Lutheran General Synod met in York in May 1864
The 21st convention of the General Synod of the Lutheran Church met in downtown York, Pennsylvania, for several days beginning on May 5, 1864. Concurrently, the Union Army of the Potomac was battling Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia more than 150 miles to the south at the battle of the Wilderness in Virginia. The bitter war was very much on the minds of the 150 delegates to the biannual religious gathering, noting the absence of representatives from the Synods of North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, West Virginia, and Virginia. The church had not been immune to the separation of the country and was itself now divided.
Delegates from the border states of Maryland and Kentucky were present. Eighty-five of the attendees, from 29 different Synods, were clerical; the rest were laity. All were men. Another 90 ministerial brethren, non-voting, as well as several leading laymen, were also in attendance. Many of the out-of-town visitors had arrived via the Northern Central Railway, which had a large, new comfortable red-brick station house on the north side of York.
The convention opened with a discourse based on Esther 4: 13-14 by the Reverend Samuel Specher of Springfield, Ohio. The general business of the church, its direction and objectives, biblical interpretation, and other topics of interest sparked discussion and, at times, debate. Unresolved disagreements over doctrinal issues led to those men from the Pennsylvania Synod to walk out.
The minutes of the conference, as noted in The Evangelical Quarterly Review, No. LIX, July 1864, note the split in the denomination caused by the war: “As these Synods have neither announced their withdrawal not been cut off, they may be regarded as part of the General Synod, and the hope, cherished that, when the War has been brought to a conclusion and the country once more united, their representatives may again be found on the floor of the Synod. We believe that many of our brethren in the South are still with us in sympathy, and that when the opportunity is offered, by the re-establishment of the Federal authority over that territory, they will be glad to renew their connection with the Northern Church and cordially co-operate with us in efforts to fulfill our high mission.”
The official minutes also noted the hospitality of the host community: “The sessions were well attended, the congregations, assembled at public worship and the several anniversary services, were larger than we have ever known on any similar occasion, and the kindest attentions and generous hospitalities of the citizens of York will long be held in grateful recollection. It was in many respects a most pleasant meeting of Synod, one that will be memorable in its history and fraught with important consequences. Some who anticipated its deliberations with trembling, regards the results which were reached with grateful joy.”
A resolution passed in favor and appreciation of the General Synod’s continuing support of the United States Christian Commission, a non-denominational organization that provided support for soldiers, including medical supplies and food. Two other guest speakers from the American Tract Society had traveled to York from Boston and New York City, respectively, to update the Lutherans on their operations and results.
Another resolution supported the U. S. Army General Hospital, located on Penn Common (now Penn Park) on the south side of York.
“The Synod, having been invited to visit the United States General Hospital at York under the care of Dr. Henry Palmer, as Surgeon, and Rev. J. A. Brown as Chaplain, by a unanimous resolution on Saturday afternoon proceeded in a body to the grounds and were conducted by the officers through the establishment. This Hospital, from the commencement of the War, has been occupied by our wounded soldiers and accommodations are furnished for large numbers, whose interests, temporal and spiritual, seem well care for. The Synod was very much gratified with its visit, and entertained upon its minutes the following resolution:
“Resolved, that this body express its great satisfaction with the order and neatness in the arrangements of the Hospital, the excellent discipline of the Surgeon in charge, and the fidelity and success of the Chaplain in his labors among the soldiers.”
The minutes concluded with the remarks, “The Synod voted its grateful acknowledgements to the Lutheran Pastors and congregations of York, as well as to other Christian friends, for their kind hospitality; to the several Railroad companies for their generous consideration; and to the Officers of the Convention for their faithful and impartial services. After engaging in singing and prayer by the President [the Reverend Specher], the Synod adjourned to meet again on the third Thursday of May, 1866, in Fort Wayne, Indiana.”
And with that, the remaining Lutherans scattered back to their various homes, many never to return to York but leaving with positive impressions of the kindness of its citizens.