The Monument Church Question Lingers

I finally bought and read a biography of John Brown (1800-1859) which has been on my radar for a few years.

Why the delay? Not due to a shortage of biographies about the radical Connecticut-born abolitionist who attacked the Harpers Ferry, Virginia armory and was hanged for insurrection leading up to the Civil War. In fact, many options became the problem. I wanted the “definitive” work – but how would I find it? Procrastination led to impasse, but nothing to lose sleep over.

Having chased many leads over time, I was reluctant to pull the trigger before a recent Amazon suggestion piqued my interest. Likely all about timing, it just caught me at the right moment. Further investigation convinced me I had finally found the right source. So, I bought a “very good” hardcover and dust jacket in a mylar cover.

The unmarked book came from the library of Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Herbert Donald (1920-2009), the biographer of other Civil War-era figures such as Abraham Lincoln and Charles Sumner. That validated him for me. Plus, dig this: the book I bought, To Purge This Land with Blood: A Biography of John Brown, was authored in 1970 by a UMass history professor named Stephen B. Oates, who died at 85 a couple of years ago in Amherst.

Had I been interested in Old John Brown as a UMass undergraduate in the early 1970s, I’m sure Oates would have been offering a course. Isn’t that what college professors do – offer classes that explore their books? But the timing was wrong: I was young and more focused on nighttime rambles, hitting baseballs, and tracking fly balls deep into the right-center gap against low, blinding late-afternoon sun. I found my way to Oates’ Brown biography a half-century later.

My interest in Brown wasn’t new, first sparked decades ago by Henry David Thoreau’s famous essay A Plea for Captain John Brown, written by the transcendentalist of Walden fame as the condemned man awaited execution in a Charlestown, Virginia jail cell. Thoreau differed with the mainstream press depiction of Brown as a dangerous madman, and wanted to correct the record in defense of a principled and defiant man willing to die for his belief that slavery was immoral and must end.

The Oates book taught me that Brown: 1) was a Mayflower descendant from a founding family of Windsor, Connecticut; 2) had many connections from a Torrington, Connecticut, upbringing to the town of my own Woodruff family’s New Hartford; 3) enrolled briefly in 1816 as a teen at Moses Hallock’s school in nearby Plainfield; and 4) became a radicalized abolitionist in the 1840s as a citizen of activist Springfield.

Situated along the Underground Railroad pipeline to Canada, Western Massachusetts’s largest city was then the home of aggressive antislavery organizations, with a strong following of rabid abolitionists who had free and open access to The Liberator, the antislavery newspaper published in Boston by William Lloyd Garrison.

I wanted to link this strong antislavery Connecticut Valley sentiment to contemporaneous “Free Soil Party” support in South Deerfield, some of it running through my Arms family lineage. So committed to the Free-Soil cause were some of these South Deerfield citizens who emigrated to Kansas Territory in the mid-1850s for the sole purpose of ruling the ballot box to establish a new slave-free state.

Off to the western frontier these local antislavery crusaders flocked by train, boat, and horse-drawn carriage. The move west was buoyed by funds from Worcester abolitionist Eli Thayer’s Emigrant Aid Societies – first of Massachusetts, then New England. Once there, these local folks and other political allies founded Lawrence, Kansas, today the liberal home of the University of Kansas.

These “northern rabblerousers” were not welcomed with open arms by slave owners and their militant allies from the bordering slave state of Missouri, many of whom rated progressive Massachusetts No. 1 on their enemy list.

From this collision of two strong-willed forces arose what has come to be known in American history as “Bleeding Kansas,” where the blood did indeed flow from both sides. There, on that slice of the Midwestern prairie, guerilla and open warfare broke out between Free-Staters and pro-slavery Border Ruffians on what is now recognized as the Civil War’s staging ground.

Although Old John Brown never lived in Lawrence, he wasn’t far away, settling in Osawatomie after his 1855 arrival from New York’s Adirondacks. It didn’t take long for him to build strong Lawrence alliances. He and his sons drank the antislavery Kool-Aid Lawrence was serving, and all were determined to defeat slavery in the new territory by any means possible, including violence.

Brown is most remembered in Kansas and Missouri for the vengeful, overnight, Pottawatomie Creek Massacre he led on May 24, 1856, a few days after a Missouri sheriff and his redneck vigilantes sacked Lawrence with fire and fury. Brown’s retaliatory raid left five pro-slavery farmers viciously hacked to death by anti-slavery sabers.

Nobody in Lawrence took a bigger hit during the 1856 annihilation than three Connecticut Valley brothers named Eldridge, all of them claiming strong mid-19th century ties to South Deerfield. As business partners, the Eldridge brothers Shalor W., Thomas B., and James M. built, owned, and operated the opulent Free-State Hotel – hailed as the finest hotel west of St. Louis, and hated by pro-slavery forces as a shining anti-slavery beacon.

All three Eldridge brothers had lived in South Deerfield at some point after 1845 and were well-known in Franklin County before moving to Kansas between 1854 and 1856. Their branch of the Eldridge family was from Southampton by way of West Springfield. Shalor was a railroad contractor, James married Mary Augusta Arms of South Deerfield, and Thomas owned a shoe and dry-goods store on East Main Street in Greenfield where the Garden Theater now stands.

Plus, sister Frances Ann Eldridge married “Augusta” Arms Eldridge’s stepbrother and cousin Leonard B. Arms, a US Deputy Marshal famously gunned down in 1860 by Free-Soiler John Ritchie in Topeka.

Something I have thus far been unable to confirm is my suspicion that political differences regarding the slavery issue, which came to the fore in the 1830s and lingered for two decades, were a factor involved in the contentious 1848 split in South Deerfield’s Congregational Church. A scholarly friend, who is far more interested in churches than I am and who has studied the church’s history, is not convinced. On the other hand, he admits that information concerning the dispute is vague, and likely intentionally so.

I was hoping Oates would help me track the pre-Civil War abolition movement and, more importantly, that of our slice of the Connecticut Valley. Though helpful, his information and that of South Deerfield church records leaves many unanswered questions that may never be resolved.

Slavery became a church issue throughout the North beginning in the 1830s, creating fissures and disagreement among parishioners. Few back then supported total freedom and citizenship for freed slaves. Some supported “colonization,” which meant freeing enslaved people and shipping them back to Africa, while others favored citizenship without the right to vote. Still others, even in Thoreau and Emerson’s progressive Massachusetts, were unapologetic white supremacists who preferred to ignore the slavery issue.

The hot moral issue of slavery clearly cast sparks that could, and did, according to Oates, split communities and churches – especially on the Western frontier of Ohio and Illinois, but also in New England and New York. This political undercurrent obviously existed in South Deerfield as well, and may have been a contributing factor that split its church.

Then again, maybe it was pure coincidence that outspoken abolitionist ministers Rev. Samuel Ware and Rev. Theophilus Packard, Jr. settled in the community. Ware (1781-1866) was approaching 60 and semi-retired when he came to town in 1837, plunking down a tidy $4,600 for the old, 90-acre Arms/Whitney farm on the east side of North Main Street, south of the Bloody Brook Monument. An avowed abolitionist, Ware was admitted to the church in 1838.

Maybe it was also a coincidence that in 1848 Ware sold to Shalor Eldridge the half-acre lot on which the Monument Church was built. Eldridge immediately flipped the lot for no profit to the Monument Church’s building committee.

Hmmmm?

According to the deeds, Eldridge was at the time residing in Northfield. So, he was out of sight, out of mind for the rapid-fire sales, and no stranger to Ware. Like Eldridge, the minister’s wife, Lucy Strong Parsons, grew up in Southampton, a small Hampshire County town where she would have known the Eldridges since childhood. Six years after conveying the Monument Church lot, Eldridge and family moved to the Kansas Territory for political reasons aimed directly at the emancipation of slaves.

I have to wonder if Monument Church pastor David A. Strong of Connecticut was also an abolitionist? Although I have thus far been unable to answer this question, it wouldn’t surprise me.

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