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Westward Expansion and Development of Abolitionist Thought

      Greater agricultural productivity, increased growth in population in Virginia and other colonies, and growing industrialization led to the expansion of pioneer settlements beyond the Appalachian Mountains onto Kentucky's new frontier. As early as 1750, through the exploration of Dr. Thomas Walker and Christopher Gist in 1751, Kentucky's "unclaimed" lands were being explored.

      Another of Kentucky's early and possibly best known explorers, Daniel Boone departed his Yadkin River Valley home in North Carolina in 1771 to explore the Kentucky and Licking River Valleys, eventually settling in Kentucky in 1773. Primarily coming into the region as runaway slaves aided by Native Americans, as slaves to white explorers like Daniel Boone and Captain James Estill, and through manumission from their Virginia masters, Africans were among the first people to settle on the new Kentucky frontier.

      Encouraged through payment of Revolutionary War soldiers through the issuance of Kentucky land grants, settlement of Kentucky increased rapidly following the Revolutionary War. Kentucky became Virginia's Fincastle County December 7, 1776 and remained part of Virginia until officially gaining its statehood, June 4, 1792.

      Westward expansion onto new frontiers also brought expansion and change in religious and political thought. The Society of Friends (Quakers) in England was the first religious denomination to question the morality of human bondage. Slaveholders themselves, Quakers began to divest themselves of slaves in the 1750s. Those who found they could not do so, left the Society of Friends. By the nineteenth century, Southern Quakers had begun to move West to escape the culture of slavery.

      Both those Quakers who remained in the South and those who moved to the Midwest took responsibility for aiding ex-slaves and acquired a deserved reputation for assisting runaways. Far removed from the state supported Anglican and Congregationalist Church, a new "frontier" religion and religious leadership known as "evangelicals" began to emerge. The early lead taken by Kentucky evangelicals earned Kentucky a national reputation of producing outspoken religious opponents to slavery.

      The beginnings of what came to be known as "the Evangelical Religious Movement" in the United States can be traced to the first Great Awakening, led by American born minister Jonathan Edwards in New England (Upstate New York) and George Whitefield (South Carolina and Georgia) in 1734. Following fast-growing religious fervor generated by Great Awakening revivals and camp meetings, Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, Shakers, and others began to seek religious freedom in the West. One such congregation seeking freedom from Virginia's policy of state-supported, mandatory religious adherence was Baptist minister, Lewis Craig.

      In December 1781, Craig, often imprisoned in Virginia for his religious views, and Captain William Ellis, led five hundred members of their congregations from Orange and Spottsylvania counties in Virginia to Gilbert's Creek, Kentucky (Lancaster County). Members of the original church congregation included men, women, children, free blacks, and African slaves. This Craig and William's led congregation became known as "the Travelling Church."1 Although there are no anti-slavery sentiments attached to Lewis Craig, members of the Travelling Church went on to found several other Baptist Churches in Central Kentucky. This new church membership led to the establishment of black congregations and the founding of several anti-slavery churches.

      Religious fervor on the new frontier gave birth to the nation's Second Great Awakening from 1740 to 1790. This second flood of religious activism took place primarily in the South, led by multi-denominational, evangelical ministers from Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian congregations. In 1796, the Great Revival began in Logan County, Kentucky through the efforts of Presbyterian minister James McGready.

      On the heels of this religious fervor, the nation's largest Great Revival occurred at Cane Ridge, in Bourbon County, Kentucky August 8, 1801 led by Presbyterian minister, Barton Warren Stone.2 Despite the commanding influence of the Presbyterian Church, Methodist cannot be overlooked. American Methodist, led by Francis Asbury, became the first congregation in the United States to actively enforce anti-slavery sentiments as a condition of congregational membership. Methodists were organized in Kentucky in 1790.

      Under Asbury, the Methodist Church became the first church in America to write a policy against slave holding as a condition of church membership. Many Kentucky Methodist, following the lead of Asbury, participated in the Cane Ridge Great Revival, and called for Kentucky slaveowners to end their attachment to slavery in order to establish a more perfect union with God. African membership in the Methodist church far exceeded membership in any other evangelical denomination, actively establishing churches in North and South Carolina and New York as early as 1790.

      The evangelical religious movement had always offered Africans hope of freedom. Before 1667, baptized Africans in Virginia could seek freedom on the basis of their religious conversion. Nearly one thousand slaves were baptized at Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, VA between 1746 and 1768.3 Liberal membership guidelines, acceptance, and open participation in religious services, encouraged large numbers of women, free blacks, and African slaves to join evangelical congregations.

      Evangelical ministers, including those who preached at Cane Ridge, brought African slaves into their fold during the second half of the eighteenth century by offering hope of deliverance from the persecution of perpetual slavery. Many evangelicals and their followers openly denounced slavery. Some took their beliefs a step further by actively seeking its abolition.

      One of the most important outgrowths of the evangelical movement in Kentucky, was the formation of black congrega-tions headed by black ministers. Black congregations in Kentucky and free states, under the leadership of black ministers began to deliver openly antislavery messages, encouraging slaves to believe that freedom was possible in their lifetimes. The ministry of the Cane Ridge Great Revival, in addition to preaching salvation, also called for the abolition of slavery.

      As a result of the Great Revival ministry, many Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian members manumitted their slaves and sponsored black church congregations. By 1845, the First African Baptist Church was formally established by the Elkhorn Baptist Association in Lexington, Kentucky. By 1858, Kentucky had several noted African Baptist ministers with their own congregations, including Reverend Elijah W. Green of Mason County, Kentucky, and Pleasant Green Baptist Church 4 in Lexington.

      The growth of black churches in western and central Kentucky as well as the location of black hamlets is often credited as vital links in the Kentucky Underground Railroad network. On the eve of the Civil War, there were seventeen black churches in Kentucky; nine of them located in Louisville, which also housed the state's largest free black population. 5

      A split in the thinking of members of the Elkhorn Association over the issue of slavery occurred immediately following the Kentucky Great Revival. By 1807, a formal division had occurred between members of the Elkhorn Association, and those who split to form the "Baptized Licking Locust Association, Friends of Humanity," dedicated to preaching an anti-slavery gospel. Led by Kentucky abolitionist and Baptist ministers David Barrow and Carter Tarrant, the Baptized Licking Locust Association quickly developed an anti-slavery mission and church following. In addition to Carter and Tarrant, Kentucky's, anti-slavery Baptist ministers included the former Kentucky Governor James Garrard (1796-1804).6

      Members of various religious denominations joined Baptist efforts to end slavery in Kentucky. The most noted religious leadership who sought to legislatively end slavery in Kentucky included Presbyterian minister and founder of Transylvania University (1784 - approximately 1786), David Rice, and fellow Presbyterians Rev. John Gregg Fee, Rev. Robert J. Breckinridge, and Rev. John C. Young (President of Centre College 1830-1857). With the support of fellow Presbyterians, Rice attempted to legislatively end slavery in Kentucky by introducing an amendment to the 1792 Kentucky Constitutional Convention calling for the end of slavery and the manumission of all slaves. He was unsuccessful in this attempt, losing the vote by a margin of twenty-six for slavery and sixteen against.

      The State remained divided over the issue of slavery until the end of the Civil War in 1865. Prior to the Civil War, Kentuckians sought many remedies to rid itself of enslaved Africans and to resolve the issue of slavery. One proposed remedy included formation of the American Colonization Society.

      Kentucky's public opposition to slavery was carried out primarily through the work of the Kentucky Abolition Society and the Kentucky Colonization Society, the latter a branch of the National American Colonization Society. Founded in 1808, the Kentucky Abolition Society defined African slavery as "a system of oppression pregnant with moral, national and domestic evils, ruinous to national tranquillity, honor and enjoyment." 7 Advocating immediate emancipation for all African slaves held in bondage, the Kentucky Abolition Society organized local antislavery societies in Kentucky (eight were reported in 1827) and published the Abolition Intelligencer and Missionary Magazine.8

      The colonization movement enabled influential slaveholding -politicians like Henry Clay to favor sending free blacks and man-umitted slaves back to Africa, while allowing them to also distance themselves from supporting the principle of immediate abolition. Founded in 1816, the American Colonization Society appealed to Kentuckians who feared the presence of free blacks. The Kentucky Colonization Society, organized in 1829, absorbed colonizationist groups that surfaced as early as 1823. By 1832, over thirty such societies existed throughout the state. 9

      The Kentucky Colonization Society condemned slavery "as a great moral and political evil," while at the same time being composed primarily of conservative slaveholders who could not reconcile moral gain with the economic loss of slaves. Consequently, most slaves repatriated to Africa were often free blacks, newly manumitted slaves, the elderly, or infirm. Even with state and federal funding secured through the work of Henry Clay, from 1829 to 1859 the Kentucky Colonization Society repatriated only 658 black Kentuckians to Liberia. 10

      Clay later ran for national office, which included President of the United States. At the close of 1819, when the applica-tions of Missouri and Maine for admis-sion to statehood were before Congress, there were twenty-two states in the Union, eleven slave and eleven free. Slave states were Vir-ginia, Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Caro-lina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. The free states were Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.

      The political balance between North and South had been maintained by ad-mitting alternately (1802-19) slave and free states. Despite the three-fifths ratio, slave states held 81 votes in the House of Representatives against 105 votes held by free states. Through his skill as a negotiator, Clay received the title "the Great Pacificator" for successfully negotiating the final terms of the 1821 Missouri Compromise.

      Considered a "friend" to enslaved Africans, in August 1845, Cassius Marcellus Clay published a newspaper entitled, the True American. This anti-slavery newspaper suggested easing conditions for the enslaved and granting political equality to free Africans. These views were seen as dangerous and radical by Kentucky slaveholders who were already concerned with Kentucky's growing free black population.

      Public out-rage became so prevalent that Lexington authorities, armed with an injunction, seized Clay's press and transported it to Cincinnati. Clay continued to publish the True American from Cincinnati until mid-1846. It was Clay who gifted abolitionist John G. Fee with funds and land on which to live and establish Berea College. Presbyterian minister and abolitionist John Gregg Fee continually challenged Kentucky's courts. Unlike Cassius Clay, Fee favored immediate abolition and rejected colo-nization. "In whatever way we enter our protest against slavery," Fee wrote in 1847, "it must be for the good reason that it is sin against God."11

      After starting antislavery congregations in Bracken County, in 1854 Fee moved to Madison County where he established a church, interracial schools, and Berea College. Proslavery mobs harassed Fee and his supporters. Fee until they fled the state returning at the time of the Civil War to establish schools and a refugee camp at Camp Nelson in Jessamine County, Kentucky.

      The growing strength of the abolitionist movement in the North after 1830 threatened Kentucky's social and racial order. Such concern was intensified in 1833 when the Kentucky legislature outlawed the importation of more African slaves into the state for sale. In 1835, James G. Birney, denounced colonization, and organized the Kentucky Anti-Slavery Society.

      Proslavery Kentuckians successfully blocked his attempt to establish an anti-slavery newspaper in the state. In 1840 and 1844, Birney ran unsuccessfully for the presidency of the United States on the Liberty party ticket. Though proslavery politicians repealed Kentucky's Non-Importation Act in 1849, and that year more than 150 delegates, including Cassius M. Clay and John G. Fee, attended an antislavery convention in Frankfort. That year, emancipationist candidates in twenty-nine counties received ten thousand votes in statewide elections.12

  1. Information cited here taken from The Baptist of the Bluegrass: A History of Elkhorn Baptist Association, 1785-1985, by Ira (Jack) Birdwhistell, Berea College Press: Berea.
  2. After spending the years 1812-1814 in Tennessee, Stone returned to Kentucky, living in Lexington from 1814-19, becoming principal of the Rittenhouse Academy in Georgetown in 1819. After meeting Alexander Campbell in 1824, Stone sought unity among Christians through creation of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Frederick I. Murphy, The Kentucky Encyclopedia,1992:857.
  3. Becoming Americans: Our Struggle to be Free and Equal.
  4. Information on Pleasant Green obtained from Nancy C. Curtis, Black Heritage Sites in the South, The New York Press: New York, 1996:123.
  5. George C. Wright, 1992:3-5.
  6. Lowell H. Harrison, "Governor James Garrard," Kentucky Encyclopedia, 1992:365.
  7. Klotter, 114.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid, 115.
  11. Klotter, 114.
  12. Ibid.



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