Deep Roots and Lasting Roots – October 3

A sermon based on Galatians 3:19-29
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on October 3, 2021
by Rev. Scott Elliott

A couple of months ago I preached the sermon that I originally wrote for today, the day we dedicate the new bench commemorating the local Underground Railroad and anti-slavery efforts. I decided to preach that sermon back in July because I’d found so much information I wanted to spread it out.

This month we are focusing on justice efforts. Today we again look at the beginnings of this church– this time with a focus on the racial justice work of our first three pastors. There will be some overlap with the July sermon to refresh our memories and put the church start and those pastors in context. More details are in the brochure in your bulletins and also in recent Knoxpages and Mount Vernon News articles.

In 1834 a number of Christians in our nation were taking part in a protest movement leaving church institutions that did not strongly oppose slavery. Thirty members in this town joined the movement and left their church to start this church on July 26, 1834. Later that year as a part of the movement seventy-five seminarians famously left Cincinnati’s Lane Seminary transferring to Oberlin. They became known as “The Lane Rebels.” Our first two pastors, Rev. Benjamin Higbee and Rev. Edward Weed were among the Lane Rebels. Our third pastor, Rev. Michael Strieby, was not a Lane Rebel, but he ended up being even more famous.

At the start our church actively opposed slavery, joined the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society, led the way in hosting anti-slavery speakers and working on the Underground Railroad in Knox County. Those loving actions seeking justice and loving kindness were often met with violence. Mobs pelted the church with rocks and eggs and made loud noises to disrupt anti-slavery speakers. Some of those speakers were chased out of town and threatened with violence, one was almost lynched.

Our first pastor is listed on most records as Rev. B. W. Higbee. His first name was actually Benjamin. Before he could sign the Lane Rebel protest documents in December of 1834 Benjamin appears to have arrived in Mount Vernon. There’s not a lot of information about him. Curiously, I came across a document indicating a “Benjamin W. Higbee” was at a law school in 1833 in Kentucky seventy miles from Cincinnati and a year before the Lane rebellion. I don’t know was him, but (for some reason) I like to think the church may have started off with a pastor with legal training. We do know that as our pastor Benjamin became one of the first members of the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society. We also know he invited the classmate who was a primary force behind the walk out at Lane Seminary, Rev. W.T. Allen to speak at our church and it caused quite a ruckus. Rev. Allen was the speaker who was chased out of town and almost lynched. That violence did not deter Benjamin or the church. They organized bodyguard and property guard systems to ensure the anti-slavery work continued.

There’s a succinct description of Benjamin hanging in our church hall. It’s a description I’m sure Jesus is proud of. It tells us B.W. Higbee was, “One of the students who left Lane Seminary in the Exodus to Oberlin. Medium in Stature. Strong in physique. Energetic in Body and Mind. Spiritual and Evangelistic. Four years of Militant Service.”

During his tenure here Benjamin had a classmate, friend, and Lane Rebel, Rev. Edward Weed, come to the church and preach in February of 1836. At the time Edward was employed as a lecturing agent for the American Anti-slavery Society which is not too surprising because while at Lane Seminary Edward worked on the Underground Railroad and became a Lane Rebel, he was dedicated to abolition. His first sermon here as a guest preacher was on Psalm 68 verse 31. We heard Psalm 68 in the innovation in the KJV that Edward knew. Verse 3 reads “Princes shall come forth out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch forth her hands unto God.” That verse is known as the “Ethiopian prophecy.” Back then, and up through today, it’s connected American slavery with the slavery of the Hebrews in Egypt and their emancipation struggle.

After his Psalm 68 sermon Edward wrote to his wife how pleased he was with our congregation’s response noting our predecessors “are an excellent people, full of faith and good works and nearly all abolitionists.” (Weed, Edward, Faith and Works, p34). After guest preaching here Edward returned to work promoting anti-slavery in lectures around the state. He bravely faced mobs and threats of violence. In fact, a few months after he preached here, he wrote his wife noting “there are men thirsting for my blood and would kill me if they had a good opportunity as soon as they would shake a snake.” Edward noted he’d been “in the midst of an infuriated mob who were seeking his life.” (Ibid., 38-39).

He wasn’t exaggerating. A mob in Waverly, Ohio was talked out of killing him but still chased him out of town. And to spite him, and hurt his relatives, the anti-abolitionists were (as Edward put it, in another letter to his wife) “getting up reports that I have been inhumanly beaten or murdered to harass my friends.” (Ibid., 42) Those rumors spread across the nation and were reported in the Boston Courier and Washington Globe. While they were not true, believe it or not, Edward’s anti–slavery work that summer DIRECTLY led to what’s called “The Battle of Houlton’s Mill,” where abolitionists clashed with anti-abolitionists in Pike County, Ohio leaving one man dead.

That same summer Edward’s anti-slavery work caused the Piketon city council to pass the now notorious “Piketon Anti-Abolition Resolutions” which opposed abolition and banned abolitionists from visiting their county threatening if there was such a visit “we will not hold ourselves accountable for the consequences.” In 1838 Edward understandably decided to look for other work and thankfully was invited to become this church’s second pastor. During his tenure he continued the anti-slavery and racial justice work that the founders of the church and Benjamin Higbee had begun.

In 1842 our third pastor, Rev. Michael Strieby, came on board and he also continued the work of our church founders, and Benjamin and Edward. We know that Michael and the church continued the anti-slavery and racial justice work because church records have a rare written recording of work on the Underground Railroad. The record indicates our early church family found a way to take advantage of mob disturbances. Michael reported that one night in 1842 while a mob was busy disrupting an anti-slavery meeting John Scribner, a 12-year-old from the church, drove a wagon from the Utica area on the Freedom Trail to Mount Vernon with nineteen escaped slaves on board who were then taken by church member, D. L. Travis, to safety further north.

Pastor Michael stayed here twelve years from 1842 to 1854. While here he was appointed to Oberlin’s Board of Trustees. That led to him eventually working with the American Missionary Association, a Protestant-based abolitionist group involved in efforts to abolish slavery, but also in the education of African Americans and in continued efforts for racial equality. Michael was appointed the head of that missionary association in 1860 a post he held for thirty years. His work lasted so long and was so extensive there are churches, roads, and college buildings named after him.

These three men, our first pastors, Rev. Benjamin Higbee, Rev. Edward Weed and Rev. Michael Strieby – and the congregations that worked with them and supported their work – were instrumental in the anti-slavery work and Underground Railroad efforts in this area and they created the deep and lasting roots this church has always had in racial justice work. They followed God’s instruction from Micah 6 to seek justice and love kindness. They followed Jesus’ teaching to love everyone and to treat those in need as they would treat Christ– because Christ is in them. They followed Paul teachings toward equality and equity, summed up well in our lesson from Galatians “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

Thank God for the blessings of these pastors and our early church founders and anti-slavery friends. May this church always continue the racial justice work they began. May we seek justice and love kindness as well as they did.