Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
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Source: 1943 Volume 5 Number 3, Pages 62–67

The Wilberforce Anti-Slavery society

George P. Orr

Page 62

To the courtesy of Brooke Longaker and the thoroughness with which his grandfather, George Washington Lewis, kept the minutes of the Wilberforce Anti-Slavery Society we are indebted for an intimate picture of the anti-slavery movement in this locality from January 23, 1837, to August 24, 1844. Mr. Longaker lent to the writer the Minutes of the Society - practically all in the clear and legible hand of his grandfather. We are indebted to Frank Burns and Howard Okie for locating some of the places referred to in the Minutes.

It is obvious that during the entire life of the Society the abolition movement was most unpopular, not only in this locality, but in Philadelphia and Washington, and that the members of the Society were frequently subjected to indignities, even places of worship closed to them so that they were compelled to hold at least one meeting in the open air.

Glassley School

Pursuant to a call read at a religious meeting in the home of John Jones, in Howellville, the Anti-Slavery Society first met on January 23, 1837, in the Glassley School House on the south side of Lancaster Pike, between Berwyn and Devon. Rev. Leonard Fletcher, the minister at the Great Valley Baptist Church, offered a resolution that "we now form ourselves into an Anti-Slavery Society". After many objections, which were answered by the Sponsor, it was adopted. Thomas Adamson was elected Chairman, and George Washington Lewis Secretary. The Society took its name from Wilberforce, the English champion of emancipation, who died in 1833.

A Committee was appointed to draft a Constitution, and the meeting adjourned to meet January 27th. The Preamble of said Constitution declared:

"--the present system of most cruel and unjust and a foul blot on the page of our nation's history".

Article I adopts the name "The Wilberforce Anti-Slavery Society", and its purpose declared "to contribute its aid towards the abolition of slavery in the United States".

Page 63

Article 3:

"This Society recognizes the diffusion of light and knowledge as the legitimate means to effect this object".

Article 4: "Moral suasion is the only weapon this Society will wield, consequently it will never use physical force or countenance the oppressed in vindicating their rights by recourse to arms".

Article 5: "This Society shall aim to elevate the standing and condition of the people of colour, and endeavor to remove the prejudice which exists against them".

All meetings were to be opened with prayer. The Constitution was adopted and the following subscribed thereto:

Leonard Fletcher Samuel Lewis Hannah P. Jones
John Jones Joseph B. Harding Susannah Lewis
Thomas Adamson Benjamin Irons Elizabeth Lewis
Isaac N. Hobart John Tomlinson Hannah H. Supplee
Jonathan Jones Jacob Wismer Paninah C. Pugh
Joseph Lewis Jonathan T. Lewis Mary Riddle
Adam Siter John Lewis Louisa Suplee
George Phillips John Tomlinson Hannah P. Lewis
Samuel Crewes Gideon Thomas Hannah Phillips
Hughes Supplee Francis Riddle Alice P. Eberman
John Lewis John Beaver Alice J. Lewis
George Bittle Martha J. S. Hobart Rebecca W. Lewis
Mary H. Thomas Cathrine Tomlinson Anna Maria Johnson
Rebecca Childs Sara B. Harding Deborah Beaver

John Jones of Howellville was appointed a delegate to the Convention at Harrisburg.

At the meeting of the Directors it was decided to send for 40 copies of the monthly paper called "Human Rights", as soon as subscriptions could be obtained.

Monthly meetings of both Directors and Members were arranged.

Joshua Jones House

Page 64

At the manager's meeting of April 29, 1837, John Jones reported that Joshua Jones had refused to allow his school room to be used for the meetings of the Society, as he was unfavorable to the principles of the abolitionists. This school still stands as a residence on the south side of Route 202, west of Contention Lane.

40 copies of "Human Rights" had been subscribed, but the money not all collected, so $3.25 was appropriated to make up the deficit.

The Society had further difficulty in finding a meeting piece when the school directors (in charge of Radnor Hall) refused the use of same for abolition meetings.

The problem was finally solved when Mary Rinehart gave the use of the school house at the Valley Baptist Church, and July 4, 1837, was fixed for the annual meeting.

The Minutes of the following meetings make mention of similar societies at Gulf and East Fallowfield, and a County Anti-Slavery Society at West Chester, to which delegates were sent.

Speakers were secured to address the meetings on the evils of slavery.

At a meeting on Christmas Evening, 1837, the officers were directed to obtain 100 copies of "Facts for the People" for gratuitous distribution.

On January 1, 1838, the Society really got under way by joining with other Societies in refusing to accept slave labor or the fruits thereof. They also adopted a resolution condemning as unconstitutional and derogatory of the principles of republicanism the action of the U. S. Congress in "laying on the table without being debated, printed or read" all petitions for the abolition of slavery.

At this meeting the proceedings of the "murderous mob" at Alton were denounced, but the following was adopted:

"Resolved that while we deprecate the outrage committed on the property and life of our worthy countryman Love joy, we cannot but regret that he used carnal weapons".

A special meeting was held May 21, 1838. The Minutes contain the following:

"In consequence of the scandalous outrage committed by the proslavery mob on the Penna. Hall and other enormities daily made on our liberties by mobs and winked at by the authorities".

After debate a clause condemning that "mobite leader, John Swift, Mayor of Phila." was stricken from a resolution "until we are fully satisfied as to the truth of the report".

But at a meeting on May 30, 1838, the following Resolution was adopted:

"RESOLVED that we look with alarm, horror, and indignation upon the recent outbreak of mobocratic violence in the City of Philadelphia in which the law and Constitution were trampled under foot, the liberties of the citizens cloven down, and a deep stain cast upon the reputation of our Commonwealth."

Page 65

"RESOLVED that the Mayor and Civil Authorities of Philadelphia in neglecting to nip the spirit of disorder in the bud, virtually connived at it, and are therefore morally responsible for the mischief done, and deserve the faithful rebuke of every friend of law and good order".

This was ordered published in the "Penna. Freeman".

It is recorded in the Minutes of July 4, 1838, that Joseph Pickering and Joshua Coffin had each spoken 30 minutes and had "given satisfaction".

Great Valley Baptist Church and School 1864 by Marcy S. Latch

Trouble was again encountered as "one" member of the "Meeting" (apparently the "Valley Baptist Meeting") "objected to the Meeting House" being used for the purposes of the Society, and they convened in the upper room of the school house. But the evening meeting was held in front of the Parsonage, and the record of same in the Minutes is indicative of the opposition encountered by the Society.

It reads:

"The blue vault of heaven was over us, the curtains of night were around us, and the hand of tyranny had shut the door against us, the lecture room of creation was open to us and the fine voice of the speaker sounded far in the stillness of the night - all nature seemed to listen. The thought passed in our mind: 'Tho man is against us, God is for us, and the principles held forth now will one day be spread over all this land, and no hand so daring as to lift itself against us, no freeman's tongue so recreant as to oppose the progress of Universal Emancipation.'"

At the meeting of July 30, 1838, all were urged to "do and say" so that the "mouths" would not be closed as the "doors" had been. It was recorded that the Society learned with satisfaction that the chains of slavery were "about to be stricken from the limbs of 110,000 of our fellow beings in the British West Indies".

By Sept. 6th Joshua Jones had no doubt relented and permitted the Society to meet in his schoolhouse. Mr. Fletcher addressed the meeting on the subject of the Emancipation in the West Indies on August 1st when

"In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye nearly half a million human beings were transformed from things to men" -

quite an increase over the 110,000 mentioned on July 30th.

Page 66

On September 24, 1838, it was resolved that

"as abolitionists we cannot vote for any person for an office under our state or general government who is known to be opposed to the principles of immediate emancipation",

and the Secretary was instructed to communicate with Francis James, candidate for Congress from Chester County, to ascertain his views on the principles held by the abolitionists.

The report of the Treasurer showed a balance of $10.33. The Treasurer "obtained leave of absence and Joseph Lewis offered his resignation as Manager".

On Oct. 15, 1838, the Society appointed delegates to the Eastern Division of the State Society to be held at Coatesville.

Measures having been taken to secure a Library, Joseph Lewis was appointed Librarian.

A letter from Francis James, candidate for Congress, was read. In it he makes the following answers to the interrogatories propounded to him by the Society:

(1) That Congress has the right to abolish slavery in the D. C. and all territories,

(2) That he will maintain the right of petition and free discussion on the subject of slavery and all other subjects,

(3) He is opposed to the annexation of Texas and the admission of Florida as a "Slave State".

(4) That Congress does have the right to regulate slave trade between the States - but adds that this involves constitutional questions which he has not thoroughly studied.

On Nov. 18, 1839, the schoolhouse of the Baptist Meeting was opened to the Society, and on Feb. 17, 1840, the Meeting House itself. Considerable trouble seems to have been encountered in obtaining and publishing the "Sermon of Rev. L. Fletcher", which is probably explained by the Minutes of May 18, 1840, when a resolution on the departure of Rev. Fletcher for other fields of labor was adopted.

On August 24, 1840, the afternoon meeting overflowed the schoolhouse and adjourned to the Meeting House, The evening meeting "was about twice as large as that of the afternoon". Charles C. Burleigh, one of the most popular anti-slavery orators of the day, addressed the meeting.

There seems to have been a lull in the activities from August 24, 1840, until August 24, 1843. "No Meeting", "No Meeting", however, is entered in the Minute Book by the faithful Secretary.

This is in part explained by Mr. Frank Burns. There was a "split" in the Valley Baptist Meeting on the question of abolition. Those who believed in immediate emancipation formed the Radnor Baptist Meeting on the Old Conestoga Road southwest of Wayne.

Page 67

The minutes of the next meeting record that it was held at the Radnor Meeting, as was also the last recorded meeting of August 24, 1844. Nothing of importance appears in the Minutes of either meeting, and the next entry is the Minutes of the Union Temperance Society Meeting on August 12, 1850, who adopted the unused portion of the old Minute Book as their own.

We must not conclude from this that the members of the Society lost interest in the cause or ceased their activities. Nor should we conclude that the neighborhood was in sympathy with slavery. The law recognised slavery in the South and required all people to recognize the rights of the slave owner. Many people who hated slavery feared that opposition to it might lead - as it did - to bloodshed.

The Fugitive Slave Act, passed in 1850, made Southern Pennsylvania a fertile ground for the slave hunters, and many freed slaves were whisked across the Maryland Border where their rights were practically nil.

There were stations of the "underground railway" in the neighborhood and known abolitionists were watched. It is probable that the members of the Wilberforce Anti-Slavery Society felt they could be of greater service "under cover". Certainly the abolition movement continued in Chester County until its purposes were accomplished.


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