How Abby Kelley Turned Seneca Falls on Its Ear Five Years Before the Seneca Falls Woman's Rights Convention

The following is from a presentation given by Judith Wellman, Professor Emerita, State University of New York at Oswego, at the Women's Rights National Historical Park in celebration of the M'Clintock House Grand Opening.

May 29, 2004

Abby Kelley, outspoken Garrisonian abolitionist, came to Seneca Falls in 1843. She needed a large space in which to give her lectures, but none of the churches would have her. That was why she found herself at 5:00 o'clock one Sunday afternoon in August 1843, speaking to a crowd gathered in the orchard around Ansel Bascom's house on the corner of Ovid and Bayard Streets on the south side of the Seneca River.

The meeting opened with a reading from the book of Isaiah. Jabez Matthews, a member of the Presbyterian Church, led an antislavery hymn. Then Abby Kelley rose. She asked for "a season of silence." And then she began to talk. This nation, she charged, is guilty of slavery. It is a sin. Your churches are connected with slavery, and they are guilty of that sin. They are not Christians if they are slaveholders, if they steal and sell men, women and children, if they rob cradles. Northern churches were as guilty, in fact, as southern slaveholders, since northerners had the majority population and could make things right. That includes your Presbyterian Church, she went on. I happen to know something of your Mr. Bogue, the pastor of that church. Where is your Bogue today? Is he not connected with the South? Is he not in full fellowship with proslavery churchmen?

These proslavery persecutions today follow the same spirit of persecution that existed in former ages. Mr. Bogue would see me burn at the stake, if he had it in his power, or murdered as abolitionists had been at the south.1 Afterwards, Jonathan Metcalf admitted that "she bore pretty hard & severe on the northern churches."2

In Seneca Falls as elsewhere, value-oriented institutions--churches, political parties, and reform organizations--helped control cultural conflict. When Abby Kelly came to town, she forced people to make choices. Should they maintain their commitment to community stability? Or should they promote their own moral values? Abby Kelley's visit prompted many people in Seneca Falls to declare their commitment to equal rights for African Americans and, yes, equal rights for women, five years before the 1848 woman's rights convention.

Passionate debate over Abby Kelley's speech was symptomatic of larger turmoil in Seneca Falls, centered in local churches, which began to unravel in 1843. All of the splits had their roots in religious enthusiasm. They took, however, two main forms. One was the Millerite movement. Followers of William Miller, reading the books of Revelation and Daniel, believed that the end of the world was coming in October 1843. Many of them walked out of the Baptist Church, and a few others left the Methodists. Abolitionism itself, personified by Abby Kelley, split those churches that Millerism left intact. Attacking churches and government as proslavery, Kelley created in 1843 an anti-slavery revival.

Abby Kelley had spoken in Waterloo the year before, in August 1842, and the Seneca Falls Democrat reported her comments under the headline of "Treason! Treason!!!" When William Lloyd Garrison himself spoke at the Waterloo Court House in Waterloo in November 1842, he advocated, said the Democrat, "all his unpopular and obnoxious doctrines . . .such as non-resistance, the woman-question, anti-church and anti-clergy views." By promoting such ideas, the Democrat argued, Garrison "is not only insulting the good sense of every true abolitionist, but . . .he is materially retarding the abolition of slavery."3

Abby Kelley thought otherwise, and in August 1843, she set out to convert Seneca Falls residents from their moderate views to an abolitionism that encompassed disunion, come-outerism, and woman's rights. She was largely successful with large numbers of people.

Kelley held six meetings in Seneca Falls that first week in August. Three convened outdoors before the Baptists finally invited her into their meeting house, which she packed to overflowing. "'Tis a stubborn place," she thought, but people told her that "there was never such a general awakening on any subject in the place." Opponents tried to break up the crowds; someone threw a rotten egg. Seneca Falls was a temperance town, however, and without liquor to fuel their rage, the rowdies quickly lost their enthusiasm. Women in Seneca Falls, with Kelley's help, organized an antislavery fair and made "a handsome sum of money" to support more abolitionist lecturers.4

Seneca Falls "is stirred to its deepest foundations and henceforth we shall have a permanent foothold here," Kelley wrote on August 13. "There is not--or I had better say there was not," reported Kelley, "when I came to the Falls . . .one person really worthy [of] the name abolitionist. There are several now, who I think will soon leave their churches."5 While she probably overstated her influence, she did convince many citizens to look at Garrisonian abolitionism-and its corollary of woman's rights--in a new light.6

Kelley's converts confronted local churches with a struggle for their very existence. Not all of them survived intact. At issue was the locus of power. Everyone agreed that God was the ultimate authority. But did God's voice come through church officials? Or did God speak directly to each person?

Immediately after Kelley's lectures, the Presbyterian Church conducted perfunctory inquiries about members who had attended. They were "satisfied with any kind of apology," reported Ansel Bascom, "& put no body upon trial."7

The conflict, however, could not be contained. It came into the open in the vestibule of the new Presbyterian Church on the first Sabbath of October 1843. There, Presbyterian Rhoda Bement confronted (privately, she avowed) Mr. Bogue with a grievance. He had, she said, ignored antislavery notices that she had laid on his desk that morning (and the week before, too). What began as a conversation ended in a shouting match, overheard by everyone. According to Bement, Bogue denied that he had seen any notices and accused Bement of being "very unchristian, very impolite and very much out of your place to pounce upon me in this manner." "I told him I thought differently," Bement responded. "I thought I had a right to put the notices on the desk & to ask him why he didn't read them."

"You seem to doubt my veracity, the truthfulness of what I say," Bogue replied.

"Mr. Bogue I'll tell you why I doubt it," said Bement. "You told me you was an abolitionist & I supposed if you was an abolitionist you would read abolition notices that were bro't here. I bro't one last Sabbath and it wasn't read."8

According to Bogue, Bement "had done wrong & should be punished." True to his word, Bogue convinced Seneca Falls Presbyterians to put Rhoda Bement on trial. Other charges against Bement suddenly surfaced. Not only had she acted in an unchristian manner towards Reverend Bogue in the vestibule. She had also refused to attend communion or other meetings when Reverend Bogue officiated. Nor, it seemed, had she taken communion wine (although she had eaten communion bread) for many months. And finally, she had, "in a conspicuous manner" attended the "exhibition made by Abby Kelley on the first Sabbath of Aug. last . . .while the church to which Mrs. Bement belongs were attending upon divine service."9

Bement's trial brought dozens of people to the witness stand, and kept the whole village in turmoil for two full months. Manuscript minutes of the proceedings filled sixty pages in the church record book. Seneca Falls riveted its attention on temperance, abolitionism, and women's rights. Some of the testimony must have made Bogue's supporters regret that they had ever raised these issues.

As to the wine, Bement argued in her defense that it was not pure "juice of the grape;" it seemed contaminated by "alcohol or some kind of drug"; and it was too strong for a person with temperance principles. Others in the church supported her view. Delia Matthews testified that "the last time I partook of the wine it was very offensive; it was very strong alcoholic wine. I have been absent the last two communions and at the two previous communions I refused to partake of it." Jonathan Metcalf reported that the Methodists saw no need to serve wine as their communion drink. For the past year, they had successfully used unfermented grape juice, boiled and diluted.10

Most of Bement's trial focused on Kelley's abolitionism, and Bement reserved her strongest defense for the abolitionist firebrand: "Exhibitions made by Abby Kelly!" she exclaimed. "Is it right? Is it honest? So to misname a christian discourse, a gospel lecture . . . showing christians their duty to carry the glad tidings of liberty & salvation to 2 1/2 millions of human beings held in worse than Egyptian bondage, & that we of the north are the slaveholders."11

Opponents viewed Kelley's speech differently. They were particularly outraged by a pledge that Kelley had urged her hearers to sign. This pledge was probably a version of the "Tea Total Pledge" that Kelley had used throughout upstate New York. Intended to be provocative, it accurately summarized the radical abolitionist position. In it, signers agreed that slavery was "a heinous sin and crime, a curse to the master and a grievous wrong to the slave." "We will never vote for any candidate for civil office, nor countenance any man as a Christian minister, nor hold connexion with any organization as a Christian church," signers agreed, unless political parties and churches refused to support "any provision of the Constitution of the U.S. in favor of slavery," publicly pledged themselves to "immediate and unconditional emancipation," disavowed all fellowship with those who claimed slaves (abolitionists would not agree that anyone could actually own another person) or with those who voted for "slave-claimants or their abettors." Finally, signers of the pledge agreed not to support those who might attempt to put down forcible slave resistance.12

Abby Kelley thought this pledge to be "the greatest aid of any measure I have ever adopted, in producing agitation. It throws corrupt politicians and sectarians into most delightful spasms."13

The pledge, and the trial testimony about it, certainly made Bogue's supporters squirm. When Fanny Sackett was asked why she did not sign the pledge, she confessed that "I thought I would be bound to withdraw from the church & did not like to do so." Ansel Bascom, one of Bement's supporters, heard her make an even stronger statement: "I considered that it required those who signed it to come out of all pro-slavery churches, and I considered this a pro slavery church." Bascom reported that one of the members of the Session remarked that "the poison has gone deeper than the surface." For Cornelia Perry, Kelley's talk was the first abolitionist discussion she had ever heard. She had never considered the question much before, she confessed. "Our ministers had never told us anything about it & I had supposed there was no very great sin in it." Bascom wrote gleefully to Kelley afterward that "this was supposed by some to be a severer rebuke than any given by Abby Kelley herself."14

Along with abolitionism, woman's rights were at issue in this trial. In her challenge to male religious authority, Bement provided a powerful role model; ten women followed her to the witness stand. Men as well as women focused on gender issues. Authorities asked Jabez Mathews whether he considered it proper and "clearly established in the Bible," "for a female to call a promiscuous meeting for the purpose of addressing them on Moral & Religious subjects?" even when it was "contrary to the established sentiment of the church to which they belong." Mathews replied, "I believe it is."15

On January 30, 1844, the Session found Bement guilty of "disorderly and unchristian conduct." Bement refused to apologize. "I have but one thing to say," she told her judges: "For if I be an offender or have committed any thing worthy of death I refuse not to die; but if there be none of these things whereof these accuse me, no man may deliver me unto them--I appeal not unto Caeser but unto God."16

Presbyterians in Seneca Falls sustained Reverend Bogue's good name, but they paid a price. They lost not only the Bements but also other abolitionist members. Jeremy and Rhoda Bement left Seneca Falls for Buffalo, where Jeremy died of cholera in 1849. Daniel W. Forman, abolitionist elder, found a more congenial spiritual home among the Wesleyan Methodists. Sally Freeland Pitcher and Harriet Freeland Lindsley joined him.17

Abolitionist tensions were magnified so intensely in the Seneca Falls Presbyterian Church because, although officially Presbyterian, it was in fact "presbygational." Many members were Congregationalists by tradition and choice. Emphasizing local control and individual conscience, they were receptive to abolitionism in a way that the dominant Presbyterian hierarchy was not.18 The odyssey of Jabez and Delia Matthews illustrates this pattern. Jabez Matthews supported Kelley's right to speak publicly, as a woman and an abolitionist, in Seneca Falls in 1843. He and his wife, Delia, left Seneca Falls in 1846 to become Presbyterians in Prattsburg, New York, and then in Waterloo. When they finally returned to Seneca Falls, however, they joined the reorganized Congregationalists. Ultimately, the Matthews remained faithful to the Congregational tradition.19

Thanks to Abby Kelley, people in central and western New York had a clear chance, five years before the woman's rights convention, to think about just how far women's rights ought to go. Some of them were ready to say, with Sarah Grimke, "Men and women were created equal; they are both moral and accountable beings, and whatever is right for a man to do, is right for a woman." Such thoughts made more orthodox thinkers nervous and even angry. What would these impractical reformers think of next?

Mobilization of abolitionist networks would bring dozens of supporters to the Seneca Falls women's rights convention in July 1848. As early as 1843, however, the stage for the Seneca Falls convention had been set, the supporting cast picked, and the first tentative rehearsals had begun.

1Reconstructed from testimony given in the trial of Rhoda Bement in the Presbyterian Church, reprinted in Glenn C. Altschuler and Jan M. Saltzgaber, Revivalism, Social Conscience and Community in the Burned-over District: The Trial of Rhoda Bement (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1983), 109-123.

2Jonathan Metcalf quoted in Altschuler and Saltzgaber, Revivalism, Social Conscience and Community, 113.

3Democrat, May 3[?], 1842; August 11, 1842; November 24, 1842.

4Abby Kelley to Stephen Foster, August 13, 1843, Abby Kelley Foster Papers, AAS; Abby Kelley to Maria Weston Chapman, August 13, 1843, BPL; B [Ansel Bascom] to William Lloyd Garrison, Seneca Falls, October 30, 1843, printed in the Liberator November 24, 1843.

5Abby Kelley to Stephen S. Foster, August 13, 1843, Abby Kelley Foster Papers, AAS

6Abby Kelley to Stephen Foster, August 13, 1843, Abby Kelley Foster Papers, AAS.

7Ansel Bascom to Abby Kelly, February 16, 1844, Abby Kelley Foster Papers, Worcester Historical Society.

8Testimony of Rhoda Bement before a committee appointed to visit her, recorded in minutes of the Session, October 13, 1843, Records of First Presbyterian Church of Seneca Falls, printed in Altschuler and Saltzgaber, Revivalism, Social Conscience, and Community, 91-93.

9Charges brought by Alexander S. Platt and "Brother Race" and recorded in session minutes on December 11, 1843, Altschuler and Saltzgaber, Revivalism, Social Conscience, and Community, 96-97; Bogue's comments, as they appeared in trial testimony, Altschuler and Saltzgaber, 128.

10Altschuler and Saltzgaber, Revivalism, Social Conscience, and Community, 101, 106-108.

11Altschuler and Saltzgaber, Revivalism, Social Conscience, and Community, 101-102.

12This version of the pledge was introduced at the Syracuse antislavery convention, held November 22-24, 1842, "Interesting Report of the Anti-Slavery Convention," Liberator, December 30, 1842. Dorothy Sterling, Ahead of Her Time, 168, noted that, although this pledge was adopted at the American Anti-Slavery Society meeting in May, 1843, even so committed an abolitionist as Lydia Maria Child, editor of the National Anti-Slavery Standard, found it objectionable.

13Liberator, May 5, 1843.

14121, Bascom to Kelly, February 16, 1844.

15116-117. For a brief biography of Samuel Gridley, see Portrait and Biographical Record, 446-7.

16Altschuler and Saltzgaber, Revivalism, Social Conscience, and Community, 139-140; Bascom to Kelly, February 16, 1844, AAS.

17Daniel W. Forman was mentioned in minutes of a Trustees' meeting, April 1, 1850, in "Book No. 1. The Property of the First Wesleyan Methodist Church, Seneca Falls, N.Y."; Altschuler and Saltzgaber, 83, 97, 140; Seneca Falls Democrat, October 31, 1839; November 21, 1839.

18History of Seneca County (Ensign and Everts), 113-114; Wellman, Grassroots Reform in the Burned-over District of Upstate New York.

19Grimke, Letters on the Equality of the Sexes, 122-23.