From Bullets to Bibles: Brethren Ministers and Civil War Veterans

Photo by Frank Ramirez
Jeffrey Bach, director of the Young Center at Elizabethtown (Pa.) College, shared at an insight session about his study of the over 170 soldiers in the Union or Confederate armies during the Civil War who later became Brethren ministers.

By Frank Ramirez

Monday night at Annual Conference wasn’t lacking for distractions. There were fireworks. There was ice cream. There were outdoor concerts.

But that didn’t prevent more than 200 Brethren from crowding together to hear Jeffrey Bach, director of the Young Center at Elizabethtown (Pa.) College, share a few of the stories that are part of his study of the over 170 soldiers in the Union or Confederate armies during the Civil War who later became Brethren ministers.

The work has been a labor of love, and still has a ways to go before formal publication. Bach thanked Marlin Heckman and others for their help in his research.

The presentation was sponsored by the Brethren Historical Society. Heckman opened the meeting with a tribute to the late Ken Shaffer, former director of the Brethren Historical Library and Archives, who was remembered for his many years of service to the cause of preserving Brethren history.

In his presentation, Bach emphasized that none of the pastors in question were pacifists during the Civil War. They were baptized and called to the ministry long after hostilities ended. In some cases they never spoke about their military experiences. Indeed, Bach wondered if perhaps their war experiences led to a revulsion that attracted them to the nonviolent Brethren.

One story is that of Matthew Mays (M.M.) Eshelman (1845-1921), a prominent Brethren author and a proponent of education who was involved in the founding of several schools. Born near Lewistown, Pa., he was the grandson of a Brethren minister. He fought in the Union Army in the Pennsylvania infantry. His regiment was called up to provide support at Antietam the day after the battle. He was probably wounded at the Battle of Fredericksburg in November 1862, and was discharged with a surgeon’s certificate. He reenlisted on May 2, 1864, in the Ohio National Guard, as one of the “Hundred Day” volunteers. By August 4, 1864, he was mustered.

Although he was a Methodist for a time, in 1873 he was baptized into the Sugar Creek Brethren congregation in Illinois. While living in Kansas he was active in the founding of McPherson College. Eshelman Street in McPherson was named after him.

By 1890 he had moved to southern California. A year later he purchased the Lordsburg Hotel, which later housed Lordsburg College, precursor to the University of LaVerne.

There are no known records of any occasion on which Eshelman spoke of his war experiences.

Bach is especially fond of the story of Addison Harper (1809-80). Despite the fact that he was around 50 years old, the former sailor, whaler, state legislator, storekeeper, and farmer enlisted in the Confederate army in 1861, and eventually attained the rank of captain. He fought in the battles of Bull Run, Cross Keys and Port Republic, among others.

Following the Civil War he moved to Ray County, Mo., where he became a prosperous farmer. By 1875 he was a Brethren elder. Another Brethren minister, who served in the Union army, George Zollers, wrote a poem that noted that Harper “Once mounted on a steed of war,/ he on to conquest led, /through fields all stained with human blood, /astrewed with ghastly dead” was “now a soldier of the cross,/ a herald of the Truth….”

Lemuel Hillery (1843-1912), who was born at New Market in Frederick County, Md., fought with the Illinois 75th at the Battle of Chickamauga and siege at Chattanooga. Raised in absolute poverty, he convinced a local German doctor to teach him New Testament Greek, and as a child held services for other children, including many young slaves, and eventually became a proponent of Sunday schools.

He suffered from his war wounds for the rest of his life. He lived and preached in several states, and, as Bach notes, “He was known for preaching down crowds who had come to make fun of him.”

Isaac James (1838- 1914) was born in Ashtabula County, Ohio, and was awarded the Medal of Honor for capturing Confederate colors during the Battle of Petersburg. Over a century later Civil War enthusiasts discovered he was buried in the Old Order cemetery in Union County, Ohio, and wished to decorate his grave. None of his descendents knew anything about his service during the Civil War, or that he had received the Medal of Honor.

Bach laced his stories with humor. Following his presentation some in the audience had stories of their own to share about Brethren relatives and their particiaption in the military during the Civil War.


Coverage of the 2011 Annual Conference is by the News Team of Jan Fischer-Bachman, Mandy Garcia, Karen Garrett, Amy Heckert, Regina Holmes, Frank Ramirez, Glenn Riegel, Frances Townsend, and editor and news director Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford. Wendy McFadden serves as executive director of Brethren Press. Contact  

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