All of this talk of the controversy in Virginia has me thinking wanting to revisit my senior thesis.
During my senior year of college, I worked on a senior thesis which discussed the religious underpinings of two church communities involved in the 1858 Oberlin-Wellington Slave Rescue, which historians have tied to the beginnings of the Civil War… sometimes with hyperbole. To keep it short, the case involved several men arrested for aiding the escape of a fugitive slave in Wellington, Ohio and helping him escape via nearby Oberlin.
I thought this would be as good a time as any to share an interesting character from my thesis, the Rev. Alonzo Sanderson. His ideals and spirit would lead to his role at Wellington Free Congregational Church, a church body so named because of its refusal to keep communion with slaveholders as well as its petitions against pew fees.
Many people will never hear of the Free Congregational Church, and Wellington’s “small time” role in the region is heavily overshadowed by Oberlin College, from which the small town gained ministers. The influence of these ministers would eventually lead to a schism within the original Wellington church body which revolved around theological and political questions of the day.
Ministers like Sanderson were recruited to go into the Western Reserve – still a wild frontier – to preach. We see his idealism in a letter to Oberlin professor Henry Cowles:
I have but little money, + do not wish to go out under the [American] Home Misionary [sic] Society, for I believe in the doctrine of entire holiness in this life. I therefore do not know that I could have [illegible] from that Society. I will preach Christ as a full Savior from sin while I preach + therefore do not wish to be trammelled [sic] by any Society.
Holiness + union are to me the too [sic] great points of interest for the present time. These two points I long to have pressed upon the minds of men, + of Christians. O, when will the time come when these things shall be viewed in a right light?
Alonzo Sanderson to Henry Cowles, 23 Feb. 1851. Available at Oberlin College Archives. See thesis footnotes for box and folder.
This material also shows Sanderson’s theological beliefs. This is notable as he had a set of thinking very inline with Oberlin. Where did he get this? What exactly did he do with it at Wellington?
I was able to follow Sanderson later in his life through an illuminating letter found in a private collection written by the wife of one of the Wellington rescuers. In addition to an enlightening discussion of antislavery activities in Wellington, it talks of the author’s relationship with Sanderson both in Wellington and later in Flint, Michigan. The author uses Sanderson to display the consequences of sin – namely alcohol abuse – as I have to wonder if the mention of a crazed son is truth of hyperbole or both. I can’t reprint it, but excerpts do exist in the thesis link below. So many other issues come to light – such as the role of women and the author’s role as a temperance worker. Interestingly, she credits much of this to her time at Wellington.
Considering the Role of the Religious Community
While I am finished with my thesis, I will be seeking to publish some work in the future questioning the local importance of religious thought. My work explores many of these questions, and I hope to be able to flesh out some arguments in order to contribute to what we know about the role of Wellington in the slave case.
It should be interesting to connect Wellington to this event for many reasons. Sanderson was invited by Henry Cowles, a stalwart figure in Oberlin’s church and community who briefly oversaw Wellington. It would be fascinating to know more about the connections between these two towns and the relationships they have. Much has been written about Oberlin’s national impact, and its history is fascinating.
What I find enlightening is how these ideas traveled from one place to the next and consumed the people and churches they touched. How could one church be torn apart as Wellington’s was and then a new church have many of the same bylaws as Oberlin? Does this give credence to Oberlin’s critics at the time?
The thesis can be found here.
(You may have notice I’ve de-anonymized. I’ll just do the good-old-fashioned duty of being careful what I say.)