The Anti-Slavery Friends in Salem, Iowa

 

By Lewis D. Savage

 

 

 

Quakers in America Free their Slaves

 

          The early position of the Society of Friends (Quakers) as to slavery, for a time was like that of other religious groups of the day, they accepted it.  The Negro slaves were generally well treated by the early Friends, and leaders like George Fox and William Penn and others considered the blacks to be human beings.  They also pressed for slaves to be set free after a term of service.

 

            In 1688, Germantown Pa. Friends were concerned enough about slavery to prepare a protest "against the traffic in the bodies of men, and against handling men like cattle," which was forwarded to the Quarterly Meeting and Yearly Meeting.  This is believed to be the first official protest against slavery of any religious body in America.  This protest against slavery was taken up by Benjamin Lay and John Woolman who visited widely among Friends sharing their message that the Quakers should recognize the evils of slavery and free their slaves.  The Quakers responded to this message of concern and love, and before the end of the 18th century no slaves were held by Friends in America.

 

 

Quakers Become Involved with Different Views towards Slavery

 

 

            However, this is not the end of the story, for there was still much work to be done in helping free the slaves held by many other people.  The Quakers gradually became involved in three anti-slavery movements:  the Underground Railroad, the Colonization Society, and the Anti-Slavery Abolitionist Movement.  These divergent views eventually brought about a considerable and unfortunate separation in the Society of Friends.  In the Indiana Yearly Meeting with jurisdiction over the Iowa Quaker meetings of the time, this separation occurred in 1842- 1843.

 

            Salem Friends Meeting in Iowa and the other nearby meetings in Southeastern Iowa were set up by, and a part of the Indiana Yearly Meeting; so, they shared in the Anti-Slavery struggles.  Salem, Iowa and New Garden Iowa Friends were especially active in their Underground Railroad activities.  The Yearly Meeting organization had sent a communication of advice to local meetings and members about not participating with others in Abolitionist groups, or opening their meeting houses for such groups.  The emphasis in the Yearly Meeting session was shifting to lessen the freedom of the meetings and individual members, and to enlarge the authority of the leadership of the Yearly Meeting.  The Yearly Meeting's Meeting for Sufferings took proscriptive action against 8 active anti-slavery leaders, including Levi Coffin of Newport, Indiana and Thomas Frazier of Salem, Iowa.  One step followed another until at Newport, Indiana;  "The Indiana Yearly Meeting of Anti-Slavery Friends" was set up with four Quarterly Meetings and about 2000 members, including a Quarterly Meeting organization in Iowa.

 

 

Quakers Struggle and Separate over Slavery in the United States

 

            Shortly after, the Indiana Yearly Meeting came out strongly against the anti-slavery advocates, and began openly to support the Colonization Society position supported by slave owners, the majority in Salem Friends Meeting in Iowa began to take proscriptive action against their own members who were most active in the Underground Railroad, and in the outspoken anti-slavery cause.  Aaron Street was the first to be complained against for being "out of unity with friends and writing slanderously against them" at the monthly meeting held 7-22-1843.

 

            There soon followed another complaint against Eli Jessup for "spending meeting hour in vain and unbecoming manner and identifying himself with those who have separated from us."  Six members were added to the overseers to assist them in their work.  The number of complaints increased rapidly, and were soon shortened to "non-attendance and out of unity."

 

            The larger body of Salem Monthly Meeting of Friends in the next year or two disowned over 50 of their strongest and most active members including:  Isaac and Phoebe Pidgeon, Eli Jessup, Henderson and Elizabeth Lewelling, John and Elvy Lewelling, William and Cyrena Lewelling, Elwood and Lydia Osborn, Amos Raley, Arron and Amy Dow, Marmaduke Jay, Charles and Ann Osborn, Charles Blackledge, James Comer, Elihu Frazier, Thomas Frazier, Abraham Gray, William Marshall, Francis Frazier, Isaac Frazier, Stephen Frazier, Gideon Frazier, Isaac Jones, John Frazier, Jonathan Frazier, Isaac Thornburg, and others.

 

 

Salem Anti-Slavery Friends Set Up in 1843 (The two foot strip)

 

            The 50 disowned Friends met and organized what they called the Salem Monthly Meeting of Anti-Slavery Friends.  They purchased land and built a new Meeting House one block east of the Henderson Lewelling house in Salem, and also purchased a 5 acre tract of land from Francis Frazier as a burial ground.  The Anti-Slavery Friends burial ground was adjacent to and south of the existing Salem Friends Monthly Meeting burial ground; however, in the deed and survey the property was laid out and separated, by two feet, from the earlier Salem Monthly Meeting of Friends burial ground.  These burial grounds were nearby west of the existing Salem Monthly Meeting House of the day.

 

            The Anti-Slavery or Abolitionist Friends continued to carry on their Underground Railroad activities, and it was in their Meeting House that the hearing was held about the Daggs runaways in June, 1848.

 

 

 

English Quakers Visit Anti-Slavery Friends in Salem

 

            Another interesting incident which took place in the Salem Anti-Slavery Friends Meeting House was a meeting with a visiting deputation of English Friends, including George Stacey, William Forster, Josiah Forster and John Allen.  George Stacey read a message from their London Yearly Meeting, in which the Anti-Slavery Friends were advised to discontinue their separate meetings and reunite themselves with the former group from which they had withdrawn.  The Anti-Slavery Friends assured them that they would fail in their mission to reunite the two groups.

 

 

New Attitude Heals the Anti-Slavery Schism

 

          But, another important step took place in the Indiana Yearly Meeting as Elijah Coffin's long dictatorial reign as presiding clerk came to an end, and his son, Charles F. Coffin, was appointed the new presiding clerk; he brought a marked change in attitude and spirit toward the Anti-Slavery Friends, and let them know that they would be welcome again in the Indiana Yearly Meeting.

 

            This change in attitude and spirit reached to the local meetings and gradually the Anti-Slavery Friends began to be welcomed back into the Salem Monthly Meeting of Friends, beginning in 1848 and continuing until 1852 when Aaron Street produced an offering:

 

"Dear Friends,

            I wish to be reinstated in membership in the Society of Friends.

                                                                        Aaron Street"

 

 Action was also taken by the Monthly Meeting to open subscriptions for assistance of the Committee on people of color.  With this action most of the Anti-Slavery Friends returned to the main body, or in years died, or moved to other communities.  The Meeting House was sold for a dwelling, and in 1862, the burial ground was sold to Salem Monthly Meeting of Friends and thus the two portions were joined discontinuing the 2 foot strip.

 

 

Source of References:

Salem Monthly Meeting Minutes

The history of Quakerism - Russell Elbert

Quakers of Iowa - Jones, Louis T.

The Story of Salem Quakers - Savage, Lewis D.

The Rich Heritage of Quakerism - Williams, Walter R.

(Lewis D. Savage has been a life-long historian of Salem, Iowa, a Quaker minister, and served as chairman of the Board and curator of the Lewelling Quaker House Museum in Salem for 20 years.)