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Calvin Fairbank to Frederick Douglass, August 19, 1851


CALVIN FAIRBANK1Born in Wyoming County, New York, the Reverend Calvin Fairbank (1816–98) was a Methodist preacher and abolitionist in Jeffersonville, Indiana. There, he helped forty- seven fugitive slaves escape from Kentucky. Later caught and sentenced to 300 lashes, he also served a four-year prison term. Undeterred, Fairbank resumed his Underground Railroad activities. He was arrested again in 1852 and sentenced to fifteen years in a Kentucky prison for another attempted slave rescue. Finally, in early 1864, Kentucky’s acting governor, Richard T. Jacob, pardoned and released Fairbank, who subsequently returned to upstate New York. Calvin Fairbank, Rev. Calvin Fairbank during Slavery Times(1890; New York, 1969), 3, 157, 184, 186, 191; Siebert, Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom, 157–59. TO FREDERICK DOUGLASS

Williamson, [N.Y.] 19 Aug[ust] 1851.


I regret, sincerely, to see among anti-slavery people, and among those, too, who have either cut loose from all church on account of slavery, as well as among those who have at all times kept out the pale of the church on account of their peculiar differences upon fundamental principles of their religion, quite as much sectarianism as among any of the “American Church."2Many Garrisonians believed in a perfectionist religion, which was an outgrowth of second-century antinomianism. Antinomians believed that Christians were inherently unable to behave immorally and could therefore place themselves above secular law. During the revivals of the 1820s and 1830s some religious leaders envisioned an antinomian society in which mass acceptance of the Holy Spirit would lead to individual perfection, thus precluding the need for governmental institutions and nullifying laws that did not reflect the teachings of the Bible. Mayer, All on Fire, 224–26; Perry, Radical Abolitionism, 63–69. Our country has many anti-slavery hearts; but people have been driven from each other, and from the true issue, merely by sectarianism, as false as the lower regions to human rights. Go into a place, and the first question is, “Does he belong to a church of any kind?” “Is he a Methodist?” “Or is he a Baptist?” asks another. Another exclaims, “Why see, he has put up with that Garrisonian,” and they themselves “will not remove it with one of their fingers.”3Jesus describes the scribes and Pharisees, saying, “For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.” Matt. 23:4.

The church folks are too slow, too lazy, too don’t-care; neglect the slave almost entirely. Most of the Wesleyans,4The Methodist Episcopal church officially condemned slaveholding as sinful soon after the denomination was established in the 1780s. Inspired by the rise of immediate abolitionism in the 1830s, antislavery Methodist militants attempted to persuade the church to enforce that long-ignored discipline against southern slave owners. Encountering heavy resistance not just from southerners but also from northern conservatives in the church hierarchy, nearly 15,000 Methodist abolitionists seceded and founded the Wesleyan Methodist Connection in May 1843. The new sect embraced stringent anti-slavery principles and cooperated with other religious abolitionist organizations, especially the American Missionary Association. Wesleyan leaders frequently endorsed Liberty party candidates, producing occasional quarrels with the nonvoting Garrisonians. McKivigan, War against Proslavery Religion, 96–99. while they actually do but little more than the M. E. Church, discard me for sustaining the relation I do to a church with four thousand slaveholders,5The suspension of a slave-owning bishop provoked a sectional schism in the Methodist Episcopal church in 1844. Despite the secession of sixteen southern annual conferences, the Methodists took no stronger step to bar slaveholding members. Thousands of southerners from the border states, many of them slaveholders, consequently chose to remain in annual conferences affiliated with the northern Methodists. Lucius Matlack, History of American Slavery and Methodism (New York, 1849), appendix, 2; McKivigan, War against Proslavery Religion, 170–71. and refuse their support. — Those of the old organization, many of them, are equally particular through what channel I come, or refuse their support. What hair-splitting!


All want me to cast out devils in my own name,6Mark 9:38, adapted.and I a devil too. Have I not suffered for, or with the slave? Have I not proved that I am not a devil? Does any believe me one in person? Have I never been in jail? Now, Frederick, when I can see reasons for taking a different stand, I shall imitate the worthy, the noble example, so much like Frederick, act from my own convictions, not another’s.

Yours, in behalf of the slave,


PLSr: FDP, 28 August 1851.



Fairbank, Calvin




Yale University Press 2009



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