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Peacemaking Heritage Series: Joseph Bates — “A Decided Stand On the Side of the Oppressed”

Biographer George Knight calls Joseph Bates (1792-1872) “the real founder of Seventh-day Adventism.” A sailor, P.O.W. during the War of 1812, and eventually captain of a merchant vessel, Bates left the seafaring life behind in 1827. He became absorbed in the religious revivalism and social reform movements influential in American society in the decades prior to the Civil War.

Though his parents were Congregationalists, Bates chose to join the Christian Connection church in his home town of Fairhaven, Massachusetts, which “took the Scriptures for their only rule of faith and practice, renouncing all creeds” (Autobiography of Elder Joseph Bates, 204). On the same day that he was baptized in 1827, he began organizing a local Temperance Society that became part of the Massachusetts State Temperance Society.

In the following excerpt from his Autobiography, Bates describes how his interest in reform extended to the anti-slavery movement, and his discontent narrow approach of some the religious and moral reform movements. He makes the important contrast between the gradual emancipation and return to Africa program of the influential American Colonization Society (ACS) and the radical abolitionism he embraced. Led by William Lloyd Garrison, editor of the Liberator, the abolitionists called slavery a sin and demanded that emancipation begin immediately. They denounced the ACS as a respectable cover for indefinite extension of slavery and as part of an agenda to rid America of a free black population.

I now enjoyed the privilege of reading some of the periodicals of the times, especially those on religion and morals. . . . I also became much interested in the work of the American Tract Society, which was organized in Boston, Mass., in the year 1814, and was embracing all the evangelical denominations in the United States. I read with pleasure, and helped to circulate many of their tracts on religious subjects and temperance reform; but my interest began to wane when they manifested a determination not to publish any tracts in favor of the down-trodden and oppressed slave in their own land, when they were solicited by antislavery men so to do. It became manifest that their professed unbounded benevolence embraced the whole human race, of all colors and complexions, except those who were suffering under their task-masters, and perishing for lack of religious knowledge within the sound of their voices, in their own churches, and by their firesides. Such inconsistency rests heavily on the managers of the society.

About this time I began also to read the African Repository, the organ of the “American Colonization Society,” organized in the city of Washington, D. C., 1817….

The subject was new to me, having had but little knowledge of it while following the sea. For awhile it appeared that the movers in this work were honest in their declarations respecting the free people of color, and the abolition of slavery in the Union. But when antislavery societies began, and were being organized, from 1831 to 1834, it became evident that the members of these colonization societies were the worst enemies of the free people of color, and clearly manifest that they labored to perpetuate slavery in the slave-holding States, and manifested the most bitter opposition to antislavery men and measures….

I sold my place of residence in the year 1831, and was occupied much of the time in 1832 in locating my dwelling-house and outbuildings on my little farm, and was also associated with three of my Christian friends in building the Washington-Street meeting-house. In 1831 it was stated that three thousand temperance societies were organized in the United States, with three hundred thousand members. (See “Haskell’s Chronological View of the World,” p. 247.) Thus in four years–or from 1827–temperance societies had progressed from our small beginning in Fairhaven. Many ships were also adopting the temperance reform.

About the close of 1831, and commencement of 1832, antislavery societies began to be organized again in the United States, advocating immediate emancipation. As the work progressed, antislavery advocates were maltreated and mobbed in many places where they attempted to organize or hold meetings to plead for the poor, oppressed slaves in our land. Colonization societies and their advocates were foremost in this shameful work, as any one may learn by reading William Jay’s “Inquiry into their Character and Tendency.” All their declarations of benevolence for the free people of color, and ardent desire to benefit the poor, oppressed slaves, and finally save our country from the curse of slavery, vanished like the morning cloud and early dew when reading of their disgraceful acts of violence in the city of New York and other places, to shut out the pleadings of humanity for the down-trodden and oppressed slave. The New York Commercial Advertiser and Courier and Enquirer were then among the best friends of colonization and slaveholding.

I then began to feel the importance of taking a decided stand on the side of the oppressed. My labor in the cause of temperance had caused a pretty thorough sifting of my friends, and I felt that I had no more that I wished to part with; but duty was clear that I could not be a consistent Christian if I stood on the side of the oppressor, for God was not there. Neither could I claim his promises if I stood on neutral ground. Hence, my only alternative was to plead for the slave, and thus I decided.

In our religious meetings we talked and prayed, remembering “them that are in bonds, as bound with them.” Heb. 13. Some were offended, and some feared disunion. Notwithstanding the conflicting views and feelings in our midst, there were some in the churches who held to the principles of antislavery. And as the work advanced during the years 1832 to 1835, in which there was much contention from all quarters of the Union about this matter, a call was made for a meeting, in which about forty citizens of Fairhaven came together and organized the Fairhaven Antislavery Society, auxiliary to the New England Antislavery Society. This drew down the wrath of a certain class of our neighbors, who also called opposition meetings, in which they passed resolutions denouncing us in very severe terms; not for the principles which we had adopted in our constitution did they do this, for they were not contrary to the constitution of the United States; but because we had united together to plead for the abolition of American slavery, which they declared unconstitutional and very unpopular. Threats were often made that our meetings would be broken up, etc., but fortunately we were left to go onward.

One of our members, on going to Charleston, South Carolina, was arraigned before the authorities of the city, charged with being a member of the Fairhaven Antislavery Society. To save himself from being dealt with in their way, as he afterward declared, he renounced his abolitionism. But opposition was more clearly manifest in the North, where societies were continually organizing, than in the South.

William Lloyd Garrison, editor of an antislavery paper called The Liberator, published in Boston, Mass., was heralded in many of the periodicals of that time (1835) as a most notorious abolitionist. Rewards, some as high, I think, as fifty thousand dollars, were offered for his head! The citizens of Boston, in and about Washington Street and vicinity, where the antislavery meetings were held, became most furiously excited, and assembled on a certain afternoon around the building which they learned he occupied, and pursued him to a carpenter’s shop, where he had fled from them, and brought him forth to the assembled multitude in the street, and placed a rope around his neck, to put an end to his life. Some of his friends, who were watching their movements, seeing his imminent danger, rushed around him, assuming in the confusion to engage with them, by laying hold of the rope so as to keep it from tightening around his neck, while some of the mob held the other end of the rope, and all rushed furiously, with hallooing and shouting, along the street, leaving the great body of the assembled multitude of “gentlemen of property and standing,” listening with breathless anxiety to learn what was being done with their victim. Meantime the mob and Mr. Garrison’s friends had continued running on unrestrained, until they found themselves at the portals of Leverett-Street jail. Once there, by some measures of his friends, the jail was opened, and Mr. Garrison, to the astonishment of his wicked persecutors, was placed out of their reach; nor would the jailer bring him forth without orders from the law-abiding officers. As soon as the storm abated, Mr. G. was honorably released, and resumed his position, again pleading for the abolition of American slavery. The proslavery papers of Boston, in attempting to remove the stain and disgrace of this uncivilized work from the capital of the pilgrims, and a portion of its citizens, labored hard to prevent its being recorded as the work of a mob, and they declared that the people assembled on that occasion were “gentlemen of property and standing.”

Previous to the foregoing occurrence, and while the subjects of antislavery and proslavery were agitating the Union, a wonderful phenomenon occurred in the heavens, which caused consternation and dismay among the people, namely, the stars falling from heaven!… (231-238)

What impact would Bates’ acceptance of the message proclaimed by William Miller about the Advent near have on his anti-slavery activism? That will be the subject of our next “Peacemaking Heritage” installment.


Doug Morgan teaches history at Columbia Union College. He received his PhD from the University of Chicago and is the author of Adventism and the American Republic: The Public Involvement of a Major Apocalyptic Movement (2001).

This series is cross-posted at his Peace Messenger blog.

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