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Anti Slavery Movement

The Baptist Church in the Great Valley and the Anti-Slavery Movement

(Taken from A Social History of the Baptist Church in the Great Valley by Harold L. Twiss, which contains full documentation for this excerpt. The paper draws upon the church records, wills and probate inventories, United States Census records and other sources. A graduate of Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary and the University of Pennsylvania, Mr. Twiss worked for many years as an editor of religious books.)

The pastorate of Leonard Fletcher at the Baptist Church in the Great Valley from 1832 to 1840 is evidence that evangelistic activity is not antithetical to a strong concern for social action. Under his leadership more people joined the Baptist Church in the Great Valley than during any other decade of its history. One hundred eighty-six people joined during Fletcher's first year as pastor and one hundred one in his second year. Altogether, he baptized more than four hundred people in the eight years he served the church.

At the same time, Fletcher was also a key person in the formation of the Wilburforce Anti-Slavery Society. He made the motion for the organization of the Society at a meeting in the Glassley School. The list of constituent members included John and Deborah Beaver, John Jones, Hannah P. Jones, and George Phillips as well as Fletcher from the Great Valley church.

Unfortunately, not all in the church shared their sentiments. In July of 1837 a trustee of the church, Joshua Jones, refused the Wilburforce Society the use of a school room in his house but the society was offered the use of the school house on the grounds of the church. When some members of the church objected to this use of the school house, the meetings were held outside until Jones granted the use of his house for the meetings in September. In November of 1839 the Baptist school house and meeting house were again opened to the Society, but the church was still divided over the issue. The church denied a salary increase for Fletcher and he resigned as pastor. Some of the members of the church then withdrew to form, along with others, the Radnor Baptist Meeting on Conestoga Road in Radnor on February 20, 1841.

The Wilburforce Society then met in the building used by the Radnor church, formerly known as the Radnor Scientific and Musical Hall. The building itself was controversial and had a reputation as a "temple of free thought and infidelity." William Siter, its builder, who had recently been converted in the Baptist Church in the Great Valley where his wife was a member, conveyed the title to the hall to the newly organized Baptist church. One of the early guest speakers in the Radnor church was Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave and an outspoken advocate of abolition. An article in the June 9, 1860, issue of The Jeffersonian of West Chester cited a report from the Radnor church that the church had borne a strong witness against slavery.

Whatever its position on abolition, the Baptist Church in the Great Valley was open to the participation of African-Americans within its membership. The membership records note the accession of several members "of color" beginning with Harry Coats in 1762. Ten joined the church during Fletcher's pastorate. At least two of them, Mary Ann and Jane Small, were dismissed to join the Radnor church in 1841. Earlier, in 1819, Isaac Alexander had been dismissed to participate in the colonization program in Africa that led to the foundation of the nation of Liberia. The gravestone for Phyllis Burr in the Great Valley Baptist Cemetery reads, "Erected by the Great Valley Baptist Church, in memory of Phyllis Burr, who was born in Africa, brought to America in the Slave Ship \'Ganges\' and sold into slavery to pay for her passage and died April 18, 1872, aged nearly 100 years."

© Copyright Harold L. Twiss, 1998.

*"Wilburforce" was the contemporary spelling in the 1830-1860 period, but current usage prefers "Wilberforce" to identify the movement with the British anti-slavery activist William Wilberforce.