Amasa Converse, the minister who fled South after the Lincoln administration suppressed his Philadelphia newspaper (cameo appearance by Edgar Allan Poe), Part Two

Converse’s difficulties with the slavery issue were temporarily superseded on July 5, 1854, when the offices of the Christian Observer were destroyed in a fire. Converse thought all was lost and that his subscription books had been burned (the equivalent of losing his computer’s data without backup), but it turned out that a brave tenant of the building had rescued these valuable books and Converse could start rebuilding.[1]

Some of the wealthier New School men – of an antislavery disposition – proposed to buy Converse out, so that the Christian Observer could take a harder line against slavery. When Converse refused to sell, his adversaries tried setting up a rival paper, but Converse rejoiced to see his paper doing better than theirs in terms of solvency and circulation. The conspiracy against him, as he saw it, had been thwarted for now.[2]

The monomaniacs (as Converse saw them) were also influential in the New School’s “Home Missions” movement – that is, aid to the poorer churches. Uncomfortable with slaveowning ministers and other entanglements with the Peculiar Institution, the New School’s home missions board hesitated to make grants in the South. To counter this, a Southern Aid Society, dominated by conservative New Schoolers, was set up to help Southern churches, without nitpicking about whether the minister or the congregation had slaves or supported slavery.[3]

Converse was full of praise for the Southern Aid Society. To him, the organization was not an instrument of proslavery propaganda but an initiative to bring the Gospel to neglected regions of the South. “We owe it to the North and to the South and to the Saviour to do something in this work which has been so sadly overlooked,” Converse enthused. Plenty of prominent and wealthy Presbyterians – and prominent clergy from affluent parishes – agreed with Converse that this enterprise needed support.[4]

When many antislavery Northern ministers, including numerous New School Presbyterians, denounced the attempt to foist slavery on Kansas, Converse published an admonition in July 1856: “It is not then the main office of the pulpit to denounce the sins of men, but to hold up Christ in all his offices and in all relations to God and men.”[5]

Converse praised the Southern Aid Society again in 1857 as “not only a good work…it is a great work.” The ministrations of the Society weren’t enough to prevent the New School from splitting, that same year, into Northern and Southern sections – the fault of the monomaniacs again, Converse thought.[6] Converse was left among the Northern New Schoolers as an embattled voice supporting what he deemed moderation.

The American Union itself soon began to split. After the election of Abraham Lincoln (which Converse opposed), the secession crisis led to the beginning of the Civil War.[7]

Blaming extremists on both sides, Converse preached conciliation of the South, not a popular position in wartime Philadelphia. Converse complained in his memoirs that to his opponents, “religion and politics were strangely intermingled.” Plus (he himself venturing a politico-religious opinion) the North “perfidiously…provoke[d] the forces of the seceded states to fire on fort Sumter,” in Converse’s fascinating but debatable historical analysis.[8]

In spring and summer of 1861, Converse later claimed, the climate of opinion in Philadelphia was dangerous to him. According to Converse’s autobiography (expressed in the third person): “His life was threatened by some of the self-styled patriots who had been roused to action.” As his autobiography put it, it was “dangerous to publish facts, or advocate the principles of peace, and the sacred duties of religion.” Religion’s sacred duties, as Converse interpreted them, required the appeasement of the Confederates.[9]

In June 1861 the U. S. Post Office cut off all mail to the Confederacy, blocking the southward circulation of the Christian Observer. This was not good for Converse, who just before the war had bought a Richmond press so he could publish the Christian Observer in Richmond as well as Philadelphia.[10]

On August 22, 1861, U. S. Marshals seized the paper’s Philadelphia press. Simultaneously, the feds raided a different, secular newspaper, the Jeffersonian in the village of West Chester, in the same part of southeastern Pennsylvania. The U. S. Attorney, George A. Coffey, ordered the seizures. Coffey, in turn, claimed that President Lincoln backed up his order. Each newspaper faced charges of violating the Confiscation Act (Civil War buffs know it as the First Confiscation Act), which allowed the seizure of property used in aid of the Confederacy. Coffey acted on the theory that the Christian Observer and Jeffersonian had been aiding the Confederacy, not with supplies and munitions, but with supportive words. The property of the newspapers was placed in the care of the federal court in Philadelphia, where the charges against the two publications were scheduled to be tried.[11]

Converse protested the treatment of the Christian Observer in a letter to President Lincoln:

I have always been devoted to the preservation of the Union. I yield to none in the truth, sincerity and fervor of that devotion, and I refer with confidence to the columns of the paper in proof of my assertion. I have constantly opposed secession and disunion in Church and State, and never for one moment or by any one act, have I promoted, encouraged, or approved them. I have deprecated violence, combatted extreme opinions, and endeavored to diffuse sentiments of kindness and christian forbearance to the extent of my humble abilities….

…I have written nothing and published nothing with the intent or purpose of stimulating the disloyal to take up arms against the government, to disaffect the loyal or to encourage those who were in arms.[12]

In October, federal prosecutor Coffey decided not to pursue the court cases against the Christian Observer and the Jeffersonian, allowing the return of the presses and equipment. The two editors reacted differently to this change of fortune. John Hodgson, editor of the Jeffersonian, pursued the censors in the traditional American way, by suing them. Hodgson ultimately won his case against the federal officials who had seized his press.[13]

Amasa Converse might have taken a similar course, if he had still been in Pennsylvania. But in September he had relocated to Richmond and continued his paper there, doing what he had denied doing in his letter to Lincoln: encouraging the Confederacy in its war effort. With Converse’s departure from the North, the Northern New School Presbyterians were now solidly against secession and slavery.[14]

Converse’s defense of the Confederacy was of the tough-love variety, which is what one might expect from a stern Presbyterian minister. Converse wanted the Confederacy to be victorious, but for this to happen, he preached in the Christian Observer, the people would have to repent of their sins. Converse wrote in April 1862 that the Southern people’s laziness and drunkenness, their pride and ingratitude, had helped bring on the war by provoking God’s wrath.[15]

Converse undertook to inspire and reform, not just the civilians but the army. He sent about 3,000 free copies of his paper each week to be distributed among Confederate troops. Whether or not due to his newspaper, there were in fact instances of religious revivalism among the Confederate soldiers at the front, with troops not merely praying for victory but also sorrowing over their sins[16] (not repenting for slavery, of course – this was not considered a sin in the Confederacy or its armed forces).

Converse denounced the Emancipation Proclamation, and said it showed the North was not really fighting to preserve the Union, but to hurt the South by liberating slaves.[17]

After the Civil War, Converse kept at work on the Christian Observer until his death in 1872, by which time the paper had moved to Louisville, Kentucky. Amasa’s son Francis Bartlett Converse took over the paper.[18]

Amasa Converse provides an interesting case study in conflicting allegiances. Alternating between living in the North and the South, he thought that the two sections could live in harmony so long as the slavery issue wasn’t agitated. In the South, he was true to the heritage of his native New England and joined a religious denomination which was predominantly Northern – the New School Presbyterians. In the North, he provoked increasing opposition from the antislavery group in the New School, since he was the New School’s foremost voice in favor of sectional conciliation (at the expense of the slaves). The Lincoln administration thought he was pro-Confederate and for a time seized his Philadelphia press. This precaution seemed prophetic when Converse, despite his initial denials, turned out to be pro-Confederate after all and promoted the Southern cause with his press in Richmond. Yet today his fame (such as it is) focuses not on the Civil War but on one occasion in 1836 when he officiated at the wedding of a literary man he probably didn’t know.

————

[NOTE – An earlier version of this article used to appear (behind a paywall) on my Substack account.]

[1] Amasa Converse, “Autobiography of the Rev. Amasa Converse,” Part 2, Journal of Presbyterian History, Vol. 43, No. 4 (December 1965), pp. 254-263, 254-55.

[2] Autobiography, Part 1, 218; Autobiography, Part 2, 256-58, 260.

[3] Victor B. Howard, “The Southern Aid Society and the Slavery Controversy,” Church History, Vol. 41, No. 2 (June, 1972), pp. 208-224, at 211-14.

[4] Howard, “Southern Aid Society,” 213-14, 221.

[5] Victor B. Howard, “Presbyterians, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the Election of 1856,” Journal of Presbyterian History, Vol. 49, No. 2 (Summer 1971), pp.133-156, at 149.

[6] Howard, “Southern Aid Society,” 220; Autobiography, Part 2, 258-60.

[7] Autobiography, Part 2, 160-61; Arnold Shankman, “‘The Christian Observer’ and Civil War Censorship,” Journal of Presbyterian History, Vol. 52, No. 3 (Fall1974), pp. 227-244, at 230-31.

[8] Shankman, 233, 234; Autobiography, Part 2, 262.

[9] Autobiography, Part 2, 262-63.

[10] Shankman, 231.

[11] Shankman, 234-35; Jeffrey Manber and Neil Dahlstrom, Lincoln’s Wrath: Fierce Mobs, Brilliant Scoundrels and a President’s Mission to Destroy the Press (Napierville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2005), 211, 223, 226-27, 232, 248; Peter Charles Hoffer, Uncivil Wars: The Lawyers’ Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 91; U. S. Department of Justice, Bicentennial Celebration of the United States Attorneys, https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/usao/legacy/2011/11/23/bicn_celebration.pdf. For the text of the First Confiscation Act, see “The First Confiscation Act, August 6, 1861,” Freedmen and Southern Society Project, http://www.freedmen.umd.edu/conact1.htm.

[12] Amasa Converse to Abraham Lincoln, August 28, 1861, House Divided, https://hd.housedivided.dickinson.edu/node/37408.

[13] Shankman, 235.

[14] Shankman, 235-36; Lewis G. Vander Velde, The Presbyterian Churches and the Federal Union: 1861-1869. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1932, 370-71.

[15] W. Harrison Daniel, “Southern Presbyterians in the Confederacy,” The North Carolina Historical Review, Vol. 44, No. 3 (July, 1967), pp. 231-255, at 236.

[16] Daniel, 245; George C. Rable, God’s Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2010, 204-7, 310-15, 340.

[17] Daniel, 250.

[18] “The Rev. A. Converse, D. D.,” “Biographical Index of Ministers – C,” Presbyterian Heritage Center, https://phcmontreat.org/bios/Bios-C.htm.

This entry was posted in Civilian, Lincoln, Newspapers, Personalities, Politics, Slavery and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Amasa Converse, the minister who fled South after the Lincoln administration suppressed his Philadelphia newspaper (cameo appearance by Edgar Allan Poe), Part Two

  1. mark harnitchek says:

    thanks Max … interesting story … enjoyed reading … i was wondering how what led you to the Converse bio.

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!