Role of Religious Communities in the Anti-Slavery Movement

Moral Dilemmas among Cape Ann’s Ministries

The anti-slavery movement was splintered by divergences in religious belief and practice, such as spiritualism, as well as by the many secular issues and social reform movements of the 19th Century—especially temperance and women’s rights—and the many forms of political activism, such as the anti-war movement that grew up around the War of 1812. The anti-slavery movement had originally been spearheaded in the 18th Century by Quaker speakers and writers, such as Elizabeth Buffum Chace, Abby Foster, Anna Dickinson, Earle Thomas, and John Greenleaf Whittier. In colonial times Quakers had moved north and west from Boston to escape Puritan persecution but had not been well tolerated. Cape Ann was no exception.70Jones, Rufus M., 1911, The Quakers in the American Colonies: See also The Society of Friends Abolition Project at Between 1660 and 1690 Quakers were persecuted on Cape Ann and ultimately driven out.71Cape Ann Time Line, 2010, Cape Ann Museum.
Aside from the Quakers, ministries involved in the early anti-slavery and abolition movements in Massachusetts were mainly those of Congregationalists, Methodists, and Baptists—including activists such as Charles Turner Torrey, Amos and Charlotte Phelps, Orange Scott, Charles Bennet Ray, Hosea and Luiza Easton, Nathaniel Colver, and Rev. Cyrus P. Grosvenor of Salem. Later, Universalists and Unitarians joined the abolition movement and became members of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. They included, for example, Adin Ballou, Charles and Eliza Follen, and the fiery Rev. Theodore Parker of Boston.72Add a Tooltip Text Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, and Jewish ministries tended to either ignore or avoid the issue of slavery or to defend it as an institution on biblical grounds. Clerics and missionaries, for example the Jesuits, were slave owners themselves, as were some Protestant ministers who later became abolitionists.73A number of Popes issued papal bulls condemning unjust enslavement and mistreatment of Native Americans by Spanish and Portuguese conquerors. Between 1573 and 1826, however, books critical of slavery were listed in the Vatican’s Index of Forbidden Books. As late as 1866 after Emancipation, the Church upheld the belief that it was not against divine law for slaves to be bought, sold, or otherwise exchanged. Maxwell, John Francis (1975). Slavery and the Catholic Church: The history of Catholic teaching concerning the moral legitimacy of the institution of slavery. Barry Rose Publishers (for) the Anti-Slavery Society for the Protection of Human Rights. See also Panzer, Joel S. (1996). The Popes and Slavery. Alba House.
The anti-slavery movement, was for the most part, therefore, an endeavor of Protestants, progressives, and liberals. For all the denominations, however, there were ecclesiastical and moral issues beyond those of legality, constitutionality, and inequality. Ecclesiastical issues included interpretations of the Bible in which slavery could be defended as ordained or normal—a necessary evil, or vilified as a violation of the Golden Rule and beliefs about obeying one’s conscience to do what is morally right. For many Universalists as well as for other denominations there was also the problem of incompatibilities between an anti-slavery moral stance and a history of financial reliance on church members and benefactors who were actively participating in the slave trade or were directly benefitting from the slavery-based economy.
In a speech on the occasion of the 100th Anniversary of Universalism in Gloucester in 1874 and in celebration of its founder, John Murray, pastor Richard Eddy bore “testimony to the high Religious Character of this Society” by identifying members with “truly Christian Character and Life:

I need but mention the names of Sargent, Pearce, Elwell, Friend, Hough, Babson, Sawyer, Moore, Ferson, Dale, Trask, Saville, to bring before many of you forms and faces with which you always associate honesty, benevolence, piety, and all the graces of the Christian Character…74Eddy, Richard, 1892, Universalism in Gloucester, Mass.: An historical discourse on the one hundredth anniversary of the first sermon of Rev. John Murray in that town, delivered in the Independent Christian Church, November 3, 1874…, Universalist Church History vertical file, Sandy Bay Historical Society, Rockport MA.

Stained glass window in the Gloucester Unitarian Universalist Church
Photo Courtesy David Rye
But many of those names are intimately associated with the slave trade and the Cape Ann economy that depended on slave labor, and it was their wealth that supported the Protestant churches of the time. Cape Ann at one time had no less than six separate Universalist Societies, often with shared or rotating pastors and meeting places, in Gloucester, Annisquam, Lanesville, West Gloucester, East Gloucester, Sandy Bay, and Pigeon Cove. Universalist preachers in Sandy Bay prior to 1840, when it was set off as a separate town, included Fayette Mace, Lucius R. Paige, B. B. Murray, A. C. L. Arnold, Charles Spear,75Eddy, Richard, Universalism in Gloucester, pp. 39, 56. and Gibson Smith. Universalist preachers in West Gloucester between 1830 and 1843, for example, included William A. Stickney, Ezra Leonard, Robert L. Killam, Joseph P. Atkinson, Henry Belding, Charles Galaca, George G. Strickland, James M. Usher, Thomas Jones, William Hooper, Henry C. Leonard, and John M. Spear. As diverse as participants were, the Universalists agreed on one thing: that there is one God, whose nature is Love, and that no humans are to be separated from this Love for eternity. Humans will all be redeemed from sin by this Love, and consequently all should be treated as having inherent worth and dignity.

Notable Universalists of Cape Ann

John Murray and Thomas Jones

Organized Universalism in America began with John Murray (1741-1815), instrumental in galvanizing a small group of followers in Gloucester, Massachusetts, to create a breakaway religious sect calling itself the Free and Independent Church of Christ in 1779. This act eventually led to the erection, in Gloucester, of the first Universalist Church in America in 1805. The church is still standing today, and is known as the Gloucester Unitarian Universalist Church.
John Murray was born into a strictly Calvinistic family in Alton, England, that moved to Cork, Ireland, when he was a teenager. There he made the acquaintance of John Wesley, leader of the newly formed Methodists (a Christian sect that reached out to the common people and advocated prison reform and the abolition of slavery) and became disillusioned with his strict and solemn Calvinist upbringing. He moved back to England where he fell under the influence of another preacher, James Relly, a Welshman, who espoused a doctrine of universal salvation (the belief that Christ had restored humanity to divine favor by his crucifixion). This idea was in direct opposition to Calvinism which was founded in predestination, teaching that humans are born sinners, are condemned to hell for eternity, with redemption only for the select few who followed the strict rules of behavior and worship delineated by the church. John Murray was enthralled by Relly’s new concept, and Relly encouraged him to join in spreading it.
John Murray, Founder of Universalism
Photo Courtesy David Rye
The illnesses and death of his wife and infant son forced Murray into debt and he spent time in debtor’s prison. Upon his release he decided to start anew, sailing for America in 1770, intending to never preach again. Word spread of his Universalist theology, however, and he quickly became an itinerant sermonizer, promoting universal salvation throughout New England. He was in Boston in 1774 when Winthrop Sargent, a Cape Ann merchant, heard him lecture and invited him to preach in Gloucester. There, Murray found a small group of men and women already familiar with the teachings of James Relly whose words “were not only in their hands but in their hearts.76Murray, John, The Life of Rev. John Murray, preacher of universal salvation, written by himself, Universalist Pub. House, Boston, 1869, p.297. (for more about John Murray please see his autobiography The Life of Rev. John Murray, preacher available online at
In 1788 Rev. Murray married Judith Sargent Stevens, the young widow of John Stevens and the oldest child of Winthrop Sargent, who had brought Murray to Cape Ann. The couple remained in Gloucester for five years until Rev. Murray was installed as pastor of the Boston Universalist Society and they moved to Boston. A few years passed without a settled Universalist minister in Gloucester until the position was filled in 1804 by a friend of Rev. Murray’s from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Rev. Thomas Jones.
Judith Sargent Murray
Photo Courtesy David Rye
Thomas Jones (1763-1846) frequently spoke out against slavery. In a sermon delivered during the War of 1812 (partly fought over Britain’s refusal to acknowledge America’s neutrality by continuing to force American sailors into the British Navy in a process known as impressment), he said, “the claim of great Britain to the Right of Impressing Seamen, is as absurd and wicked as is the claim of the Southern Planter to Ownership in man.77 Eddy, Richard, D.D., Universalism in Gloucester, Mass, Procter Bros., 1892, p.52. When the ex-slave Gloster Dalton, a long-time member of the church, died in 1813, Rev. Jones’ eulogy ended with the words “all men are born free!78Universalist Records Reg A9, Box 5, Bk 6. Cape Ann Museum Archives.
Despite his strongly voiced opinions of slavery, he was also a friend of major benefactors of the church, Benjamin K. Hough and William Pearce, who had ties to the slave trade.
Rev. Thomas Jones regarded slavery as a great “National Evil”, as Rev. Eddy notes in his address at the 1870 Universalist Convention about the history of Universalism in Gloucester:

[Father Jones] “stands not alone as the representative of this pulpit on that great sin. Not one of his successors ever so far disgraced himself and his profession of Faith in Universal Brotherhood, as to be an apologist for human bondage. But often and at times when it has required no small degree of courage, has this pulpit faithfully instructed men in their duties toward those who were in bonds”79Eddy, Universalism in Gloucester, pp. 52; 72; 76

Note that Rev. Eddy’s statement subtly acknowledges that some members in good standing of the Universalist church were slave owners. As he grew older Rev. Jones’ health began to fail and he resigned from the pulpit in 1843. This was followed by the appointment, and rapid resignations, of two pastors80They were Rev. Frederick F. Thayer, appointed in 1843, who resigned at the end of 1844, due to internecine disagreements within the Society, and Rev. Henry B. Soule, hired in 1845, who left in 1846 because he was “discontented” with Gloucester. Eddy, Richard, D.D., Universalism in Gloucester, Mass, Procter Bros., 1892, pp.62-63 before the 1846 installation of Rev. Amory D. Mayo (1823-1907).

The Spear Brothers and John Allen

On February 11, 1821, the first Universalist Society of Sandy Bay was formed with 23 signers, and on February 26 the first meeting was held at the home of John Manning:

We whose names are hereunto subscribed, being sensible of the unchangeable and universal love of God to Mankind, and in humble thankfulness to Him, disposing our hearts to unite together in the bonds of love and friendship; this is our duty, as tending to the good of society in general, and the improvement and edification of each other in particular, to form ourselves into a religious society.81Eddy, Universalism in America:

Signers included John Manning, Aaron Pool, William Norwood, Charles Norwood, Solomon Poole, Francis Pool, Ebenezer Norwood, Moses Colby, John Cunningham, John Turner Jr., A. Knowlton, William Knight, Michael Knowlton, Ebenezer Rowe, Benjamin Andrews, Eleazer Boynton, Charles B. Manning, William Doyle, William Thurston, Daniel O. Marshall, David Elwell, David Pool, and Henry Hodgkins.
Abolitionist Universalist pastors of Sandy Bay (Rockport) included Charles Spear and John Allen. Charles Spear served as the Universalist minister from 1837 to 1839. In addition to opposing slavery, he focused on the criminal justice system as a mechanism for upholding the institution of slavery and the mistreatment of enslaved persons. He wrote that racial discrimination against Blacks in the use of capital punishment was a grave injustice, “an instrument of evil whose real purpose was to intimidate and terrorize slaves and thus maintain and enforce slavery.82Eddy, Richard, 1892, Universalism in Gloucester, Mass., Universalist Church History, Sandy Bay Historical Society.
In 1839 Charles and his brother John Murray Spear, who served as an itinerant Universalist minister in West Gloucester during the same period, were both founding members of the New England Non-Resistance Society, an organization led by William Lloyd Garrison and Adin Ballou. The Non-Resistance Society renounced violence and all worldly government, a form of anarchism. Charles and John also campaigned for prison reform and the abolition of the death penalty. Both brothers ultimately left the ministry, turning to Spiritualism and the causes of women’s rights and criminal justice.83McKanan, Dan, A Documentary History of Unitarian Universalism, Volume 1 From the Beginning to 1899
In the abolition movement, despite opposition from parishioners, the Spear brothers were instrumental in organizing the first Universalist anti-slavery conventions in Massachusetts. In 1841-42 they organized both the first and second Universalist Anti-Slavery Conventions in Lynn.84 Many Universalists were opposed to mixing politics with religion and joined protests against anti-slavery “speechifying” in church.85 With Frederick Douglass and others, John nevertheless spoke frequently throughout Massachusetts, risking attack.
Both brothers ultimately felt forced to resign their pulpits. Charles, who had become known as “the prisoner’s friend”–also the title of a periodical he published– continued his ministry as an Army chaplain. John, meanwhile, became a leading spokesperson for Spiritualism and radical social reform. In 1852 he published Messages from the Superior State, in which he referred to séance-mediated communication as a superior state of being.86 John Spear ultimately espoused anarchism and free love, ideals he claimed to have discovered through his communications with the spirit world.87Published by Rockport Universalist pastor Simon Hewitt, Messages from the Superior State reports John M. Spear’s communications with the spirit of the founder of Universalism, John Murray, as his medium.
John Allen, a Universalist pastor in Rockport from 1841 to 1853, was an associate of Charles Spear and John M. Spear before also leaving the ministry to focus on social reform. He also agitated for an end to the death penalty, prison reform, temperance, women’s rights, and an end to slavery.88Buescher, John Benedict, 2004, The Other Side of Salvation: Spiritualism and the Nineteenth Century Religious Experience, p. 12. In 1840 Allen introduced a resolution at a Universalist Anti-Slavery Convention:89Address before the Universalist Anti-Slavery Convention, at its first session, held Nov 19, 1840, in Lynn, Mass. (Waltham, Christian Freeman Office, 1840).

Whereas, The institution of Slavery exists in our land ; subjecting two and a half millions of our brethren to perpetual bondage, depriving them of all the privileges of civil and religious liberty – and whereas we as Christians profess to believe in the common parentage, and the universal brotherhood and equality of the human family; Therefore, Resolved, That no individual can be a consistent Universalist who refuses to acknowledge the sinfulness of Slavery, and give his voice and influence to its immediate abolition.

The resolution failed utterly, however, and in 1841 John moved “to a more liberal church at Rockport” (UU Society of Rockport) where he signed an agreement allowing him to preach on political and social issues in church so long as this did not interfere with regular Sabbath services.90Record Book, 1st Univ’lst Soc., Rockport, Mass., 8 Apr 1841; Allen, John: (2009). John Allen organized Rockport’s “Total Abstinence” temperance society in 1841, a precedent and inspiration, perhaps, for Hannah Jumper’s “Bay Tent Rechabites” abstinence society of 1847.91Hampel, Robert L., 1982, Temperance and Prohibition in Massachusetts, 1813-1852.
John married Sarah Maria Parker in 1841, who, however, died three years later. He took his infant son with him to live at Brook Farm, a community in West Roxbury attempting to operate on the principals of utopian socialism. The community founders were profoundly influenced by both Transcendentalism and ideas of the French philosopher Charles Fourier (1732-1837). Fourier believed that poverty is the root of all evil and proposed that society should be restructured into small, self-sufficient, communal, egalitarian, cooperative communities.92 By 1847 Brook Farm had failed financially.93 The image of Brooks Farm is from In 1848 John married his second wife, Ellen Mordecai Lazarus, from an old Jewish-American family and also a committed follower of Fourier.94Bigham, Emily, 2004, Mordecai: An Early American Family. John continued as an itinerant preacher, but when his sermons on social issues such as slavery continued to be unwelcome, he left the ministry to devote himself entirely to labor reform and the development of communities based on utopian socialism.95Buescher, John Benedict, 2004, The Other Side of Salvation: Spiritualism and the Nineteenth-century Religious Experience, pp. 192-194.

Amory Mayo and William Mellen

The Gloucester Independent Christian Church was Rev. Mayo’s first ministry after ordination and his tenure was one of quiet reassurance. He was a life-long supporter of equality for women, abolition, and the emancipation that education provided. In a speech made on the evening of November 3, 1874, during the celebration of the 100 years since Rev. Murray’s first sermon in Gloucester, Rev. Mayo said:

“I recollect in those old, explosive days before the war, when they sent back slaves from Boston to South Carolina, I used to stand up periodically, having packed my trunk the night before, and blaze away, like a whole battery, right in the face and eyes of you all, and then go home wondering at the little sensation my tremendous demonstration seemed to make. I didn’t understand then, that under the quiet surface of your Yankee reticence you all agreed with me.”96Eddy, Richard, D.D., Universalism in Gloucester, Mass., Procter Bros., 1892, p.91

Amory Dwight Mayo
After several years in the Gloucester pulpit he became interested in establishing a church of “Liberal Christianity” in the West, where he felt he could exert greater influence. He consequently resigned in 1854 after receiving an invitation to become pastor of an Independent Christian Church in Cleveland, Ohio. He also became interested in teaching and in the 1860s began lecturing in church policy at Meadville Theological School in Pennsylvania, where he held a nonresidential professorship for the ensuing 35 years. He moved back to Massachusetts (Boston) in 1880 and became involved in education in the Southern States. He spent the last 26 years of his life campaigning for improved education for all regardless of gender or ethnicity.
Rev. Mayo preached equality and in 1889, after many years as a roving educator in the South, he wrote an article titled Northern Estimates of Southern Life and Affairs, which dwelt on the difficulties of building mutual trust between the North and the South since the Civil War, mainly due to differing attitudes about slavery. His argument, however, betrays attitudes that are not entirely consistent with his previous abolitionist stance:

“The Negro is the only man that has come up to modern citizenship with no personal experience of the three furies of the Prayer Book, – war, pestilence, and famine. He lacks the virile experience of centuries of battling for his rights, and has had less of practical slavery and oppression than the masses of European people. On the other hand, his period of bondage was the mildest and the most instructive and healthful in history. The slave-holders were the superior class of their section; and, with ordinary exceptions, their handling of the slaves was in some ways an uplifting discipline.”97 Mayo, Amory D., Northern Estimates of Southern Life and Affairs, The Unitarian Review, Vol. 31, 1889, p.39.

After Rev. Mayo’s departure for the West in 1854 the pulpit was filled by Rev. William Roland Grenville Mellen (1822-1895), who was also committed to both the abolitionist and suffragette movements. He corresponded and socialized with liberal-minded activists of the day: Frederick Douglass (social reformer and abolitionist), William Lloyd Garrison (abolitionist and suffragist), Susan B. Anthony (social reformer and suffragist), Thomas Starr King (a charismatic Unitarian preacher and Union patriot), Theodore Parker (a controversial Unitarian preacher and social reformer who became the Minister at Large for fugitive slaves in Boston) and Martha Coffin Wright (suffragist and abolitionist).
Rev. Mellen’s previous ministry had been in Albany, New York, where he had become firm friends with Martha Coffin Wright, one of the organizers of the 1848 Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention. Her daughter Ellen married William Lloyd Garrison Jr., son of the well-known abolitionist. Rev. Mellen and Martha had an extensive correspondence after coming to Gloucester. He wrote to her in 1855 that he had been in Boston in “Anniversary Week” and had been at “the Anti-slavery meeting a little time.98Sophia Smith Collection Smith College, Northampton, MA. Garrison Papers: Box 270 FF24 W.R.G. Mellen to Martha Coffin Wright. Gloucester, June 25, 1855. Later that same year he told her, “…We have had a visit this winter from Theo. Parker… he lectured for us… he spent the night with us” and shared a joke. “[Parker] said that when the transcendental philosophy prevailed in Boston, some yrs ago, its God consisted of “Goethe the Father, Emerson the Son, & Margaret Fuller the Holy Virgin.99Margaret Fuller (1810-1850) was a journalist, suffragist and transcendentalist. Sophia Smith Collection Smith College, Northampton, MA. Garrison Papers: Box 270 FF24 W.R.G. Mellen to Martha Coffin Wright. Gloucester, Dec. 3, 1855.
In October 1861, shortly after the onset of the Civil War, Rev. Mellen left Gloucester to take up the position of Chaplain of the 24th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers.100Eddy, Richard, D.D., Universalism in Gloucester, Mass, Procter Bros., 1892, p.67. While serving, he was court-martialed for “preferring serious charges, through a Boston paper, against Gov. Stanly,101“Latest Reports from Newbern.” Boston Daily Advertiser, Dec. 25, 1862.
but was honorably acquitted. Edward Stanly, appointed the military governor of North Carolina by Pres. Lincoln, disagreed with the President on the issues of Confiscation and Emancipation. He believed that runaway slaves should be returned to their owners so long as those owners took the Pledge of Allegiance. Rev. Mellen resigned his commission in January 1863 and shortly afterwards President Lincoln appointed him United States consul at Port Louis, on the island of Mauritius off the East Coast of Africa.102Boston Daily Advertiser, Feb. 19, 1863. He returned to America in 1867, spent time in Michigan and New York state, and took on the role of Unitarian missionary in Colorado Springs, having converted to Unitarianism while in the military. He died in Yonkers on Christmas Day, 1895, age seventy-three.
Rev. Richard Eddy, a Universalist minister in Gloucester between 1870 and 1877, wrote a two-volume History of Universalism. In it he makes few references to slavery, but cites the document drafted by the 1790 Philadelphia Convention.103 Chapter III of that document contains five “Recommendations” on “War, Going to Law, Holding Slaves, Oaths, and Submission to Government.” On “Holding Slaves”, it said:

We believe it to be inconsistent with the union of the human race in a common Saviour and the obligations to mutual and universal love which flow from that union, to hold any part of our fellow-creatures in bondage. We therefore recommend a total refraining from the African trade, and the adoption of prudent measures for the gradual abolition of the slavery of the negroes in our country, and for the instruction and education of their children, in English literature, and in the principles of the gospel.”104Eddy, Universalism in America, p. 301.

It is difficult to know to what extent these recommendations influenced people on Cape Ann. Fifty years later during Henry C. Leonard’s time in the West Parish pulpit (1843 – 1846), in a December 2, 1843 meeting, it was “Voted that Rev. H. C. Leonard, N. H. Swain, B. Colburn and Samuel Norwood be a committee to prepare and present at the next meeting a set of resolutions on slavery, intemperance, and war.105There appears to be no record of the outcome of that committee meeting or the promised set of resolutions about slavery. There is thus no way to determine how well their recommendations matched the anti-slavery resolution of the Universalist Constitution of 1790. Likewise there is no further mention of the recommendations in local church records. However Church records provide no further information on the outcome of that committee meeting, nor on the subject of slavery.
The 1790 Philadelphia Convention was the basis of the 1803 Winchester Profession of Faith, which was amended by the Boston Declaration at the Universalist General Convention of 1897 in Chicago, Illinois, and adopted into the Winchester Profession in 1899.106 In 1987, at a local celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Boston Declaration, “Singing Our History”, participants sang “Remember the Slave” to music composed by William Croft in 1708. The text was written by Unitarian Eliza Lee Cabot Follen in 1831.107Remember the Slavewas published in Signal of Liberty, February 16, 1842 and in Follen’s Hymns, Songs and Fables for Young People (1964, No 225, Boston).
Richard Eddy
Eliza Lee Cabot Follen (1787-1860)