,” August 3, 1849, reprinted in The Christian Statesman, March 28, 1874, 235; E. D. MacMaster, The True Life of a Nation (New Albany, 1856); Erasmus Darwin MacMaster, “God’s Dealings with us, and our duties,” November 26, 1863, published in Christian Statesman, September 25, 1875, 1 ff, and October 2, 1875, 1 ff.; Phillip R. Shriver, Miami University: A Personal History (Oxford, Ohio: Miami University Press, 1998), 88-96.  MacMaster’s brother Benjamin (later James) was equally pugnacious, but showed this pugnacity as a Catholic after converting to that church. This conversion seems to have estranged Erasmus from James, so that by the time James was a Copperhead editor in the “brothers’ war,” the brothers had already broken with each other. See Longley, op. cit.

[7] Shriver, op. cit.

[8] MacMaster, True Life of a Nation, pp.31-32, 38.

[9] Wallace; Thomas Ebenezer Thomas and Alfred Addison Thomas, Correspondence of Thomas Ebenezer Thomas (Alfred Addison Thomas, 1909), MacMaster, “The True Life of a Nation,” op. cit.

[10]  Wallace.

[11] Thomas E. Thomas to Professor Jared M. Stone, August 10, 1857, in Thomas and Thomas, 95-96.

[12] Wallace.

[13] Wallace; Hutchinson, 20

[14] Hutchinson, 20-21; Rev. J. M. Wampler to Thomas E. Thomas, April 23, 1859, diary entry of Thomas E. Thomas, April 27, 1859, both in Thomas and Thomas, 103; Thomas, 107.

[15] Erasmus Darwin MacMaster, Speech of May 30, 1859 (Cincinnati: Gazette Co. Steam Print, 1859); Thomas and Thomas, 105 ff. There was a minor Civil War battle at Philippi, [West] Virginia, see https://emergingcivilwar.com/2019/10/18/mapping-the-philippi-battlefield/ and https://emergingcivilwar.com/2019/10/03/ecw-on-c-span-3-philippi/.

[16] E. D. MacMaster to Thomas E. Thomas, January 1, 1861, E. D. MacMaster to Thomas E. Thomas, January 15, 1861, August 20, 1862, John Crosier to Thomas E. Thomas, November 22, 1861, MacMaster to Thomas E. Thomas, August 28, 1866, all in Thomas and Thomas, 110-13, 120-21, 131; Lewis G. Vander Velde, The Presbyterian Churches and the Federal Union: 1861-1869 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1932), 177; The Presbyter, June 5, 1862, 146; “Messianic Witness,” The Presbyter, July 3, 1862, 158; “The Messianic Witness,” The Evangelical Witness, December 11, 1862, 4; The Presbyter, Oct. 13, 1862, 18; Evansville Daily Journal, December 15, 1862, p. 2; Danville Quarterly Review, September 1862, 394; Erasmus Darwin MacMaster, “God’s Dealings with us, and our duties,” op. cit.

[17] Vander Velde, 42-73, 102-04; Farmer, 275-80; “Palmer, Benjamin Morgan,” South Carolina Encyclopedia, https://www.scencyclopedia.org/sce/entries/palmer-benjamin-morgan/.

[18] Hutchinson, 27-30; Vander Velde, 126-28. Stanley Matthews, future Supreme Court Justice, helped draft the antislavery resolution.

[19] Thomas and Thomas, 61, 128-31; Hutchinson, 216-17.

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1 Response to The Reaper Man and the Meeting at Philippi – a Civil War Era Church Battle Turns into a Confrontation over Slavery and Union

  1. Tim Talbott says:

    Fascinating article! Well done!

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