Coming Outerism, Lane Rebels, the Underground Railroad, Love, Justice and Us – July 25
A sermon based on 2 Corinthians 6: 1-18
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on July 25, 2021
by Rev. Scott Elliott
Today is an auspicious day in our church. We are celebrating Pastor Mearle’s wonderful tenure as our Acting Pastor, as well as the reuniting of the church’s settled pastor, me, with an awesome congregation, you, after a three-month sabbatical. (It is good to be back!).We are also celebrating the one-hundred-and-eighty-seventh anniversary of the church, founded on July 26, 1834.
One of my sabbatical projects was researching our church history– and Anniversary Sunday seems like a very good day to share some of it. We started as a part of an 1830s Christian protest movement. Protesting Christians were leaving religious institutions that didn’t take a strong stand against slavery. The movement had the curious name of “Coming Outerism” based on the line in our lesson (2 Corinthians 6:17) where Paul calls Jesus’ followers away from false religious paths that defile and are not Holy. Using words from Isaiah Paul instructs “come out from them and be separate from them . . .” 1
In 1834 one of the most famous “Coming Outerism” protests took place at Cincinnati’s Lane Seminary. After a series of debates on slavery, which included Anti-Slavery advocate and seminarian W.T. Allen speaking, the seminary’s Trustees decided to prohibit further anti-slavery activity. Seventy-five seminarians left Lane and went to Oberlin’s seminary in protest. They became nationally known as “ The Lane Rebels.” 2
Before that protest at Lane Seminary a less famous Coming Outerism event occurred in 1834 right here in Mount Vernon. One hundred-and-eighty-seven years ago tomorrow thirty members left the local Presbyterian church to start the area’s first Anti-Slavery church, “The Free Presbyterian Church.” 3 That church hired as its first and second pastors two of the famed Lane Rebels, Rev. Benjamin Higbee and Rev. Edward Weed. 4 Coming Outerism would play a role again in 1849 when the Presbyterian denomination did not take an aggressive enough to stand against slavery for the Free Presbyterian Church members, and they left the denomination to become Congregationalists. Ever since the church has been known as Mount Vernon First Congregational Church. 5
That is, of course, us . . . and we did not just “come out” of another denomination and church and hire a couple of Lane Rebels. We were very active in the rebellion against slavery and played a leadership role. Early on the church was a part of the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society, Reverend Higbee and four others (William Cochran, G.H. Drake, James Trimble, and Israel Mattison) connected to the church are listed in the minutes of the first Ohio Anti-slavery Society convention in Granville. We also hosted Anti-Slavery speakers and meetings and worked on the Underground Railroad with others right here in Knox County.
Even though Ohio was not a slave state, sadly, many opposed Anti-Slavery efforts in Ohio. Violent mobs surrounded our first church building, pelted it with rocks and eggs and disrupted the speakers with noises loud enough to be heard three miles away. The mobs also chased Anti-Slavery speakers out of town, and even tried to lynch our first speaker, none-other than Rev. W.T. Allen the debater at Lane Seminary who’d been invited to speak at our church by his classmate Rev. Higbee. 6 For future protection speakers were escorted by church members surrounding them as bodyguards. Members also stood guard outside to keep the building safe, one of them was Charlie Cooper the founder of Cooper Industries.
The local mobs were organized by a group of men who ominously called themselves The Meat Axe Club. 7 They reportedly called us racist epithets. We called ourselves church, Christians and followers of Jesus, and as such we also unflinchingly called ourselves Anti-Slavery. And to this day we proudly claim that history. And I have heard others in Knox County claim with pride the area’s Anti-Slavery history, particularly local involvement in the Underground Railroad.
Since 1895 the stained-glass windows on our west wall have, as far as I can tell, been the only marker in town of that proud heritage. The windows depict the Prophet Elijah and young King David as Black men. Below them is an inscription that reads “In memory of the founders of this church and their anti-slavery friends.” Those windows are remarkable, but they are inside. An area in front of the church is being prepared to hold a public bench honoring and remembering the church and area’s involvement in opposing slavery. The words on the bench will start with a part of Micah 6 that adorn our sanctuary wall “Seek justice, love kindness.” That quote will be followed by these words:
“In 1834 we began as an anti-slavery church working with others to oppose slavery and help courageous Black Americans escape slavery on the Underground Railroad as it ran through Mount Vernon. We continue to seek justice and love kindness; we pray others will too.”
It was illegal to help the escaping slaves, and dangerous to keep records, so local efforts on the Underground Railroad are sparsely recorded. But clear and convincing evidence does exist that citizens in this county, and in this church, were very much a part of love-drenched acts of justice secreting and aiding courageous Americans on the run from slavery. Why? Because slavery was –and is– awful, unGodly, immoral and certainly unChristian.
If you have not been to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati I highly recommend it, but brace yourself, the horrors of slavery are front and center. The first site is an actual Kentucky slave pen where men, women and children being marched to slave markets and masters were crammed in, shackled, abused and locked up for the night. It is a haunting and tearful place. In the Freedom Center there are many other haunting displays of cruelties, and evidence of the systemic brutality – and inhumanity to Americans legalized by states, sanctioned by courts and supported by secular and religious leaders and many citizens. Those displays make it abundantly clear why enslaved Americans sought freedom, and why other Americans helped them and how awful those in favor of slavery behaved.
The museum also evidences those other Americans aided in running an Underground Railroad to help brave men, women and children escape to freedom. Ohio was a big part of that effort. The escape routes, called “Freedom Trails,” branched out from the southern border of Ohio to form a vast web of routes all across the state to keep slave-catchers guessing and off the trail of those escaping.
Three “Freedom Trails” converged in Mount Vernon, they came from the areas around Sunbury, Granville and Utica. From Mount Vernon a “Freedom Trail” headed up to Townsend’s, Owl Creek Friends settlement a mile and half north of Fredericktown. Local Quakers – Friends– were involved in the county efforts! From Fredericktown the “Freedom Trail” split up into the Lexington and Belleville branches of the Underground Railroad. 8. Americans seeking freedom would walk, run, swim, boat and ride on wagons to get here – usually under the cover of night.
The Ohio “Freedom Trails” were not literally underground. They were above ground on roads and trails and waterways, and sometimes even train tracks. A vast network of Allies was in place to help “Conduct” people across the trails while others provided safe places to stop at called “Stations.” Rev. Edward Weed, our second pastor, was involved in that network while still at Lane Seminary in Cincinnati. 9 Rev. Weed and our church and its other pastors from the start were involved in that network right here in Knox County until slavery was outlawed in the 1860s.
Our church records actually have a rather rare recording of two of our folks acting as “conductors” on the “Freedom Trail.” One night in 1842 when a Meat Axe Club mob was busy disrupting an Anti-Slavery meeting that we were hosting, Rev. Elwell Mead wrote
“On that same night a load of 19 fugitives which had been brought from Appleton the night before in a double wagon by 12-year-old John Scribner, were taken on toward the North Star by Mr. Travis, under the cover of storm and darkness.” 10
A twelve-year-old, John Scribner, from this church, was a brave conductor on the Underground Railroad! As was an adult Mr. D. L. Travis! Three cheers for those two and this church and the many others in the area who dared to get involved!
Daily, across the nation, Allies did the dangerous work of aiding in the transport and secretly feeding and housing courageous men, women and children involved in the even more dangerous and courageous act of escaping slavery.
This church was not alone in the local efforts. I already mentioned the Quakers. Free Black citizens in the area were no doubt Allies too. I could only find four people identified in writing as station masters in Knox County and I want to lift those names up: Thomas Townsend, William Bonner and Eli and Rachel Nichols. 11 There’s also oral history that the St. Paul Episcopal Church basement served as a station, and the Curtis family from that church is rumored to have had stations at the Curtis Mansion, the Curtis crypt and the little Curtis house at the end of North Main Street. 12.
People acting as Christ’s hands and feet and voices seeking justice and loving kindness have very deep roots in this County–and in this church. It’s good for us to remember on this Anniversary weekend that “In 1834 we began as an anti-slavery church working with others to oppose slavery and help courageous Black Americans escape slavery on the Underground Railroad as it ran through Mount Vernon. We continue to seek justice and love kindness, we pray others will too.”
1. Mead, Elwell, “Historical Sketch” from The Manual of the First Congregational Church, Mount Vernon, Ohio 1924. Rev. Mead was the pastor at our church from 1902 to 1910. The text of his sketch is set out at our website: https://mvucc.org/about/church-history/; see also, Wikipedia “Come Outer.”
2. Lesick, Lawrence Thomas, The Lane Rebels (1980)” see, Mead; see also, “Lane Theological Seminary” Wikipedia. While Rev. Mead mentions forty rebels, a later more in-depth book, The Lane Rebels, by the historian Lesick, claims seventy-five– I have relied on that number.
4. I note that our church history has long claimed the first pastor B.W. Higbee was one of the Lane Rebels. He is not, however, among those listed as rebels in The Lane Rebels (see, footnote 92 page 157). He is also not mentioned in on-line Oberlin College history notes on the matter. Nonetheless B.W. Higbee does appear to have been in the Oberlin class with the rebels, as well as connected to them enough to bring Rev. Edwards and Rev. Allen to the church. Plus, our church documents clearly record that he was a Lane Rebel. It appears to me, then, that Rev. Higbee was a Lane Rebel and likely was left out of Lane’s lists. I note also that the Lane Rebel’s Pamphlet indicates that some of the rebels were not around to sign it in December of 1834 and that Rev. Mead’s “Historical Sketch” suggests Rev. Higbee and his wife were in Knox County in December and that Mrs. Higbee (we do not have her first name) was very ill at the time.
8. I obtained the information about the three converging trails from a map by Wilbur Siebert titled “Ohio’s Underground Trails” found in the book Mysteries of Ohio’s Underground Railroad (1951). There are also some details on the local “Freedom Trail” in a book by N.N. Hill called History of Knox County, p 505. During the 2020-2021 pandemic The Knox County Library’s branch in Mount Vernon, Ohio helped me find a number of documents on the Underground Railroad via internet conversations and requests, the map and the Hill’s page 505 were among those documents. I am grateful for the librarians’ efforts.
9. See, Lesick, at p 90
11. Fetters, Bette, “Underground railroad active in county,” Mount Vernon News, October 17, 1987 (lists the Nichols); Siebert, Wilbur, The Mysteries of Ohio’s Underground Railroads (1951), p 198 (lists Bonner).
12. A few years ago I was provided a tour of St Paul Episcopal Church by then Rector Fr. David Kendall-Sperry who pointed out where escaped slaves were reportedly hidden in the church’s basement. The following documents provided by the County Library mention the possible Underground Railroad connections to the Curtis mansion (on Roundtop Hill), the Curtis crypt (in Mound View Cemetery) and the Curtis House (at the end of N. Main Street): Knox County Visitor’s Guide, p 17 (undated); George, Stephen, Round Hill and Other Works Built by the Henry B Curtis Family, p 40.
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2021 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED