Image from: https://www.wbur.org/npr/377606644/gateway-to-freedom-heroes-danger-and-loss-on-the-underground-railroad
As I write this blog, news has broken that a group within the United Methodist Church, the denomination to which I belong and have served on church staffs for 27 years, has proposed that the church split over the issue inclusion of LGTBQ+ people.
A split has been in the works for a long time. The church has been so obsessed with the question that it has lost its sense of mission and, in the process, its connection to Jesus Christ.
But 2020 is not the first time Methodists have faced a major divorce. There was another great schism in the 1844.
The push for the abolition of slavery began with the Second Great Awakening, a cross-denominational and cross-racial revival starting in the 1790s, burning its way into the 1800s, and creating a growth spurt in Baptist and Methodists churches. The argument against the enslavement of people of color was rather simple: are not all one in Christ Jesus? But, as we know, there are plenty of verses about slavery in the Bible, and slaveholders latched onto these to support their economic system.
Much like today’s issue regarding LGTBQ+ people, the abolition movement simmered within churches and communities. Eventually, it blew up into a divisive social issue.
My character Maggie Beatty Blaine Smith was 23, a young married woman with a two-year-old daughter, when her church, the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) split over slavery in 1844. The pro-slavery faction aligned themselves with the Methodist Episcopal Church South, while the abolitionists remained in the MEC. Because the institution of slavery was primarily located in the southern states, the nation itself would split in less than 20 years.
By 1852, Maggie is a lonely, widowed boarding house owner. Supportive of the abolition movement, she sacrifices a little precious money to subscribe to a monthly newspaper, called The National Era. Her interest becomes a passion after The National Era prints a serialized version of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin in March of 1852. Like many other Americans, Maggie was “turned” by the novel’s description of the brutality of slavery.
Maggie long had been against slavery, but after reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she had become passionately abolitionist. In her eyes enslaved people were men and women and children of God. It was beyond her comprehension that one group of people would treat another as a commodity and not as fellow human beings. (“The Dundee Cake.”)
But she is not an activist. Not yet.
Later in 1852, she makes friends with Emily and Nate Johnson, a black couple involved in the Underground Railroad. But the Johnsons do not share this part of their life with her. Helping self-emancipators get to Canada is civil disobedience and comes with a hefty $1,000 fine (no small change in the 1800s) and six months’ imprisonment, They keep their “other life” a secret until January of 1860, when they finally invite Maggie and newspaperman Eli Smith into their activity. Maggie writes:
Shall I tell you a secret, dear Journal? I am breaking the law. Nate and Emily serve the Underground Railroad. When they shared this with Eli and me one night four months ago, we did the sensible thing – we joined them in their endeavor. When word comes through, Eli hangs a lantern by his print shop. Nate shepherds the escaped slaves through the darkness and into the shop. We have constructed a hiding place for them. We feed them, clothe them, and then send them on their way. With God’s grace, they will make it to Canada. (Saint Maggie).
Years after the book's publication, I feel that the tunnel between the boarding house and Eli’s print shop is a bit much. I’m not sure whether I said that Maggie and crew constructed the tunnel because I haven’t sat down and read the first book in its entirety in a while. Shame on me!
After Saint Maggie was published, I had the opportunity to delve further into the Underground Railroad and learned that a tunnel would have been rare. Most people working on the UGRR would have hidden self-emancipators in barns or in the house in “hidey-holes,” particularly in the cellar.
When Maggie and family are chased out of Blaineton in 1863, Eli arranges for them to sojourn in the Smith family home in Gettysburg. The house also has been a stop on the Underground Railroad and is still in use in 1863 to aid refugees and self-emancipators escaping the war. When Maggie arrives, she is given a tour of the hidey-holes, which include a secret cellar below the annex, panels in bedrooms on the annex’s second floor, and a hiding place in the attic of the older part of the house. Eli’s Quaker sister and brother-in-law have a farm seven miles to the north and hide escaped people in a secret room behind the barn hayloft or keep them in their house during the winter and hurrying self-emancipators into the attic when slave catchers are near. (Walk by Faith)
Maggie’s work with the Underground Railroad diminishes as the war wears on. And that part of her political activity comes to an end, but she is becoming increasingly political – like many women of her era.
Just for fun, let me leave you with a story, as told in Walk by Faith by Eli and sister Becky about a time slave catchers broke into their home in Gettysburg. Eli speaks first.
“One time we learned that slave hunters were coming through town. So we had our people hidden in the secret cellar. The men showed up at our door and demanded to search the house.”
“Thee ran to the annex bedroom,” Becky said with a laugh, “and threw thyself upon the bed, drew the quilts up to thy neck, and pretended to be ill!”
“I was moaning as if I were on my deathbed.” Eli chuckled. “I’m surprised the men believed me. I’m no actor.”
“I think thee frightened them off. We told them what ailed thee was catching.” Becky began to serve the cake. “They had no right to be in our house, but Mother was alone, and they forced their way in.”
Next blog: Maggie the activist: Politics
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder