The Honor of Being Persecuted
Our author and his compatriots revel in their minority status, fighting The Good Fight, and suffering along the way.
Modern day libertarians—especially those of us who have “come up” in the last decade or two—are quite familiar with the feeling of belonging to a relatively small, tightly-knit community of ideologues. (At the risk of being preyed upon, I’ll say here that one of my favorite things about attending a libertarian event of any sort is that you can always rest easy that if you leave your things somewhere unattended, absolutely no one will mess with them—violating property rights in any way is forbidden by our most deeply held values, and you can usually trust us to live out our values.) It was much the same for the early abolitionists. They were a small band, and merry. They rejoiced in their purism, their consistent and universal values, and they even took a sick sort of pleasure in their persecution by the great majority.
Here we have a fierce and friendly—even loving—exchange between two abolitionists exulting in their burdens. First, John Pierpont, a poet and Unitarian minister, congratulates Rogers on his recent “excommunication” from the Congregational church. New England Congregationalism was the descendent of “classical” Puritan Calvinism, but by Rogers’ day, radical members increasingly drifted to newer and more open-minded sects like Unitarianism, spiritualism, or a broad anti-clericalism like Rogers’ own religious thought. Very often, the point of contention between the churches and the radical membership was a hot-button moral issue like slavery or temperance. Churches wishing to avoid controversy or ministers hoping to keep their personal interests unhindered stood accused of watering down their Christianity in the midst of a great moral trial. Uncompromising abolitionists like Pierpont and Rogers commiserated over their excommunications from this sort of “base” Christianity just as they rejoiced in their separation from the diseased body politic. “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” Pierpont wrote to Rogers, who replied that he loved Pierpont, and My! what a wonderful thing it was to suffer while doing the Lord’s work. (A fine sentiment for a couple of writers, I suppose.)
Rounding out our selections is a report about several women speakers at recent antislavery meetings in New York. Rogers dwells at length on their dual-status as persecuted peoples—the interaction between their abolitionism and their womanhood. Even among abolitionists, the woman part was a troubling and divisive factor. Rogers himself, after all, had refused to participate in London’s global antislavery convention because the body refused to seat woman delegates in the American contingent or hear female speakers. But abolitionists were not the sort of radicals who lightly strayed from their paths. Women like Harriet Lloyd, Abby Kelley, and Sara Pugh refused to say silent, they took up the burdens of public action and public scrutiny, and truly universalist and individualist men like Rogers joyously received them. Minorities within a minority, feminist abolitionists could also find a loving home in radical circles.
A Collection from the Newspapers Writings of Nathaniel Peabody Rogers
Concord: John R. French. 1847.
Correspondence with Pierpont.
From the Herald of Freedom, 16 April 1841.
Boston, March 20, 1841.
My thrice-honored, because persecuted friend!—I give you joy. You now know, if you never before knew, the full force and beauty of that “beatitude”—Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. You and I do not belong to the same sect—and I rejoice that we do not; for if we did, we might not know, practically and experimentally, how very feeble, how much like burning tow-strings are the ties of sect, when they are pulled upon by the strong sympathies of humanity—the attractions of the Christian spirit.
I congratulate you!—I almost with somebody would excommunicate me. Well—it may be said that has been done by the great majority of the Christian church in the country, and in all Christendom. As a Unitarian, I am, in effect, excommunicated from the Christian fold. But this was done so long ago, and I have lived and labored so long and so happily as a Unitarian, that the old excommunication, like one run of the small pox, has got about worked out of the constitution, and I have become liable, if properly exposed, to take it again. And it is altogether possible that I may soon have to take it again. I am to be brought again before a council to answer for my overt acts of treason against the majesty of Rum.
If those our adversaries only knew how much they exalt us, the poor victims of their spiritual pride, in your case, and purse-pride in mine, we need ask for them, I think, no severer penalty. But of this exaltation they have no conception. Those things are hidden from “the wise and prudent of this world.” They think, poor souls! that they are making us unhappy. That’s all they know about it.
I rejoice, “my dear sir,” to see that your spirit is not broken, though your connection with the Plymouth church is. They excommunicate you! No—you have long since excommunicated them!—that is, you have placed yourself in a position in which you have nothing, or very little, in common with them; where there was really no communion between your spirit and their spirits. Well, let them put you out of their synagogue, and think that in so doing, they are doing God service—as indeed they are!—though in a way that they think not of. Let the excommunicate you! There is another church, of which I verily believe you are a member, in full communion, and—“in regular standing,” I was going to add; but regular standing is standing according to rule, (regula,)—thus understood, I imagine your standing is not very regular, if we take the rules of any “visible church” on earth as the criterion; but of the true church I believe you are a member, i.e. the church of the true and the devoted,—the daring, the trusting, the tried and the approved. Faint not, my dear friend; fail not. No—your spirit cannot faint; the flesh may be weak, but the spirit is strong;—so will it be, while you are persecuted. Though your outward man perish, yet your inward man—which is all the MAN that is worth our concern—your inward man will gain strength, day by day.
My dear friend, may God bless you!—He surely will.
Concord, March 25, 1841.
MY VERY DEAR FRIEND:—Your kind letter of the 20th I have received. I have long been your admirer, and since personal acquaintance with you, have been proud of the notice you have shown me. I love you now, and here promise to admire you no longer. It was indeed kind in you to send me your consolatory—congratulatory greeting—at a time when you would naturally suppose me most in want of it. I value it none the less highly from the fact that somehow I have scarcely thought myself persecuted at all, by this little excommunication. I feel the excitement and fervor of the battle we are waging, and a considerable sword-cut would hardly give me a smarting sensation. This excommunication really strikes me as resting on my “old organized anti-slavery,” and not on myself. It is evident what it is for. It does not in the least dishonor me. I am not alone. I am in no business where want of patronage or of reputation would impair my living or my prosperity. I have given up business. I am the slave’s advocate, and my clients can’t be made to forsake me, or withdraw their patronage. I have not a particle of reputation to forfeit,—having been for some time past “of no reputation.” So that I am not persecuted. I endure nothing, have no cross to bear, never enjoyed life half so well, even when I am sick. Still, your letter was a great cordial. It gave my heart a spring, and even my pulse a little vivacity. I will not try by words to tell you how I feel about it. Will you allow me to publish it? If I should, it would not be to get myself honor, but to let my old Plymouth friends know that my position is not regarded every where as they regard it. They know your name there, and though your opinion would be no proof of my orthodoxy, it would embarrass them in their effort as despising my anti-slavery character.
I have done sympathizing (condolingly) with you, in your Hollis street vexations. They are opportunities for which you should bless God. What interest they impart to your life! How dull ordinary Boston pulpit-life—compared to yours, since this battle! How dull would your own even be, to return to! You are charged with defence of great principles. “Felix oppor tunitate!” Make the utmost of it. And when the history is read, let it not be seen that he omitted this or that glorious chance,—or left this or that capital point unattained.
The Lord be with you, my dear friend, and sustain you, and enable you to fight eminently His battles in the earth. O, the misfortune of living in the stagnation of this world’s peace! And O in faith in Christ to enable us to fight acceptably these heart-stirring, heart-sustaining, soul-expanding conflicts!
With a heart full, I am
Your friend and brother,
P.S. Allow me to add in my own defence “in haste.”
Boston, 5th April, 1841.
Well, my dear Excommunicate! I think that neither of us wishes or can wish any thing worse to fall upon those “who despitefully use us and persecute us,” than the knowledge would bring upon them of all the good they are doing us, and of the satisfaction that we derive, as well as exaltation, from all that they do to put us down, and stop our mouths;—stop them, but not with bread. Poor, dear persecutors!—they should have known us better—instead of starving, they should have stuffed us. They should have known—
“That Satan now is wiser than of yore,
And tempts by making rich—not making poor.”—
They should have offered me an interest in a distillery of New England rum, and you a share in a sugar plantation. There’s no knowing what that would have done! You and I might then have been bound together by very different ties from those that bind us now. I might have bought your molasses for my distillery, and you my rum for your negro drivers;—to screw their bowels up to the whipping point. Thus might you and I have been brought into the relation and sympathy of ordinary business friendship, and held together by silver chains; and the patriarchs of the South and the friends of freedom at the North might, for all that we might have done, have met together; and the distillers and the cold water men have kissed each other;—Temperance and Slavery might have billed and cooed “like sucking doves,” and mother church might have looked benignantly on, and have pronounced her benediction upon the bonds of matrimony that of the twain had made one flesh. But Pro-drunkenness and Pro-slavery took other counsel, and it will probably prove to them the counsel of Ahithophel. They thought they could bring us into straits—that they could hush our crying, by frightening us.—Blood of John Rogers, of Smithfield memory!—that any body should ever think of stopping thy current by threatening to let thee out of the veins of one of his descendants!—Ah, the children of this world have not, in this particular instance, been quite so wise as the children of light.
Now, don’t uunderstand me, my friend, as meaning to say, in sober earnestness, that either of us could have been bribed, either by “rum” or “negroes,” to hold his peace upon the sin of drunkenness and drunkard-making, slave-catching, slave-selling, and slave-whipping. I only mean to suggest that if any thing could have done it, that might; for most men are more easily wrong than persecuted out of the right. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall persecution, or nakedness, or famine, or the sword?” No, these things do but bind the closer to him all who really love him, and who labor to serve him, by serving their fellow-men in the spirit in which he served them.
You ask me to let you publish my letter congratulating you upon your good fortune in having been excommunicated. Really, I don’t know what I said, or what to say. I kept no copy of the letter, and as I wrote not to the editor, but to the man, I suspect that it would not make much of a figure in the columns of a newspapers, or do much for my “honor and glory” as a literary man. But if it will do you any good, print it, though in writing if I may have done such violence to grammar as to have knocked out all the I’s of orthography, and broken every bone in syntax. I am not so hard pushed yet, but that I can bear a few more reproaches for meddling with exciting topics. But if you print, pray do it at once. “If it be done, ‘twere well that ‘twere done quickly;”—for next week I am again to be brought before a council to answer for my overt acts of treason against the majesty of Rum; and, if I am to be hanged soon, I should like to see all my sins of this sort set forth in black and white before the cap is pulled down over my eyes. But, if you print my letter, I think you should, also, print yours in reply. I don’t know that you have kept a copy of yours; not do I think you have;—so I enclose it, praying that you will remit it to me, for preservation, whether you print it or not.
How do you sleep, my poor excommunicated friend? Are you not gored every night, in vision, by papal bulls? “at the noise of the thunder” of the Plymouth church, have not all your slumbers “hasted away?” Do any of your old friends know you now, when you show—if you ever dare to show—yourself in public? When you “go out to the gate through the city, when you prepare your seat in the street, do the young men see you and hide themselves, and do the aged arise and stand up?” Do your vital organs perform their functions as they were wont? Do you masticate well what little you can get to eat? Or do “the grinders cease because they are few?”—O my friend, what a sad thing it is to be excommunicated from the orthodox church that is in Plymouth, New Hampshire! But, my dear sir, you’ll get over it—whether the church will, or not, is another question.
Your friend and fellow-servant,
Meetings at New York
From the Herald of Freedom of June 4, 1841.
Some of these were of a deeply interesting character, and brought out some of the humblest of the people to speak, as well as to feel. Among others, a woman past middle life, of the name of HARRIET LLOYD. Pledges and contributions were making, as she cast into the humble treasury her quarter of a dollar, and accompanied the deposit with a few remarks. But the spirit of the meeting waxing powerful, and the duty of liberality being urged by the various speakers, and in order to that, the duty of economy in expenditures, and of sparing contributions in behalf of other causes—the causes of sect and party—Harriet Lloyd rose again, and declared she could not keep from speaking in such a meeting as that. She could understand, she said, the claims of the cause—she could feel the claims of the slave, for she had been a slave. She knew what the slave whip meant. This was the meeting, she said, the slave would go to, and this the society his heart would be in. She had given what she had. She meant to earn more and give it. She meant to save the money she had been in the habit of giving otherwheres. She was a Methodist, she said, and had given her money there—but she should give it there no more. This was the cause of God’s poor, and she should give her money, what little she could get, here. She had no confidence in the other societies. They were societies where a woman was not allowed to speak her heart for the slave. They were afraid of hearing women. She had no confidence in men who rated women like that. They were no friends of the slave. They did not hold woman any higher than slaves. They held her as a sort of beast of burden. They thought no higher of her than Balaam did of the ass that carried him, and seemed as ‘fraid to have her speak, and to wonder as much to hear her. But after all, she said, Balaam was not so much wiser than the ass. She could see as far as he could. She see the angel coming before he did, and tried to make him see it, and he could not, and struck her for it. And he did not see the angel at all, till she crushed his foot against the wall; and if she could not have seen better than he, they would have gone on till they met the angel, and what would have become of them then!! O, no, she exclaimed, as she threw herself into a most expressive attitude, and with the finest natural gestures, let the women speak!—the must speak, and must be heard. She felt they must. She knew what was wanted, for she had been a slave! President Tappan, if he had been present, might have called the noble woman to order, as John T. Norton did Abby Kelly, at the Connecticut meeting the other day. But she would have scorned the call. Her great soul was up, and she would instantly have put to shame any man narrow enough to interrupt the current of her free speech. The plea of usage would have been a feeble barrier before her. We wish our heartless clergy could have heard her. It would have shamed some of them out of their heartlessness.
Abby Kelly spoke greatly and generously at the meeting. They owed much of their interest and success to her. The hearts of brethren were faltering. Walkers by sight, they were wavering at the gloomy prospect of the cause, and were counseling discouragement and retreat. This noble-hearted woman, full of faith, scattered their pusillanimous counsels and fears to the wind, and restored heart and courage to the meeting, and ample resources to carry on our movement were at once opened and realized.
But she is a woman. Above all, she is an unreverend woman. She has had no theological education, and “it is a shame for a woman to speak in” a tabernacle.
But how much better she spoke than men!—how much clearer! With how much more heart and feeling! How much more deeply she remembered the bondman, and how much less deeply she remembered herself!
Sarah Pugh, of Philadelphia, too, spoke on the question of funds, and shame though it was for her to speak, the shame we felt was at the vastly more sense she showed than her brethren, and the deeper interest she manifested than they, in the cause of bleeding humanity. Her brief speech was full of point and force. The reverend brother—such a one, could not have said in a half day what she did in a minute. He could not in a day. He could not at all. Yet it is an honor for him to speak. He is delighted solemnly at his own oracular tones. And for her—it is a shame and a sin: a departure from spheres and the like. Colored men spoke—not the reverend brethren: they have withdrawn in New York from our movement. It is a little too humble an affair for their cloth. David Ruggles was there, and Thomas Van Renssellear, and James Hudson, with his red shirt bosom. These could speak for humanity—for they felt for it. And they spoke with strong effect. We doubt if New York has ever witnessed a meeting of deeper feeling or more faithful and devoted spirit. Every thing went on harmoniously, and terminated satisfactorily, and the friends separated for the year’s campaign, full of heart and zeal.