Confederate Treatment of a Brethren Elder: Elder John Kline’s Story
In the wake of South Carolina’s move to secede, and while discussion of the same began to take place in Virginia, one can only imagine the troubles faced by local Mennonite and Dunker populations considering the positions of both considering their anti-slavery and anti-secession views. These German-descended religious groups also held firm belief in the separateness from the state and abstention from politics.
A resident of Bowman’s Mill in Rockingham County, Elder John Kline was a prominent local leader of the groups as well as a national leader. Kline was also a well-established member of the community at large and personal friend of both Congressman John T. Harris and special convention delegate Algernon S. Gray (both of Rockingham County). From the start, Kline made clear his views to Harris and Gray, and also to Governor John Letcher. The following are extracted from Elder Kline’s diary, the transcriptions of which were made by Benjamin Funk for the book Life and Labors of Elder John Kline, the Martyr Missionary
TUESDAY, January 1, 1861. The year opens with dark and lowering clouds in our national horizon. I feel a deep interest in the peace and prosperity of our country; but in my view both are sorely threatened now. Secession is the cry further south; and I greatly fear its poisonous breath is being wafted northward towards Virginia on the wings of fanatical discontent. A move is clearly on hand for holding a convention at Richmond, Virginia; and while its advocates publicly deny the charge, I, for one, feel sure that it signals the separation of our beloved old State from the family in which she has long lived and been happy. The perishable things of earth distress me not, only in so far as they affect the imperishable. Secession means war; and war means tears and ashes and blood. It means bonds and imprisonments, and perhaps even death to many in our beloved Brotherhood, who, I have the confidence to believe, will die, rather than disobey God by taking up arms.
The Lord, by the mouth of Moses, says: “Be sure your sin will find you out.” It may be that the sin of holding three millions of human beings under the galling yoke of involuntary servitude has, like the bondage of Israel in Egypt, sent a cry to heaven for vengeance; a cry that has now reached the ear of God. I bow my head in prayer. All is dark save when I turn my eyes to him. He assures me in his Word that “all things work together for good to them that love him.” This is my ground of hope for my beloved brethren and their wives and their children. He alone can provide for their safety and support. I believe he will do it.
Regardless of the religious beliefs, a letter from John T. Harris urged Kline to encourage and influence his friends and fellow Dunkers to vote for referring the action of the convention to the people’s final approval. Following the suggestion from Harris would put Kline in an awkward position among the brethren of the church. Again on January 30, Kline wrote Letcher encouraging the governor’s continued stand for Union, while also realizing the ever-possible threat of war and urging that Dunkers be exempt from military service.
WEDNESDAY, January 30. Write a letter to John Letcher, Governor of Virginia, in which I set before him in a brief way the doctrines which we as a body or church, known as Brethren, German Baptists or Dunkards, have always held upon the subject of obedience to the “rightful authority and power of government.” We teach and are taught obedience to the “powers that be;” believing as we do that “the powers that be are ordained of God,” and under his divine sanction so far as such powers keep within God’s bounds. By God’s bounds we understand such laws and their administrations and enforcements as do not conflict with, oppose, or violate any precept or command contained in the Divine Word which he has given for the moral and spiritual government of his people. By government, to which we as a body acknowledge and teach our obligations of duty and obedience, we understand rightful human authority. And by this, again, we understand, as the Apostle Paul puts it, “the power that protects and blesses the good, and punishes the evildoer.” The general Government of the United States of America, constituted upon an inseparable union of the several States, has proved itself to be of incalculable worth to its citizens and the world, and therefore we, as a church and people, are heart and soul opposed to any move which looks toward its dismemberment.
This is in substance what I wrote to John Letcher, Governor of Virginia.
I likewise attend Abraham Shue’s sale: The candidates for seats in the Convention to meet in Richmond were on the ground, actively speaking both publicly and privately. Mr. George Chrisman, one of them, a man of preeminent wisdom in things relating to government, publicly avowed himself opposed to secession on the basis of both principle and policy. “On the ground of principle,” said he, “secession violates the pledge of sacred honor made by the several States when they set their hands and seals to the Constitution of the United States. On the ground of policy,” continued he, “the secession of Virginia will culminate in the breaking up of her long-cherished institutions, civil, social, and, to some extent, religious.”
FRIDAY, February 1. Write to John T. Harris, our representative in Congress. Beseech him to do all he can to avert the calamity that now threatens us, by pouring oil upon the troubled waters until the tempest of passion abates. I esteem him as an incorruptible patriot at heart. May the Lord guide him and all the other lawmakers of our land.
Letcher replied that he thought “it entirely reasonable that those who have conscientious scruples in regard to the performance of military duty should be relieved by the payment of a small compensation.” It may have seemed fair enough, but some locals were unable to let the issue rest. Observing a drive among some for secession, a worried Kline wrote
Great excitement on account of secession and war movements. The volunteers are being called out to enter the field of war and God only knows what the end will be. There is great commotion everywhere in the realm of thought and sentiment, men’s hearts failing them for fear, the sea and the waves of human passion roaring.
When the referendum for secession was put before the citizens of Virginia (May 23, 1861), the one place which was held in a controversial vote in Rockingham County was Mt. Crawford. With the vote of 258 to 1, the town endorsed the vote for secession. Colonel Peter Roller, having been a staunch supporter for disunion and judge in the Mt. Crawford precinct, had been certain that the town would vote unanimously in favor. The story of the one odd vote proved to have two tales behind it.
In the first tale, on the day of the vote and supposedly sometime before noon, the Elder John Kline rode in and cast his ballot. As he rode away, the questions began to arise in regard to Kline’s standing against slavery and secession. When the suspense proved too much, the box ballot box was opened and the one opposed vote found inside. Determined to keep his jurisdiction solidly secesh, the angry Roller, his sons and a few other men quickly mounted in an effort to catch the Dunker minister and persuade him to vote otherwise. Having taken the Valley Stage Road and overtaken Kline at the Carpenter farm, the posse drew their pistols and ordered Kline to return and change his ballot. The minister, feeling that his life was more important than a lone vote, returned changed his ballot and rode away again without being made a martyr (Life Under Four Flags in the North River Basin of Virginia, by C.E. May. pp. 383-384).
Another version of the episode, as described in the May 24 edition of the Rockingham Register, may have watered-down the controversy surrounding the event. According to that version, it was John Harrison, an election judge, who changed Kline’s vote to reflect unanimity in the community.
It may be that the content found on this site better sums-up other troubles faced by Kline during the course of the war. I include a few paragraphs from that source here…
His passion for non-resistence prompted Elder Kline to write to Governor Letcher of Virginia and legislators John Hopkins, John C. Woodson and Charles Lewis, explaining the faith and disciplines of the Brethren, as well as the Mennonites. He feared a draft would force these peace people of the Shenandoah Valley to violate or compromise their faith. So he appealed for an exemption from military service. His efforts succeeded in the Exemption Act passed March 29, 1862, for anyone who is “bona fide prevented from bearing arms, by the tenets of the church to which said applicant belongs,” including a payment of $500 plus 2% of the assessed value of the applicant’s taxable property. These exemption fees Elder Kline helped to raise, paying many from his own resources. He led the renewal of similar exemption efforts when Virginia seceded from the Union and the Confederate Congress did not recognize previous Virginia Legislature actions. Just after this, John Kline would be imprisoned with other Brethren and Mennonite leaders in the jury room of the Rockingham County courthouse on April 5, 1862, because of their opposition to the war. [Note: Elder Kline was not released until April 19]
Kline’s diary editor Benjamin Funk makes this comment at the beginning of 1862: “At this time medicines were scarce and [also] physicians in the army. As a consequence of this the demands for Brother Kline’s professional services as a physician were largely increased. The Diary for this year shows an almost incredible amount of labor performed by him in this line. He was called to go twenty miles to see patients on Lost River. He also treated patients in Pendleton and Shenandoah counties, and many in Brock’s Gap and in his own and adjoining neighborhoods. He had no day of rest. In connection with all this labor and responsibility, the Brotherhood looked to him for counsel and comfort on every hand. At the same time, he wrote many letters, not only to distant Brethren, but to men in civil and military place and power.”
His freedom of movement during the Civil War, and his frequent travels across battle lines raised several threats on Elder Kline’s life. He would say in closing remarks on May 19, 1864, to the Brethren gathered at the Annual Meeting in Hagerstown, IN, “Possibly you may never see my face or hear my voice again. I am now on my way back to Virginia., not knowing the things that shall befall me there. It may be that bonds and afflictions abide me. But I feel that I have done nothing worthy of bonds or of death; and none of these things move me; neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I may finish my course with joy, and the ministry which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the Gospel of the grace of God.”
Elder Kline moderated four annual meetings during the Civil War; he held three of the four meetings (1862, 1863, and 1864) in the North. Not long after returning from the last meeting at Nettle Creek Church in Indiana, and after repairing a clock at a church member’s house four miles west of his home, Elder John Kline was killed on June 15, 1864, by a few local Confederate irregulars unsympathetic to his cause.
See this photo post at Shenandoah’s Civil War, this page at The Historic Marker Database and this site for photos of the monument that stands on the site of Elder Kline’s “assasination.” For an interesting museum regarding the experience of pacifists in the Civil War, see also the Valley Brethren-Mennonite Historical Center.
Article written by Robert H. Moore, II