The GOSPEL TRUTH
THEODORE WELD: CRUSADER FOR FREEDOM
BENJAMIN P. THOMAS
In the autumn of 1834, John J. Shipherd set out from Oberlin, Ohio, for the East. He was agent for a new colony of which he was a cofounder, and his purpose was to raise money and discover a president for the manual labor college which was a part of his project.
Established by a group of New England emigrants on a tract of uninviting hardpan thirty-three miles southwest of Cleveland, Oberlin combined the fad of communal living with an educational ideal. The idea was to found a colony devoted to the upbuilding of a Christian educational institution with a purpose to "concentrate Christian forces, and train Christian character, for effective operation upon the world without." The lands were not held in common, but each colonist agreed to manage his holdings for the common good. In order to have time and health for God's service the colonists covenanted to restrict their acquisitions of land, to eat only plain and wholesome foods, to renounce all bad habits, especially the smoking or chewing of tobacco, unless it was deemed necessary as a medicine, and even to give up drinks like tea and coffee, or any other food or beverage that was expensive and calculated merely to gratify the palate.
They forswore expensive and unwholesome fashions in dress, especially tight lacing. Their houses would be plain, their furnishings purely utilitarian. They would give their children the best of Christian education. And they would care for the widows, the orphans, and the needy as for themselves. No student would be admitted "who while on his way journeyed on the Sabbath."
Their ardor would be tempered somewhat with time and the advent of new settlers whose sanctity fell short of that of the founders; but the original settlers were inordinately devout, even if the general level of consecration did not match that of one brother who bought a barrel of Graham crackers upon which he proposed to subsist for a whole year, and which, by the end of that time, had become so hard that he must needs crack them with a hammer, as he would a hickory nut.
When Shipherd set out on his mission the colony had survived its birth-pangs, and primary and secondary schools as well as a college department had been established; but the theological seminary, which was to be the capstone of the whole concern, was still merely an idea, and the institution had dire need of money. Shipherd struck south from Oberlin to take the National Road, and at Columbus he fell in with Theodore J. Keep, son of the Reverend John Keep, president of Oberlin's board of trustees. Young Keep had gone to Lane Seminary to matriculate, but before he could do so the trouble had broken out, and without enrolling at the seminary he had signed the students' protest and was now on his way home. Shipherd already knew something of the situation at Lane and had planned to stop at Cincinnati. Now, after learning further details from Keep, he began to see the Lane imbroglio as a possible godsend to Oberlin. For the Reverend Asa Mahan, the only Lane trustee who had espoused the students' cause, would make Oberlin an ideal president; and at Cumminsville the nucleus of a theological student body might be had by judicious persuasion.
Never a man to ignore what seemed to be the beckoning of Providence, Shipherd made all haste to Cincinnati, taking the first conveyance he could find, a two-wheeled mail cart. Jouncing into Cincinnati on this bruising vehicle, Shipherd sought out Mahan, an imperious, highhanded individual, argumentative but uncompromisingly righteous, and rated by Weld "the best man west of the mountains." For several days Shipherd said nothing to Mahan about his mission, although he talked at length about his college. Several students from Cumminsville called at Mahan's residence, and Shipherd confided in them. Then he journeyed to Cumminsville to confer with all the students. To a man they endorsed Mahan and also recominended Morgan as a professor. As for their own future, they agreed to counsel with Weld, but they seemed disposed to come to Oberlin provided they were guaranteed full freedom of speech on all reform issues and if the trustees would agree to admit colored students on equal terms with whites.
Shipherd hastened back to Cincinnati and broached his proposal to Mahan. The latter was willing to accept the presidency on the students' terms, and recommended Weld as professor of theology. Weld would not only be a superlative teacher, he explained, but his influence with the students would be decisive. So Mahan and Shipherd started after Weld, who had begun his antislavery labors at Ripley, some fifty miles up the Ohio River.
Arriving by steamboat, Shipherd and Mahan learned that Weld, after speaking in Ripley for eleven consecutive nights, had now gone on to Hillsborough. So they spent the night with the veteran abolitionist John Rankin, from whose home, high on a bluff above the river, a lamp shone in a window every night to serve as a beacon for any fugitive slave who might be making his furtive way to freedom. The next morning Rankin hitched up his horse and buggy and drove his visitors to Hillsborough.
But Weld was now committed to the antislavery cause. It was clear to him, he told the emissaries, that the abolition of slavery and the elevation of the colored race had demands upon him superior to those of any other cause. Finney would be an ideal professor of theology, however, and would probably be willing to come to Oberlin, inasmuch as his labors at the Broadway Tabernacle in New York, where he had been installed by the Tappans, were proving too onerous for his health. As for the Lane students, Weld would use his influence to induce them to go to Oberlin, provided the trustees met their stipulations.
So Shipherd and Mahan went on to New York, where they found the Tappan brothers much pleased with the Oberlin project, and with Weld's suggestion of a professorship for Finney. Arthur Tappan promised ten thousand dollars for a building to house the theological students and guaranteed a loan of ten thousand more, while Lewis Tappan and a group of philanthropists agreed to pay the salaries of eight professors at six hundred dollars per year, all on condition that Finney accept the appointment. And when Finney still seemed skeptical of Oberlin's financial stability, it is said that Arthur Tappan confided that if necessary he would back the enterprise to the full extent of his income, which was then about a hundred thousand dollars a year, reserving only enough for a modest living for himself and his family.
On December 15, 1834, Shipherd wrote to the Oberlin trustees recommending Mahan and Morgan, urging the passage of a resolution that students would be admitted irrespective of color, and explaining the great good fortune that such a resolve would ensure. On January 1, I835, the board elected Mahan and Morgan, but on the matter of colored admissions it was not so easily moved. Oberlin had already made a radical departure in accepting women on the same terms as men, and several of the girls in the academy declared they would leave, even if they must "wade Lake Erie," sooner than risk living in an institution that also housed colored men. A poll of the student body showed twenty-six in favor of colored admissions and thirty-two opposed; of the girls, six voted for Negro admission with fifteen against it. Some of the Oberlin townsmen also feared a black influx; so the trustees turned the proposition down. Shipherd implored them to reconsider, reminding them that Western Reserve, the Princeton Theological Seminary, and even Lane, admitted Negroes.
The basic point at Oberlin was the question of trustee versus faculty control of the internal affairs of the college, with control of admission of students an important corollary. On February 10, 1835, the trustees agreed to give the faculty jurisdiction over these matters, and, the faculty being what it was, free discussion of moral issues and admission of qualified Negroes was assured. Soon after this momentous decision a lone Negro was seen approaching the village, and a small boy, son of one of the trustees, who had overheard his parents talking about a Negro inundation, dashed home shouting, "They're coming, father! They're coming!"
While these events were taking place at Oberlin, Weld continued his trek through Ohio, lecturing five times at Concord, seven times at Oldtown where he debated with a physician and a Baptist deacon, nine times at Bloomingsburg, and fourteen times at Circleville where the Presbyterian minister denounced him as a rebel and mischief maker. "Birney is pouring the whole truth into the ears of the Pharaohs of Kentucky in open and public assembly. Weld is fast abolitionizing Ohio," wrote Elizur Wright to Amos Phelps from antislavery headquarters. The colonizationists were on the run, Wright exulted. "They throw up bile as if they had swallowed an ocean of Ipecac." By April, 1835, Weld had visited some forty towns and villages, and abolition societies were sprouting everywhere he went.
Whenever he had time to write, Weld sent encouragement to the students at Cumminsville; and they in their turn sent him long, round-robin letters, each man relating what news he could remember. They had been fearful of Weld's safety when he opened his campaign at Ripley, for they had heard rumors that the Kentuckians planned to cross the river en masse to silence him. The Alabamian William Allan confided that his father was provoked at William's conduct and was urging him to return to Lane. "They blow away against abolitionists down there at a terrible rate," Allan reported, "--say they'll cut my throat, that I'm afraid to come home, etc." But the Kentuckian James A. Thome was overjoyed that his father was so moved by reports of the students' consecration that he had given one of his slaves his freedom as a Christmas present.
With Oberlin committed to racial tolerance, Weld urged the Cumminsville group to enroll there. The students were ready to go if provision could be made for their Negro schools, and it was finally agreed that Augustus Wattles and three others, together with the young ladies Arthur Tappan had sent from New York, would remain in Cincinnati. Some help could also be expected from a group of Cincinnati ladies who had been assisting part-time. They meant well and were faithful workers, wrote Phoebe Mathews, one of Tappan's proteges, to Weld, "but they do wish us to stoop so often to prejudice .... And they feel so bad if perchance we lay our hands on a curly head, or kiss a colored face. But at least this arrangement would assure the schools' survival, so in May, 1835, some twenty of the Lane rebels left Cumminsville to enroll at Oberlin.
Already consecrated to religious purposes, with the accession of these young zealots Oberlin became a center of Christian idealism. Ever in the vanguard of reform, whenever workers were needed in a righteous enterprise Oberlin could offer recruits. Later, when the American Antislavery Society appealed to Weld to enlist additional agents, he could turn with confidence to Oberlin.
Meanwhile, Weld had called a convention to meet at Zanesville on April 22, 1835, to organize an Ohio State Abolition Society, and had proceeded to Zanesville to put the local citizenry in friendly mood. But Zanesville locked its doors, and he could find no place to lecture--"not a shanty even," he reported. Across the Muskingum River in Putnam the situation was scarcely better, but he finally obtained the use of a public room. At his first lecture, however, he was greeted by a mob that broke the windows, battered down the door, and met him with stones and clubs when he came out. The village trustees forbade further use of the room, but a daring householder permitted Weld to use his parlor.
Weld had planned to have a large representation of colored persons at the state convention. But the people of Zanesville and Putnam were so incensed at the prospect that they vented their malice against the local black folk. Several were discharged from their employment. Other employers were threatened with prosecution under a state law which prescribed a fine for employing a colored person from another state who had not given bond for good behavior. A colored man who attended one of Weld's lectures was knocked down on a bridge going home. In a panic the Negroes called a meeting of their own and resolved to boycott Weld's lectures and to stay away from the convention. They appointed a committee to meet Weld privately and explain the reasons for their decision. If they attended, they would induce many prejudiced white persons to stay away, and the prejudiced ones were just the class who should come. They would also subject themselves to mob violence to no good purpose, besides imperiling their white friends as well. "We will stay at home and pray," they said. And Weld agreed they were right.
When the convention met, rumor reached Lewis Tappan in New York that colored delegates had been excluded, and he wrote Weld a chiding letter which roused the latter's ire. Weld had thought his reputation was sufficient to refute any suspicion of race prejudice, he retorted. Treatment of every man according to his intrinsic worth was his inflexible maxim. But he saw nothing to be gained by mere "ostentatious display of superiority to prejudice," or by "blustering bravado defiance" of custom and public sentiment. His principles were unreservedly equalitarian, but it was folly to flaunt them before a bigoted populace when to do so would endanger the colored folk.
Despite the hostility of the townsmen, the state society was organized at Zanesville. Birney came up from Kentucky. Rankin was there from Ripley. The Lane rebels were represented by delegations from Oberlin and Cincinnati. A number of Quakers attended and promised support. Twenty local societies were represented out of thirty-eight already functioning within the state.
In May, 1835, Elizur Wright, at New York headquarters, informed Weld that his salary had been assumed by the Young Men's Antislavery Society of New York City and was forthwith increased to eight hundred dollars a year. The increase was probably of no consequence to Weld except as it signified satisfaction with his work and provided more money for him to give away. He never desired more money than his simple needs required, and once when Charles Stuart sent him fifty dollars at Lane he immediately turned the whole sum over to the colored schools. Huntington Lyman told Weld's brother Charles about this, and Charles Weld, knowing Theodore's habits full well, had remarked: "Oh, yes, and the next day he very probably wrote to me to borrow money for shirts."
Weld received the news of his increased salary at Pittsburgh, where he was attending the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. Of all the sects in the Western country the Presbyterians seemed most amenable to abolition doctrine, and Weld wanted to learn the sentiments of ministers and elders. He hoped to hold one or two public meetings and win the open support of some church leaders, if that were possible.
Elizur Wright and Lewis Tappan urged Weld to force the slavery issue onto the floor, even at the risk of splitting the Assembly asunder, for they were tired of having the question approached in the manner of the old minister who was wont to ask: "Now brethren, how near can we come to doing what is right, and keep together?" But Weld was never a deliberate troublemaker, and he preferred to work backstage.
For two weeks he buttonholed delegates in personal conferences, and he was pleased to report a gratifying awakening of conscience. The year before, only two members of the Assembly had been forthright abolitionists; now forty-eight persons, a fourth of the delegates, were favorably disposed. Twenty-seven of these men were ministers, six of them from slave states. "Our principles are perforating the torpid conscience of the church with tremendous power," Weld exulted. The primary opposition now came from "the aristocracy and fashionable worldliness of the church--those who are never found in advance of public sentiment--those who oppose entire abstenance from all alcoholic drinks and stickle greatly for wine and beer, in short, those Christians who join actively in a moral enterprize only when it begins to become popular." But among the more lowly church folk abolition was making impressive gains.
When Weld returned to Ohio at the conclusion of the conference, Elizur Wright pressed him to furnish him with something he might publish. Weld's reports were inspiriting and vivid, but he was so modest about his work that be insisted they be considered confidential, for his fear of seeming vain or egotistical had become a haunting obsession. But if every agent took that attitude, Wright pointed out. the society must be mute about its work. People were contributing money and wanted to know to what use it was put. "Suppose now our agents write us not a word but under seal of secrecy," Wright asked; "what shall we answer? Shall not we judge of the 'egotism,' the 'vanity,' etc? Has an agent a right to be more 'egotistical' to one of us than to the public? Why should not an accent write just as he thinks and feels, and why should not his letters be published when they will encourage all real friends and throw dismay into the ranks of the enemy?" But this was a sore point with Weld. It touched his modesty, which he called "pride"; and he was steadfast.
It was only in matters of self-glorification, however, that he was uncooperative. More agents were urgently needed by the national society and Weld knew where to get them. In those days it was customary for colleges to hold their long vacation in the wintertime, when students could earn money by teaching. As the autumn term of 1835 drew to a close, Weld headed for Oberlin. The place was hard to find, the roads were little more than forest trails, and the buildings and equipment were still rudimentary. As Weld passed through the town he noted that most of the houses were painted red, the cheapest and most durable color. The village square was so studded with stumps that an agile boy could cross it by leaping from one to another. Approaching the campus, Weld saw the log cabin that had first served President Mahan as a residence, although he had a brick house now, as did Finney. And Weld scrutinized with special interest the long, low building, battened with slabs still covered with their pristine bark, that housed the theological students. One other frame building, two stories in height, with a chapel on the first floor and a dormitory above, had been completed. Tappan Hall, the gift of Arthur Tappan, and two other structures were in process of erection.
The Lane rebels greeted Weld with affectionate delight. They recounted their tribulations at Cincinnati since he had left them. They acclaimed the virtues and stimulus of Oberlin. True, they had a lean and hungry look, induced by the school's stern vegetarian diet, and their quarters in "Slab Hall," where they slept two in a room, were little more than cells, each with a stovepipe through the roof, and one window and a door to the outside, with no communication within the building. The floors had developed eccentric dips since the blocks supporting the building had sunk and twisted when the first frost left the ground. The chapel was neither plastered nor lathed and had no heat, and the seats were rough boards placed on blocks. But these were trivialities to be passed off without a second thought, just as Mrs. Shipherd made light of the fetid milk, which always tasted of wild garlic, by observing that at least they had no longing for the leeks and onions of Egypt.
For twenty-one nights Weld lectured on abolition in the cold and dingy chapel. "You may judge something of the interest," he reported to Lewis Tappan, "... when I tell you that from five to six hundred males and females attend every night, and sit shivering ... without anything to lean back against, and this too until nine o'clock." James H. Fairchild, then a sophomore student who would later be a professor and then president of Oberlin, recalled the marvelous power with which Weld spoke. To listen to such an excoriation of slavery was an experience he never forgot. Fairchild doubted if any community was ever more profoundly moved by the eloquence of a single man. College students and bearded men alike sat spellbound. Studies suffered some interruption, but Fairchild thought Weld's lectures were an education in themselves. Weld gave Oberlin such an antislavery baptism that it was ever after an abolition citadel.
Before Weld was half finished with his lectures, six students volunteered to accept antislavery agencies. All of them had come from Lane: Samuel Gould, who would earn fame as an abolition money raiser, William T. Allan, James A. Thome, John W. Alvord, Huntington Lyman, and Sereno W. Streeter. All were destined to begin their work in Ohio or western Pennsylvania except Lyman, who would go to western New York, where he had lived and was well known. Every day Weld spent an hour or more indoctrinating them with facts and arguments.
Of the remaining Lane rebels, Henry B. Stanton had already accepted an agency and was working in Rhode Island with astonishing success. Augustus Wattles, Marius Robinson, Edward Weed, and Augustus Hopkins were still in Cincinnati, teaching the blacks. Others were completing their course at Oberlin. Hiram Wilson, a Lane rebel who would graduate in 1836, served a year as abolition agent in southern Ohio, then labored with the twenty thousand fugitive slaves who had found a haven in Upper Canada; and there twelve other students from Oberlin soon joined him. David S. Ingraham would go to Jamaica to work as a missionary among the recently emancipated Negroes, and seven other students would follow him. Some of them died in the field, and Ingraham himself, after four years of exhausting labor, came back to his native land just in time to die. By 1840, thirty-nine former Oberlin students, half of whom were women, were teaching colored schools in the West. Twenty students had by that time served as agents of the American Antislavery Society in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and parts of western Pennsylvania and western New York. Six had gone as missionaries to the Indians.
At first the West had lagged behind the East in antislavery enterprise. But now the thunderhead was rumbling west of the mountains, and Theodore Weld, the man whose face was fearsome as a lightning stroke, was aiming the bolts.
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