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Peacemaking Heritage Series: Joseph Bates Part III — The Advent Message in Slaveholding Maryland

Our third and final installment from the Autobiography of Joseph Bates relates incidents from the risky mission to preach the Advent message in the slaveholding South that he undertook in 1843, as the anticipated time of Christ’s return drew near.

Please consider what these passages suggest about the following:

  • Does the Second Advent message challenge the practice of slavery?
  • Or does it accommodate slavery by relieving the slaveholder of responsibility for making a change and anesthetize slaves with hope for the next life but not for the present?

Even with careful attention to text and context, the answers may not be simple. Comments welcome!


About this time I sold my place of residence, including the greater portion of my real estate, paid up all my debts, so that I could say once more that I owed “no man anything.” For some time I had been looking and waiting for an open way to go down South into the slaveholding States with the message. I was aware that slaveholders in the South were rejecting the doctrine of the second advent, and but a few months before had ordered Brn. Storrs and Brown from the city of Norfolk, Virginia; and I was told that if I went South the slaveholders would kill me for being an abolitionist. I saw there was some danger, but imperative duty and a desire to benefit them and unburden my own soul, overbalanced all such obstacles.

Bro. H. S. Gurney, now living in Memphis, Mich., said he would accompany me…. We reached the city of Annapolis, Maryland, by the way of Washington, and crossed the Chesapeake Bay through the ice to the central part of Kent Island, on which I had been cast away some twenty-seven winters before. At the tavern we found the people assembled for town meeting. The trustees of two meeting-houses who were present, were unwilling to open their doors for us, and intimated the danger of preaching the doctrine of Christ’s coming among the slaves….

On leaving Kent Island we passed along on the east side of the Chesapeake Bay, called the Eastern Shore of Maryland, to the county town of Centerville, about thirty miles distant, where we had sent an appointment to hold meetings. We chose to walk, that we might have a better opportunity to converse with the slaves and others, and furnish them with tracts which we had with us. On reaching Centerville we inquired for a Mr. Harper. On arriving at his store we presented our introductory letter, and were introduced to Judge Hopper, who was engaged in writing….

…Mr. Harper invited us and the judge to tea, and to spend the evening. The judge had a great many questions to ask us respecting our faith, and at about ten o’clock insisted on our going home with him to spend the night. Before reaching his house, which was about a mile out of town, he said, “Mr. Bates, I understand that you are an abolitionist, and have come here to get away our slaves.” Said I, “Yes, judge, I am an abolitionist, and have come to get your slaves, and you too! As to getting your slaves from you, we have no such intention; for if you should give us all you have (and I was informed he owned quite a number), we should not know what to do with them. We teach that Christ is coming, and we want you all saved.”

He appeared satisfied and pleased with our reply… (277-281)

At a place called “The Three Corners,” Bates and Gurney encountered a Mr. Hurt, who claimed to have seen them in a dream.

He stepped out and opened his gate, and I thought surely we shall be at the house soon. After a while we learned from him that it was three miles from his front gate to his house! His plantation was large, with a great number of slaves. He was a man of leisure, and had learned from some author peculiar notions about the book of Revelation. This was why he shook his head at my application, because of the opposite views. He and his wife entertained us a good part of the night, and until time for meeting the next afternoon, asking questions about the doctrine of the advent, the chart, etc. When Mr. Hurt’s carriage was ready, he apologized for his remissness in not asking us to address his servants (slaves). I felt relieved at this, as I would rather speak to them in the mixed congregation. But as we were getting into the coach, he said to his hostler, who was holding the reins, “Do you tell all hands to come to meeting this evening.” “Yes, massa.” “Don’t you forget–ALL OF THEM.” “No, massa.” This was cheering to us. We wanted them to hear with their master….

In the evening the gallery was crowded with colored people; unquestionably the majority of them were Mr. Hurt’s slaves. They listened with marked attention. Anything that would work deliverance from perpetual bondage was good news to them. The congregation appeared remarkably willing to hear…. (290-291).


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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