The GOSPEL TRUTH
THEODORE WELD: CRUSADER FOR FREEDOM
BENJAMIN P. THOMAS
Lane Seminary had its origin in a donation of five thousand dollars by two brothers whose name it bore, followed by a grant of sixty acres of land by Elnathan Kemper. Fifteen thousand dollars came from other citizens of Cincinnati, and efforts were made to raise more money in the East. Several persons suggested Lyman Beecher for Lane's president, and Arthur Tappan promised the income from twenty thousand dollars for a professorship of theology if Beecher would accept the presidency. Another thirty thousand dollars was pledged on like condition, and in the fall of 1830 the trustees elected Beecher president. Weld and the Tappan brothers had great hopes for Lane, and as slavery became uppermost in their thoughts they designed to make it not only the prototype of manual labor colleges but a center of antislavery activity as well.
Lane's location was ideal, for Cincinnati, standing at the gateway to the VVest and Southwest, was destined to phenomenal growth as settlers in ever increasing numbers pressed toward the western country. Already the city's population numbered some thirty thousand. Its waterfront was thronged with puffing river steamers, long-oared flatboats, and rafts. Two steamers plied constantly to Covington on the Kentucky side, for no bridge spanned the river at that point as yet. Cotton, lumber, and manufactured goods of all descriptions piled up on the city's wharves. Cattle and hogs bellowed and grunted in its stock pens. In the teeming business district, which ranged along the low-lying waterfront against the backdrop of limestone hills where the residential area was steadily expanding, punctilious bankers and merchants and aristocratic planters of genteel dress and tastes rubbed elbows with Yankee drummers, the proud pilots and crewmen of the river steamers, rough-clad herdsmen and drovers, tough stevedores, hustling artisans, and hard-bitten keelboat The city had wide streets and modern buildings, mostly of pale brick or native gray stone. Swine roamed the streets with impunity, however, and one visitor noted an inordinate amount of mud, filth, and stagnant water, which would "set them a scabbing" if the ever-threatening cholera should break out.
Cincinnati was a Southern city on free soil. A majority of the residents were Southerners. A good part of the city's merchandise went South, and much of its market produce was Southerngrown. Southern planters with their families took the best hotel rooms. The soft, slurred Southern speech was heard more often than the Yankee twang. Family servants were often slaves, hired from masters across the river, and there was a large section, known as Green Town, where some twenty-five hundred free blacks had congregated. The tone and culture of the town were Southern, notwithstanding the numerous and pushing Northern element.
Lane Seminary was situated two miles north of the city proper in a high, secluded area known as Walnut Hills. Lyman Beecher's daughter Catherine thought she had never seen a place so capable of being made a paradise, although she was disappointed to find that both the city and the river were hidden by the intervening hills.
When Weld arrived the main brick building was already up, and other smaller structures were under construction. President Beecher's house was a solid, two-story brick with a long L running back into a grove which often served as a picnic ground for the students and the young people of Beecher's congregation; for the doctor, besides being president of the college, was also pastor of Cincinnati's Second Presbyterian Church. The whole campus was embowered in gigantic beeches, tulip trees, and black oaks, "a genuine noble old forest," a visitor observed, "which they are improving to the best advantage." Where the trees had been cleared, stumps still dotted the landscape.
In Beecher, Lane had acquired a man accounted the foremost preacher of his day. A graduate of Yale, he had begun his ministry at East Hampton, on Long Island, at a salary of three hundred dollars a year and firewood. From there he had gone to Litchfield, Connecticut, where Weld first met him, thence to Boston, where he took over a new church with thirty-seven members and soon made it one of the largest and most influential in the city. He was a strong temperance and missionary man, intensely anti-Catholic, and he had accepted the presidency of Lane because, like Weld, he saw the future of the country in the West.
Both his father and his grandfather were blacksmiths, and much of their physical vigor was handed down to him. Short and square-built, he was so intensely energetic that he kept a sand pile in his cellar and went down from time to time to shovel it from one side to the other. He would put his numerous children to work at chopping and carrying wood, inspiring them to mighty efforts by his example, for like Weld he had unbounded faith in exercise. He thought his powers sufficient for any task. In Boston he had made it his mission to combat Unitarianism, and when asked how long he thought it would take him to extirpate it, he replied: "Humph! Several years I suppose--roots and all."
Beecher was always too busy to spend much time on sermons. Usually he would begin his preparation only an hour or so before the service, retiring to his study, throwing off his coat, and taking a few swings with the dumbbells to loosen up, then working feverishly until the first bell rang. With that he would rush down the stairs, herd his wife and children out the door and down the street, and be mounting to the pulpit as the last peal of the final bell died out.
At night he was so taut from the labors of the day that he must "run down" and "let off steam" before he could sleep. Surrounded by his children, he would bring out his fiddle and saw away on "Auld Lang Syne," "Bonnie Doon," or "Mary's Dream." He aspired to render more complicated melodies arranged in difficult keys, but, according to his daughter, "he invariably broke down, and ended the performance with a pshaw!" In moments of extreme exuberance, Beecher sometimes let out with "Go to the devil and shake yourself," and, if Mrs. Beecher had retired, he might lay aside the fiddle and break into a double-shuffle or jig.
Beecher was in his middle fifties when he came to Lane, and his energy was somewhat abated. But he still chopped wood and dug stumps from his garden and lawn while wrestling with administrative or theological problems. One Lane student, a friend of Weld's named George Clark, remembered that one day when Beecher failed to appear for a lecture, the class appointed Clark to look him up. Calling at the Beecher house, he was told that the doctor was shooting squirrels. Finally Clark found him in the woods a mile away, chasing a black squirrel around a tree. "That rascal hides from me on the other side so that I can't get a fair shot," complained Beecher as Clark came up. Clark reminded him of his class, whereupon the doctor gasped: "What! Is it lecture time? Well! well! I must go." And he set out for the campus at a lope. He came by his absent-mindedness as he did his physical vigor; for his blacksmith father, when sent to the henhouse to gather eggs, was wont to stuff his trousers pockets with them, then, coming into the house, he would forget them and sit down, only to rise quickly and cry out in stricken tones, "Oh, wife!"
The Beechers were to be a distinguished family, so much so that critics of Lyman Beecher maintained that his loins were wiser than his head. Two of the Beechef boys, George and William, were already in the ministry. Edward, who was also an ordained clergyman, had gone to Jacksonville, Illinois, as the first president of Illinois College. As the abolition movement gained headway, he would be the first of the Beechers to plunge into it. Henry Ward was attending Amherst and Charles was at Bowdoin, but they were home at Walnut Hills during vacations. They, too, were planning to enter the ministry. Catherine, the oldest girl, was in her middle thirties, and had left the successful girls' school she had founded at Hartford, Connecticut, to come to Cincinnati with her father. Eager to continue her pioneer work in female education, she organized "The Western Female Institute" in Cincinnati. James and Thomas, who were also destined for the ministry, were mere boys. Harriet, who would be the most famous of them all, was in her early twenties. Already she had made some tentative gestures with her pen. In 1833 she wrote and published a geography. She contributed to the local newspapers, and in 1834 her first magazine article would be published. She was a diffident girl, and no one realized how tremendous an impression had been made upon her sensitive nature by a visit to a slave plantation across the river in Kentucky.
Two members of Lane's faculty were noteworthy. John Morgan, a young Irishman, a graduate of Williams College, was a peerless expositor of Scripture and an excellent reader of hymns. A huge man, he walked with a rolling gait that reminded one student of "a dutch scupper careening at its moorings." He was the sort of man Weld liked--rough, virile, tough-minded--and his influence on Weld was lasting.
Weld left no recorded impression of another professor, Calvin Stowe, a young widower who was to marry Harriet Beecher. A graduate of Bowdoin and Andover Theological Seminary, Stowe came to Lane from Dartmouth, where the students had dubbed him "Old Snyder." He dressed shabbily and had an air of stuffy stiffness. "Not exactly a stiffness, either," an acquaintance remarked, "a sort of tare and fret."
For the rest, Lane's faculty was commonplace; but this was not so of its students. Of the forty members of the first theological class, thirty, including Weld, were over twenty-six years old, and nine of these were in their thirties. All were college graduates or had finished the equivalent of a college course. One had practiced medicine for ten years. Twelve had served as agents of benevolent societies. Six were married, and three had been so for at least ten years. A few were Southerners, but the great majority--thirty-one of the forty--were natives of New England or upstate New York, a number having come from that region around Auburn, Rochester, and Utica where the embers of Finney's great revival still glowed hot. Several of this contingent had been members of Finney's "Holy Band," and with them, as well as with the twenty-four students who came to Lane from Oneida Institute, Weld's influence was paramount.
In the literary department, eighteen of the fifty-six students were over twenty-five. And Lane was probably the first institution in America to waive the color line, for James Bradley, a member of Lane's first class, was a Guinea Negro who had bought his freedom. When the pious and free-handed Arthur Tappan asked Beecher what action Lane's trustees had taken toward admitting Negro students, Beecher replied that no action was needed and he hoped none ever would be. "Our only qualifications for admission to the seminary are qualifications intellectual, moral, and religious, without reference to color," he asserted, "which I have no reason to think would have any influence here, certainly never with my consent." It was a most advanced position for the time and place.
Beecher remarked the students' piety, maturity, and all-round excellence, and young Charles Beecher recalled that they were an unusual group--a little uncivilized, he thought, entirely radical, and terribly in earnest.
From the first there were problems of discipline. The students were too mature and independent to accept the customary restrictions of college life. They had such intense dislike for Thomas J. Biggs, professor of church history and church polity, that it came to the point where they refused to attend his lectures; and to keep the peace, Beecher prevailed upon them to listen to the unpopular professor once a week if he and Stowe would take his other classes. The students also claimed a voice in the selection of the faculty. Those who enrolled before Weld's arrival kept him apprised of proposed faculty appointments and solicited his opinions and suggestions, and the trustees did so, too. The students made it clear to Beecher and the trustees that they wanted a faculty of men "who must teach or starve"--men who could make men. They would tolerate no professors like one who had taught languages at Oneida Institute, who walked among the students like a speechless ghost, gave no composition or declamation assignments, lay abed late of mornings, and profaned his body with tea and coffee.
Beecher was well aware of Weld's influence. "In the estimate of the class," said Beecher, "he was president. He took the lead of the whole institution. The young men had, many of them, been under his care, and they thought he was a god." Beecher rated Weld a man of unusual natural capacity whose education needed broadening. Notwithstanding the students' disposition to encroach on faculty and trustee functions, and to look to Weld for leadership, both Weld and Beecher were too high-minded for jealousy. Had the troublesome slavery question not intruded, friendly relations between them would probably have been sustained.
For Weld made himself invaluable. Besides setting a high example by his diligence in theological studies, he taught one class and helped supervise the manual labor department, which consisted of the school farm together with printing, coopering, and cabinetmaking shops. Weld exulted and expanded under the inspiriting life. When Harriet Beecher attended the examination of her brother George in Presbytery, she noted that "over in the pew opposite to us are the students of Lane Seminary, with attentive eyes. There is Theodore Weld, all awake, nodding from side to side and scarce keeping still a minute together." Weld wrote home that he had "never been placed in circumstances so imposing." Weld and Beecher shared the platform as speakers at the anniversary exercises of the Cincinnati Temperance Society in 1833.
Hardly was Lane Seminary in operation when an epidemic of the ever-menacing cholera threatened to wipe it out. Within three days of the outbreak, thirty students were down. The steward and his family fell ill, and those students who were still able to be up and about were obliged not only to nurse their disabled fellows but also to take over the kitchen. Three students died. Weld took the lead in combating the epidemic. "For ten days I did not go to my room but once to change my clothes," he wrote to his family, "but cannot particularize. The Lord sustained me throughout. I never seemed to myself to possess more energy of body or mind. I had not during the whole time, scarcely a single sensation of fatigue, or the least disposition to sleep, though in more than one instance I was without sleep forty-eight hours in succession .... Extraordinary providence provides extraordinary supplies always adequate to the demand." Oblivious of danger or fatigue, Weld emerged from the ordeal a greater hero than ever in the eyes of his fellow students.
As Lane Seminary suffered its birth pangs, events of moment were happening in the East, and Weld's numerous friends and acquaintances kept him informed about them. In England, the movement for emancipation in the British West Indies was reaching crescendo, and the susceptible ears of Arthur and Lewis Tappan and other members of the New York Association of Gentlemen were vibrant with anticipation. Since the time Weld talked with the Tappans after his antislavery awakening by the Western Reserve professors, Wright, Green, and Storrs, the large-hearted New Yorkers had been eager to make a move for freedom. Now the time for action seemed close at hand, and the "New York Committee," which had been organized some time before, perfected its plans.
In the autumn of 1833, Elizur Wright wrote Weld that he was leaving Western Reserve to head up the "New York Committee's" work. He would correspond with persons of known abolition sympathies, edit pamphlets and tracts, and try to enlist agents, all with a purpose to encourage the formation of local groups from which the proiected national society might draw delegates. Before resigning his college job to go to New York, Wright was pleased to witness the formation of the "Western Reserve Anti-Slavery Society" out of the "'Bone and Sinew' of our community--yes the heart and soul of it," he wrote. And Beriah Green, who had also resigned from Western Reserve to assume the presidency of Oneida Institute, had accepted his new post on express condition that he was to be in no wise trammeled in expression of his abolition convictions.
A short time after the receipt of Wright's first letter, Weld received a formal invitation to the organization meeting of the American Antislavery Society, which was to be held at Philadelphia on December 4, I833. Accompanying the invitation was a personal letter from Wright, beseeching him to come. "My whole heart is with you," Weld replied, "but a physical impossibility prevents my personal attendance."
Shortly after the meeting, Wright wrote to Weld that the national society was now in being and "the question is whether it shall live. The infant is sound in its limbs, but its breathing is the problem." He did not supply details about the Philadelphia meeting, but the omens had been both good and bad. The delegates had assembled at the appointed time. Many of them were delegates only in name, however, since they came on their own initiative. Most of them were young. A dozen were ministers. But it was the Quaker element that predominated; even a few Quaker ladies had taken seats in the audience. The sittings were guarded, but no one was refused admittance. A group of Southern medical students, gathering in the gallery, had threatened to become obstreperous at times. No Philadelphian had dared court local displeasure by agreeing to preside, so Beriah Green had taken the chair.
The burghers of Philadelphia watched proceedings with suppressed malevolence. Crowds gathered in the streets around the meeting place, drifted off in groups, then reassembled. Young toughs loitered on the corners, hopeful of encouragement to do violence. One noon the crowd became so ugly that the delegates dared not go out for lunch. But Josiah Coffin rounded up a quantity of cheese which was washed down with pitchers of cold water.
William Lloyd Garrison, the fiery young apostle of freedom from Massachusetts. had drawn up the Declaration of Sentiments. Basing the antislavery movement on the spirit of the Declaration of Independence and the revealed will of God, this document declared the society's purpose to organize auxiliary societies in every city, town, and village; to send out agents to remonstrate, entreat, and rebuke; to circulate periodicals and tracts, to enlist the pulpit and press, to purify the churches of the guilt of complicity with slavery, to improve the condition of the free Negroes, and to bring the entire nation to speedy repentance.
Furnished by Wright with a copy of this Declaration, Weld noted that it admitted that each state had a constitutional right to legislate upon slavery within its own limits, and that Congress had no power to interfere. But Congress did have power to prohibit slavery in the District of Columbia, to abolish the interstate slave trade, and to prevent the spread of slavery to national Territories. The fathers of the American Republic had waged a war for freedom. The abolitionists were about to declare another. "Their weapons were physical," the Declaration asserted. "... Ours shall be such only as the opposition of moral purity to moral corruption, the destruction of error by the potency of truth, the overthrow of prejudice by the power of love, the abolition of slavery by the spirit of repentance."
Wright informed Weld that Arthur Tappan had been elected president, although he was unable to attend the meeting, and that young Garrison was secretary of foreign correspondence. But it was upon Wright himself, as secretary of domestic correspondence, that the major duties would devolve.
Wright must have regretted that Weld was not on hand to hear Beriah Green's inspiriting appeal as he brought the three-day session to a close. "But now we must retire from these balmy influences and breathe another atmosphere," Green warned. "The chill hoar frost will be upon us. The storm and tempest will rise, and the waves of persecution will dash against our souls. Let us be prepared for the worst. Let us fasten ourselves to the throne of God as with hooks of steel. If we cling not to Him, our names . . . will be as dust. Let us court no applause; indulge in no spirit of vain boasting. Let us be assured that our only hope in grappling with the bony monster is in an Arm which is stronger than ours. Let us fix our gaze on God, and walk in the light of his countenance. If our cause is just--and we know it is--His omnipotence is pledged to its triumph. Let this cause be entwined around our very hearts. Let our hearts grow to it, so that nothing but death can sunder the bond."
In informing Weld of the successful outcome of the meeting, Wright explained the pressing need for "a number of faithful mighty agents, in whose persons the Society shall live and breathe and wax strong before the public. We must have men who will electrify the mass wherever they move,--and they must move on no small scale." Weld, Garrison, the Reverend Samuel May of Connecticut, and the Reverend Amos A. Phelps of Massachusetts were the men they wanted. Would Weld devote himself to the work? The Society would pay the same salary as that paid by the Bible and Tract societies--eight dollars a week and traveling expenses.
When Weld felt constrained to refuse, due to his determination to complete his education, Wright sent him a commission and instructions anyway, with a plea that he give whatever time he could to antislavery work. The sin of slavery was the idea to be stressed, the instructions explained; the force of truth would be the weapon. Compensation to masters was reprobated: first, because it would imply the rightfulness of slavery; second, because it was unnecessary, inasmuch as the masters would find free labor to be more profitable than that of slaves. Schemes of expatriation contemplating the removal of the blacks from the country were also disapproved, for they all originated in prejudice against color, and this prejudice must not be indulged but suppressed.
Within a month of his receipt of this commission Weld was offered the position of corresponding secretary and general agent of the American Society for the Observance of the Seventh Commandment, whose purpose was to redeem females who had "deviated from the path of virtue." But this he also refused. For meanwhile there had come a powerful awakening at Lane, manifesting itself in a frontal assault on slavery and an effort to improve the condition of the free blacks in Cincinnati. Weld was the prime mover and had enlisted heart and soul. There would be momentous consequences, not the least of which was that Weld, almost unwittingly, would soon find himself in the forefront of the antislavery movement. To understand the full significance of the happenings, however, we should first know something about the prevailing attitude toward slavery in that day.
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