Elder Letter to President Lincoln
To His Excellency, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States:
Excellent Sir, It becomes my duty as Catholic Bishop of the diocese of Natchez, which comprises the State of Mississippi, to claim Your Excellency's protection against an attempt of Brigadier General Y. M. Tuttle, to interfere with my ecclesiastical administration.
Pardon the length of this communication. I have condensed it as much as I could do, consistently with my obligation of giving you the information, which the importance of the case makes it necessary for you to have.
General Tuttle requires me to read, or direct the priests under my jurisdiction to read, in the public services of the Cathedral Church of Natchez, a certain prayer, which is found in some Catholic prayer-books, for the public authorities, ecclesiastical and civil. He did, indeed, say that he gave me no order, but only a request to read it as a favor to him. But he immediately nullified his own distinction by declaring that, if I did not comply with his requests, he would consider it as a proof of disloyalty, which would be subject to punishment. He further declared his meaning in these words: 'you are free to read it or not, as you see fit, but if you do not choose, you must take the consequences.' And in reply to my inquiry, whether he would not before passing a sentence against me, make a specific charge and allow me a hearing on the matter, he said that I might have a trial and I might not. I have not recited the prayer, not directed others to recite it. I have explained to General Tuttle that said prayer is not at all a part of our regular church service, and is not found in the book which contains our service -- the Missal; that it has indeed been recited sometimes during the divine services, but only at the free choice of the priest or Bishop, and even with some stretch of his discretionary powers, since the canonical usage of the Church excludes the public recital during Mass of prayer for any person not contained in the Missal; and that in a great many Churches of the United States -- I believe the majority of them -- it never has been recited publicly.
It has been remarked to General Tuttle by an officer of the United States Army, that this prayer would be especially incongruous at present, because it recommends to the favor of Almighty God both the Government of the United States, and the Governor, Legislature, and civil officers of this State -- Mississippi -- the declared enemies of the United States. The General says that he wishes it to be read with the self-contradiction 'just as it is in the book'. I have told him that in Natchez, during the time that I have been here (about seven years), we sometimes read it, sometimes omit it, and sometimes read other prayers in its place; that for a while, I read a similar prayer for the Confederate authorities, but afterwards I laid aside all these prayers of a local character, and conformed more closely to the approved usages of the Church by adopting a prayer, belonging to the authorized Liturgy, the Litany of the Saints. This change was made in November, 1862, long before the United States forces occupied Natchez, and while the Confederate military were in quiet possession of the place. And I have told General Tuttle that if the Confederate authorities had attempted to compel me at that time to resume the reciting of the prayer in their behalf, I should have resisted them as I resist now.
I have the honor to remain with profound respect, Your Excellency's most humble servant,
William Henry Elder
Bishop of Natchez
Natchez, Miss., April 7, 1864