Peacemaking Heritage Series | Gerrit Smith - Doing "more for the cause of the slave" as a Millerite


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Gerrit Smith (1797-1874; pictured with James McCune Smith), one of the most influential and mercurial figures in the anti-slavery movement, became fully convinced by William Miller’s teaching that according to biblical prophecy, Christ would return “about 1843.” An extraordinarily wealthy landowner in upstate New York, Smith used his means to establish an interracial utopian community in Peterboro, which won high commendation from black leaders. Harvard University scholar John Stauffer writes:

The black writer Martin Delany considered him one of only two white abolitionists he had ever met who habitually consulted blacks and sought our the opinions and perspectives. Henry Highland Garnet, another friend and black radical, lived with Gerrit Smith briefly in 1848 while teaching near Smith’s home in Peterboro, and concluded: “There are yet two places where slaveholders cannot live – Heaven and Peterboro” (The Black Hearts of Men, p. 15).

Stauffer’s book, The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race, tells the story of the close friendship and working alliance between Smith (pictured here standing in the middle, with F. Douglass, front right) and two other black abolitionists, Frederick Douglass and James McCune Smith, along with John Brown. In it, Stauffer describes the fervor with which Smith and his wife Nancy embraced the second Advent message:

As 1843 approached, the Smiths and thousands of others in the Burned-Over District became increasingly expectant that a literal heaven on Earth would commence with the apocalyptic end to sin followed by Christ’s second coming. In February 1843 Gerrit chastised a minister for not having “a clear vision” of “the Second Advent of Our Lord”: “The primitive Christians had the Second Coming continually before their eyes. Why should it not be such with modern Christians,” especially when “the present year, in the judgment of thousands of holy men and women, is the last year of time”? The Smiths faithfully read the Midnight Cry, the Millerite organ, and in January 1843 Gerrit wrote its editor Joshua Himes, to say that its message “has become the uppermost subject in our thoughts” (p. 105)

Stauffer’s research on Smith has led him to join other recent scholars, such as Douglas Strong and Anna Speicher, in re-assessing the relationship between Millerism and social ethics:

Historians typically view Millerites as quietists who stood aloof form social-reform institutions. Yet most Millerites were active reformers – even and the height of their millennial expectations – and many of them, like the Smiths, remained committed abolitionists. Millerites can be seen as quietists only in the sense that they tended to distance themselves from institutional reform organizations. Like many other radicals, they sought to “come out” from corrupt institutions and churches and tended to rely on individual and local (rather than national) efforts to reform society. During Gerrit’s Millerite phase, he distanced himself from the national reform organizations and focused his energies on his immediate community….

…[He] founded the nonsectarian and fully integrated Church of Peterboro, in part because his Presbyterian church refused to endorse abolition and racial equality. He established another nonsectarian and integrated church at nearby Oswego. He also corresponded frequently with Southern planters, in the hopes of convincing them to liberate their slaves. And he began to purchase the liberty of slaves. All in all, he felt that these efforts “do more for the cause of the slave than our antislavery organizations have ever done – and they have done much” (106-107).

Into the early 1840s Smith remained committed to pacifism, even while grappling with the possibility that violence in a righteous cause might be justifiable. Stauffer discusses a letter Smith sent to fellow reformer Henry Clarke Wright in 1839:

He [Smith] acknowledged that man friends thought he was “tending” toward an acceptance of violence, but he clung to the principle of peaceful means. He thought the New Testament offered the primary justification for peace, and he paraphrased Christ by saying: “’My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews.’” Since “fighting was contrary to the mind of Christ, when He was on earth, it must be so now,” Smith added (109).

According to Stauffer, the Great Disappointment of 1844 “contributed to Smith’s acceptance of violence: when the new dispensation failed to materialize, he felt driven to play a more active role in bringing it about” (109). Fifteen years later Smith was among the “secret six” conspirators behind John Brown’s momentous raid on Harper’s Ferry that indirectly sped the abolition of slavery by triggering a war that cost over 600,000 lives. ____

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.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/315