I’m Ready for My Close-Up

The first time I spoke in public on a Quaker-related topic was when I participated in the 2015 Quaker Genealogy & History Conference, “Working for Freedom: The Life of Levi Coffin.”

What goes around, comes around, it seems.

Recently I was approached by a small film production company, Elwin Studios, about appearing in their documentary Agents of the Underground Railroad. And once again, I’ll be talking about Levi (and Quakerism in general).

Other people who will be appearing in the documentary (including Quaker historians Tom Hamm and Max Carter) will bring much more to the table than I can on the subject. However, as a result of my research on Quakers in Cincinnati, I do have a few insights to share, such as the wariness that some Cincinnati Friends felt about Levi.

By the nineteenth century, Indiana Yearly Meeting (which in 1821 also encompassed Cincinnati Monthly Meeting) had a testimony against slavery. But being anti-slavery and being an abolitionist were not the same thing. Some Friends favored the idea of persuading slave holders to gradually manumit their slaves when they were able to do so. Some believed in colonization: since slaves in North America were originally taken from Africa, they ought to be sent to Liberia as a condition of their freedom. (The land for that republic was purchased by the American Colonization Society specifically for that purpose.)

For Levi, slavery was a moral abomination, and the only acceptable response was the immediate and total abolition of the practice, giving all slaves their freedom and the opportunity to live out their lives here in North America. Levi was also willing to work with any other religious or political group that shared his convictions. This made even some Quakers who supported abolition a little uneasy because some of those groups were willing to go to war over the issue–a position that many Friends were unable to take. Opposed as they were to slavery, they were equally opposed to war.

As a result of all this, Levi was a controversial figure here in Cincinnati. When he applied for membership in Cincinnati Monthly Meeting in 1858–more than ten years after his arrival in town–the committee appointed to visit with him was “united in judgment that the present is not a proper time to accede to his request.”

In 1862, when the Cincinnati chapter of the Contraband Relief Agency was formed, Levi was eager to help in their work of providing aid to the thousands of fugitive slaves who were flocking toward the advancing Union lines in the Mississippi River valley. However, the idea of accepting him into that organization provoked controversy among its members. Given Levi’s confrontational attitudes, the members of the chapter were concerned that embracing him might actually make the public less likely to support their cause. And although they did ultimately allow him to join their group, a disagreement about the education of the former slaves prompted Levi to instead become part of the Freedmen’s Aid Society.

One Friend writing from Spiceland, Indiana expressed consternation that Levi appeared to be actively working against the Contraband Relief Agency:

To one of our committee [Levi Coffin] said [the Contraband Relief Agency] was made up of Hicksites and Infidels. Now seriously, is it right that Friends of your Monthly Meeting should allow one of its members to charge under any circumstances A. M. Taylor, James Taylor, Murray Shipley, and others (for he knows you are not Hicksites) with being Infidels? More especially, should he be allowed to do so while travelling under pay as the agent of an association engaged in the same work you are?

I am truly sorry he acts as he does, and fear it will have a bad effect for the cause of the sufferers. Already I hear of those who are unwilling to contribute . . . and I am sure I don’t want to pay anything to hire Levi Coffin to denounce your Commission . . . still less to call my fellow Christian professors Infidels.

George Evans to A. M. Taylor, letter, March 26, 1863, Taylor Family Papers, Quaker and Special Collections, Haverford College.

Clearly, Levi was a complex figure: revered for his work in aiding more than 3,000 slaves escape to freedom via the Underground Railroad, yet a difficult personality among his fellow Quakers.

I look forward to being part of this documentary and contributing to a fuller understanding of Quaker perspectives on slavery and on Levi Coffin in particular.

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