By Bryan Thompson
The abolitionist movement of the nineteenth century was a social reform movement dedicated to the abolition of slavery. When we think of national trends and social reform movements we typically wouldn’t think of rural backwater communities like De Kalb as being involved.
In fact De Kalb and other such small rural North-Eastern US communities were the headwaters for a national flood of antislavery sentiment that would eventually sweep slavery from ever corner of the nation. In the summer of 1826, Charles Finney, a young Presbyterian evangelist from Jefferson County, came to East De Kalb to preach his new form of religious revival meetings.
What was new and different about Finney’s services? Finney encouraged women to speak and participate freely, and all were called equally to task for their sins. The perfectionist spirit of "comeouterism"—based on Revelation 18:4 ("Come out of [Babylon], my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins") was a central tenant of his gospel. He rejected the old Calvinist notion of predestination, the idea that if you had wealth and status on earth your entrance into heaven was guaranteed. Instead he taught that all must struggle to be saved. Comeouterism, the idea that to be a good Christian you must separate and not associate with any people who supported or did not outright oppose sinful practices such as slavery or the consumption of alcohol.
Staying with the Burnett family in De Kalb, Finney carried on revival meetings at the East De Kalb School house. The sin of slavery was a common theme in his sermons. According to early histories about 70 people were converted in De Kalb during Finney’s visit. This was only the beginning..
The following year, 1827, a young Methodist evangelist, Luther Lee, came to town to conduct revivals. Two years, in quick succession, De Kalb was visited by future strong advocates for the abolition of slavery. According to the historical record after Lee’s visit about 50 of the above converts switched to the Methodist faith.
Within a few years both Charles Finney and Luther Lee would be famous players on the stage of the abolitionist movement in NYS. Luther Lee, unlike Finney, spent considerable time in the North Country as a minister for the Black River Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church.
Originally Lee had been sent to the North Country by his bishop who hoped he would keep out of trouble if sent to the north woods of Malone. Lee advocated for perfectionism and against slavery even after the topic was banned from Methodist churches. He was eventually accused of preaching comouterism and tried. Although he was acquitted, Luther joined with others in 1843 to form the Wesleyan Methodist Church as an abolitionist perfectionist church.
The De Kalb Methodists did not follow Lee’s lead and seem to have kept out of the controversy, however the De Kalb Presbyterians did not. In 1839 the National Conference of the Presbyterian Church voted to expel the Utica Synod for abolitionist activities. The groups that were expelled were termed “New School” and those not, ‘Old School”. Each formed separate national organizations.
When the news reached St. Lawrence County the new school, abolitionist Presbyterians met to form the St. Lawrence Presbytery in De Kalb. A competing old school Presbytery was formed at Ogdensburg. There was obviously strong abolitionist support in the De Kalb Presbyterian Church.
Though records are scanty the Free-Will Baptists organized a church in De Kalb in the late 1840’s. In most towns they met in the local schoolhouse and this is probably where they met in De Kalb.
A word of explanation, about the Northern Free-Will Baptists is in order. These people were not like any Baptists you may know. The group formed in 1780 in New Hampshire. They rebelled against the Calvinistic principle of predestination, instead relying on the free will of each of their members, by their own conscience, to do good works and make their own place in heaven.
The group copied their governance system after the Quakers, with monthly, quarterly, and annual meetings. In 1826, it became denominational policy that people of all races might enter their ministry and congregations as equals. In 1837, they took up the pledge of the American Anti-slavery society to “use all non-violent methods necessary” to end slavery. All new members were required to sign a pledge of abolition and temperance. In 1850 they took a pledge to “do all that we can to prevent the recapture of the Fugitive (Slave)”.
1850 was the first year the Free-Will Baptist Register recorded a church group in De Kalb. The group had 32 pledged members at their peak. They had no regular minister until 1853 when John W. Lewis became their minister. He served the congregation through 1857.
John W. Lewis was a black man born in the state of Maine in 1810. As such he was probable the first professional black man to work in the Town of De Kalb. He was originally ordained as an AME Zion minister in 1832 but soon switched to the Free-Will Baptist Faith.
Lewis established and taught at the black New England Union Academy in Providence, R.I. during the mid-1830s but thereafter devoted most of his energy to antislavery, temperance, and other reform causes. Lewis was an abolitionist lecturer employed by the New Hampshire Abolitionist society as early as 1839. He helped organize and was the first president of the black, New England Temperance society, served on the National Council of Colored People in 1853, was vice president of the Free-will Baptist Anti-Slavery Society and was an official agent for Fredrick Douglas’s newspaper.
During the time he was minister in De Kalb his circuit included churches spread between his home in St. Albans, Vermont and De Kalb. The new railroad from Odgensburg to Vermont made this far flung circuit possible.
In 1861, following the death of his wife Jane, Lewis emigrated to Haiti as minister and leader of the black Lawrence Association colony. Lewis settle near St. Marc but died within six month.
The Freewill Baptists of De Kalb with their pledge to do all in their power to peacefully oppose slavery and help the fugitive certainly would have been active abolitionist and supporters of the Underground Railroad. Unfortunately no membership lists appear to have survived.
August 15, 1837, two young men, Pritchette and Canfield called a meeting in Potsdam to organize the St. Lawrence County Anti-Slavery Society. To quote one observer, “although it was harvest time, still the farmers left their scythes in the swathes, and the sickles on the gravel, to muster with their families, to erect another fort of freedom”. St Lawrence county now had its’ own Garrisonian non-sectarian Abolitionist society.
It is unclear whether any people from De Kalb were involved in this first meeting but by October 1841 when the St. Lawrence County Abolitionist Society met at the Brick Chapel in South Canton several De Kalb citizens were involved:
Thomas Spafford was a member of the committee to nominate abolitionist candidates for County Clerk and the state assembly. Benedict Burnett of De Kalb was one of the group’s two nominees for the NYS Assembly. James Cooper was head of the Liberty party in De Kalb, responsible for distributing the abolitionist paper ballots in De Kalb. At the close of the convention William H. Cleghorn of De Kalb was appointed to the committee to plan the next convention.
Only one local newspaper, The St. Lawrence Republican survives from this time period and it usually did not cover local abolitionist activities. Most of the surviving records are in abolitionist newspapers so there are many gaps in the record. In 1848, after the split in the NYS Democratic Party, the “Buffalo Platform” Freesoil Democrats (abolitionists) took control of the local party. They nominated Harlow Godard, of Richville, to the NYS Assembly. Godard served one term as a Free-soil Democrat.
In 1852 through a compromise, the two portions of the NYS Democratic party reunited. At the local Democratic convention, in August 1852, the abolitionist faction was locked out of the debate. Not to be out done, calling themselves the “Free Democrats” the local abolitionists held their own convention in Canton on the day of the annual Canton Fair, September 15, 1852. De Kalb resident William W. Wood was vice president of the convention.
The abolitionists became so fed up with the lack of commitment of both the Whigs and Democrats to their cause that they founded the Republican Party in 1854 in Wisconsin. By 1856 the party had come to NYS. Their presidential candidate that year was John C. Freemont. In the De Kalb returns Freemont received 413 votes, Buchanan 31 and Fulford 54. Freemont as the third party, abolitionist, candidate had received 83% of the vote in the town of De Kalb.
The political landscape was never the same again. In 1858 Harlow Godard was elected to the NYS Assembly as a Republican. In 1860 Lincoln was elected president and as we all know the Civil War soon followed. Because of the strong support for abolition in the town of De Kalb many rushed to volunteer. Local abolitionists such as Luther Colton and his two sons Franklin and Henry gave the ultimate sacrifice for a cause they held dear.
De Kalb Petition to the US Congress for repeal of slavery, 1850
For the repeal of all laws, enacted or adopted by
Congress, for the support of Slavery in the District of Columbia.
To the Congress of the UNITED STATES: April 1850
The undersigned, citizens and electors of the State of New
York residing in De Kalb, in the county of St’ Lawrence, respectfully pray for
the repeal of all laws and parts of laws adopted or enacted by Congress, by
which Slavery or the Slave trade is authorized or sanctioned in the City of
Washington or the District of Columbia; and that in the event of their
non-repeal, the seat of the national Government may be removed to some more
Jonathan Backus H.
Moses Rich Nathan
James Phelps A.
Solomon C. Judson John
John Leber P?
Albert Bosworth Lewis
A. J. Brown Chas.
Cyrus White David
Manfred Reed E.
Luther Colton John
E. W. Dow E.
Gilbert Clark Samuel
John Hegeboom?? Ebenezer
Norm Leach James
Jabez Bosworth David
Benj. Carpenter Elijah
Wm. G. Denit?? Hiram
E. H. Hopkins Joseph
Darius Wiser John
Marshal Allen Orramel
William Laughlin John
Charles Brown C.
Orson White M.
David W. Dyer S.
Dlano?? Forward A.
Luke W. Forward Calvin
Harvey B. Chase Smith
Walter G. Forward Colens
A. N. Chandler
Filed in Congress May 28, 1850
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Stampede At Watertown (September 4, 1851)
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Free-will Baptist Denomination Ingalls and Stowells Steam Press, Watertown, NY.
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