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Illinois Anti-Slavery Society Founded in Upper Alton
by John J. Dunphy
Elijah Lovejoy, the abolitionist editor of the Alton Observer, had grown impatient with the timidity of the anti-slavery cause in Illinois. He decided that abolitionists in the Prairie State would be more effective in ridding America of the hated Peculiar Institution if they banded together to act in unison.
"Is it not time that such a society be formed?" he asked in an editorial published in the July 6, 1837 edition of the Alton Observer. After noting that the abolitionist cause had "many, many friends" in Illinois and numerous local anti-slavery groups existed, Lovejoy suggested that "the time has come" to organize a statewide anti-slavery society.
"If it be decided that such a society ought to be formed," he questioned, "when and where shall the convention meet to form it? Shall it be in this place, or at Jacksonville, or Springfield, or elsewhere?"
By "this place," Lovejoy presumably meant the city of Alton, where the Alton Observer was published. Yet, the founding convention of the Illinois Anti-Slavery Society was held in Upper Alton, which was a separate community from "Lower Alton" at that time. Lovejoy allowed the Upper Alton Presbyterian Church (now known as the College Avenue Presbyterian Church), which he served as pastor, to be used as the meeting place. Held on October 26, 1837, the meeting itself quickly degenerated into a debacle. Lovejoy and Edward Beecher, president of Illinois College in Jacksonville, had publicized the event as open to anyone who was interested in discussing the issue of freedom of the press. Lovejoy's enemies used this invitation as an excuse to pack the meeting with opponents of abolitionism.
Undaunted, the abolitionists agreed to meet the next day at the home of Thaddeus Hurlbut, a staunch Lovejoy ally who served as associate editor of the Alton Observer. Hurlbut's home, known today as the Old Rock House, is located on the corner of College and Clawson. One of the convention's first orders of business was to call for the Alton Observer to remain in the city of Alton. Lovejoy's press had been destroyed three times since he began publishing his newspaper in Alton. If Illinois abolitionists allowed their house organ to be silenced through intimidation, "freedom of the press" would become a meaningless cliche.
Delegates elected Elihu Wolcott of Jacksonville to serve as president of the society and Hubbell Loomis, former president of Shurtleff College, was chosen as one of five vice-presidents. Lovejoy was elected to serve as corresponding secretary, and Hurlbut as recording secretary. Hurlbut's handwritten minutes of the meeting were donated to the Illinois Historical Society in the 1920s by his grandson.
Edward Beecher proposed that a number of critical topics be discussed at the society's next annual meeting such as "an investigation of the doctrines of the Bible on slavery." Slavery apologists and abolitionists both used the Bible to justify their positions on this issue. Alexander Campbell, a prominent figure in the Second Great Awakening, stated that "There is not one verse in the Bible inhibiting slavery, but many regulating it. It is not then, we conclude, immoral." Confederate President Jefferson Davis proclaimed, "Slavery was established by the decree of Almighty God" and was "sanctioned in the Bible, both Testaments." Anti-slavery Christians countered by arguing that the Bible did not sanction slavery based on race and that the slavery practiced by the Old Testament Hebrews was actually a form of indentured servitude rather than chattel slavery.
Beecher also called for a discussion "on the alleged tendency of the anti-slavery movement to divide the church and the nation." One wonders how Beecher could have used the word "alleged" with a straight face. Two of America's largest religious bodies, the Methodist and the Baptist denominations, split over the slavery issue in the years before the Civil War. The Northern and Southern Methodists didn't reunite into one denomination until 1939. The Baptists, however, never managed to reconcile and remain divided to this day between the American (Northern) Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention. The nation itself split asunder when the South saw Lincoln and the Republican party as a threat to slavery and seceded from the Union.
Lovejoy's murder in Alton, just two weeks after the founding of the Illinois Anti-Slavery Society, dealt the young organization a crippling blow. Still, abolitionists in Alton and Upper Alton refused to be intimidated. Thaddeus Hurlbut's second home, built in 1841 on Washington Avenue in Upper Alton, became an important stop on the Underground Railroad. The late Dorothy Horton Dromgoole, my great-aunt, grew up in the Hurlbut-Messenger house and recalled the basement where fugitive slaves were hidden. The house was razed in 1957.
Upper Alton was annexed by Alton in 1911 and now is merely one of our city's many neighborhoods. Still, Upper Alton residents can take pride in the knowledge that their community played such a vital role in the struggle for freedom and human dignity.