Sept. 3 marks the anniversary of the Father John Cummings case in Louisiana, Mo. Following is the first story in a three-part series.

Pike County was the scene of a landmark freedom of speech case that still echoes across America.

Father John A. Cummings was arrested after he said mass Sept. 3, 1865, at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Louisiana.

His crime? Failing to take the “loyalty oath” outlined in the Missouri Constitution that had been updated by legislators and approved by voters earlier in the year.

The legal battle that followed would reach the U.S. Supreme Court, but debate continues even today. And, in a contradictory twist, Louisiana lawmaker John Brooks Henderson would support the oath on grounds that its passage was a matter of states’ rights – the very cause he claimed was overridden by federal necessity the year before when he drafted and introduced the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery.

For his part, Father Cummings barely uttered a word, preferring to be locked up with men accused of horse theft, burglary and rape while praying devoutly. Neither supporters nor opponents would be so silent.

“Cummings’ resistance to ideological thought control made him something of an instant celebrity,” The Rev. Donald Rau wrote in “Three Cheers for Father Cummings” and published in “The Journal of Supreme Court History.” 

Words of wrath?

Loyalty pledges had been around at least since the founding of the country.

The Constitution itself requires the president and other officials to take an oath, and most consistently have been upheld as legal.

Missouri’s was different because it applied to people in the private sector, not just government, the military or the courts. It clearly was a vindictive measure aimed at Missourians who had sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War.

The 194-word affirmation contained 86 acts of alleged “disloyalty” and was championed by Charles Daniel Drake, a spirited St. Louis lawyer and Democrat legislator who, during the war, switched to the Republican Party.

“Loyalty to Constitution and Government is the very foundation of the right of the elective franchise,” Drake had said during a speech in 1864. “He who throws off his allegiance to his government and seeks its overthrow forfeits all rights of citizenship, whether the letter of the law says so or not.”

  The vow drew controversy at the Missouri Constitutional Convention, held in St. Louis from Jan. 6-April 10, 1865 – the day after the surrender was signed at Appomattox. Delegates from the northern and eastern parts of the state generally opposed it. Those from the south and west were supportive.

The oath required people “holding any office of honor, trust or profit” — such as business people, educators, attorneys and clergy — to swear they had always been loyal to the United States and they supported the rule of constitutional law.

In addition, no one could vote unless they swore allegiance. Fines and jail time could be handed out to those who refused to take it. 

Taking a stand

The edict passed the convention by only a few votes, and was applied immediately

Religious leaders were among the first to object. The Archbishop of St. Louis, the Most Rev. Peter Richard Kenrick, wrote in Latin to every priest in the diocese. He called the oath an “extraordinary matter” and said no priest could perform his duties “without a sacrifice of ecclesiastical liberties.”

American Catholic Church leaders such as Stephan Ryan said clergy would “take no notice of (the oath) and continue to discharge their ministerial duties” because the “civil power has no right to impose conditions on the exercise of our priestly functions.”

Baptist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist and Jesuit leaders offered similar condemnation. Edward Bates, who had been attorney general under President Abraham Lincoln, called the dictate “foolish and unjust.”

“The clergy of all denominations were put in a difficult, not to say, humiliating position,” Thomas S. Barclay wrote in the April 1924 edition of The Missouri Historical Review. “The constitution required them, in effect, to take out a license to preach.”

But oath supporters remained adamant.

“There is no war made upon ministers as ministers,” declared The Howard Union, of Glasgow. “Its penalties are inflicted for remissness in civil duties exclusively. … None are held responsible for any religious, creed or belief. It is the contest of civil law wielded against disloyalty on the part of citizens.”

  The St. Paul Press, of Minnesota, commented that the oath was “based on the rash assumption that the rebel bushwhackers had consciences, and the result proves they are not generally afflicted in that way.”

Even with reassurances, many Missourians still feared post-war violence. Flames were fanned in June 1865, when the notoriously brutal Confederate guerilla Jim Jackson was seized in Pike County as he tried to get across the Mississippi River to Illinois.

Just a few days earlier, Jackson and some of his men had surrendered to Union forces at Columbia and had been pardoned upon taking a similar loyalty oath.

So, Jackson was a non-combatant when captured by a group of pro-Union Pike County farmers, but the status didn’t matter. Jackson was taken to Monroe County and executed without a trial.

Kenrick told his priests that they didn’t have to take the oath and hoped authorities would not enforce it. But he also promised to stand by them with “counsel and assistance” if they got into trouble.

 “We are evidently in the right and shall stand firm and eventually come out victorious,” Ryan wrote.

 Cummings would need all the help he could get.

 Next time: Father Cummings gets his day in court.