July 25, 2019

By Fred Koenig

Most people have kind of forgotten about the big dust up in St. Louis involving a mainline protestant denomination and the prevalent societal issue of the day. No, I’m not talking about General Conference 2019; I’m going a little farther back. 

Rev. Elijah Lovejoy wasn’t a Missouri Methodist; He was Presbyterian. But he was editor of one of his denomination’s publications, The St. Louis Observer, here in Missouri, so I feel some kinship to the guy.

Lovejoy hated pro-slavery Christians, and they hated him back. On April 28, 1836, a black man, who was under arrest for killing a deputy, was forcibly removed from jail by a mob, chained to a tree and burned to death on the corner of 10th and Market Streets in St. Louis. The judge indicted no one in the mob, which didn’t go over well with Lovejoy, and the Presbyterian’s newspaper coverage of the event did not shy away from expressing outrage and including the horrific details of the murder of the untried prisoner. 

On July 21, 1837, a mob ransacked the office of the Presbyterian newspaper, which was located at 85 Main Street (where the Gateway Arch stands today). Lovejoy moved his publication’s office to Alton, Illinois, thinking he might be safer across the river. He wasn’t. Vandals threw his printing press into the Mississippi River. He bought another and resumed his editorial attacks on slavery. That second press was tossed in the river August 21. His third press arrive on September 21 and was immediately thrown in the river. 

Another printing press was brought in. On November 7 an armed mob surrounded the Alton office, threatening to set it on fire. Lovejoy’s friends responded with gunfire, killing one of the mob and forcing the rest to retreat. Lovejoy stepped outside and was shot five times. He was dead at age 34. The fourth printing press was thrown into the river. 

As horrible as Lovejoy’s story of determination terminated by death is, it’s but a tiny footnote to the ultimate resolution of his issue, the Civil War, in which 620,000 Americans were killed.

When Lovett Weems presented the history of division in the United Methodist Church in brief this past summer at Annual Conference Session, slavery was the primary issue that divided the church, followed by race. Looking back it’s inconceivable that the issues that caused the carnage were even considered issues with two sides. 

We still have our issues today. Not only do we have our issues, we still haven’t fully resolved the issues that 620,000 died over in fighting the civil war more than 150 years ago. 

I’ve got it easy compared to Lovejoy. No mob has ever broke into Modern Litho and thrown the presses in the Missouri River, much less shot me. Things rarely get worse than a tersely worded email. I benefit directly from the sacrifice of others who have come before me, and sharing a position of the church, even a controversial one, does not create a public uproar as it once did. Let’s hope that’s because we’re a more civilized society and not just because society cares less about what the church has to say on divisive issues.