New York City – A fine autumn day in 1843
I was still feeling a bit weak that first Day morning, after several days in bed with a bilious fever. But I was now better, and the weather in New York was fair.
My good wife agreed. “Jacob, a walk to Meeting would likely do thee good. It is only four blocks to Rose Street, after all.”
Several men Friends were milling around near the broad meetinghouse steps, on their way into the building. But one lingered, not going in. His tall figure was unmistakable even though his grey coat and broadbrim hat were like all the others.
It was Simon Goodloe, and he was standing on the top step, looking over the rest, evidently waiting for someone. And that someone must have been me, because as soon as he recognized me came down the steps, his long legs moving like those of a graceful grey crane, and extended his hand.
“Jacob Hicks, I heard thee was ill,” he said, shaking my hand.
NOTE: While this story is fiction, much of it is drawn from actual history. The three Friends who were disowned were real persons, and shared that fate. The popular minister George White was likewise real, as was Stephen S. Foster. And Rose Street Meeting was real too. The Meeting — and Rose Street — are gone now, but at the time of this story Rose Street ran near Wall Street, and past the site of New York City’s City Hall.
“I’m better,” I answered, “but grateful to be here.”
“Good, good” he said, and I could tell from the repetition that asking after my health was a lead-in to something else.
“Um, I wonder if thee’s seen any newspapers this week?” He asked. When I shook my head, he reached into his coat. “Then thee may not have heard about the bit of difficulty our George White faced in Philadelphia last First day.” He handed me a folded sheet of newsprint.
I scanned it quickly. “Good lord,” I said. “An actual riot? In the Cherry Street Meeting? It says the police were called? To a Friends Meetinghouse?”
His long face was solemn. “All incited by that abolitionist agitator Stephen Foster.”
I looked up at Simon. “What did Foster do?” I asked.
“Tried to turn worship into an abolitionist assembly. His impertinent intrusion was too much for some of the younger brethren, it seems.” Goodloe hovered as I read, then pursed his lips. “Roughed him up like a pack of stevedores,” he said. Didn’t exactly turn the other cheek, I suppose” he mused. But he did not seem very upset about it.
“And perhaps it’s unseemly of me to take any satisfaction in this report,” he said. “But Jacob, I admit it: while I’m grateful this, er, incident did not happen here at Rose Street, I’m not sorry to see those infernal abolitionists educated firmly that Friends want nothing to do with them or their noxious doctrines.” He gazed down the street again.
Was Simon, I wondered, waiting for someone else, or perhaps watching out for someone?
“Jacob,” I said, “surely this Foster would not try anything like that here . ..” Though I now recalled having heard the name before, and knew Foster had in fact disrupted numerous worship meetings in various churches in the East, trying to preach his infidel notions. And there were others like him.
“I doubt we’ll see him,” Simon said. “Foster spent the night in the Philadelphia jail, licking his wounds, then was fined $250. And even with help from his abolitionist backers like Lucretia Mott and her ilk, that’s a lot of money. It will take him awhile to recover.
A brief report of Stephen S. Foster’s arrest, from Niles’ National Register
“No, Jacob” he continued,”I’m more concerned today about our home-grown abolitionist troublemakers.”
I nodded. “Thee mean, Charles Marriot and James Gibbons?”
“Yes,” he said. “Thee may likewise not have heard that their appeal of disownment was rejected by the Yearly Meeting Committee three days ago.”
“I had not,” I admitted. “Three days ago, I was thinking only of my aching joints, and unsettled stomach.”
“Yes,” he said. “Thee has recovered well. But I don’t think we need worry about them. Gibbons is away, I am told. And Marriot was visited by a committee which urged him to find another place to worship, and he said he would.
“So,” I said, “that leaves only–”
“Yes,” Simon said. That leaves only Isaac Hopper.”
Isaac Hopper, I thought. The third person in our own unholy trinity. An amiable enough fellow, to talk with. But hard as flint when it came to abolition. I was on the committee that warned him he would be disowned if he stayed on the board of an abolitionist society.
Then I had to listen to him declare, rather pompously I thought, that he would be honored to suffer on behalf of the voiceless slave, even this little bit. He said it quietly, but there was no doubting him. And then he launched into a discourse about whips and chains and selling off slave children, again quietly but implacably.
I was grateful when Simon cut him short, reminding him sharply that Quakers had been free of owning or selling slaves for more than fifty years. Hopper simply replied that all the Quakers who had done that were long since dead, and in the meantime the number of slaves in the country had increased by millions. “The question for Friends today,” Hopper said, “is not what our ancestors did then, but what we shall do, now.”
Hopper came closest to having an edge in his voice when Simon repeated to him the message of George White. White is our most renowned minister, the one whom Stephen Foster had accosted in Philadelphia. White preached that slavery was evil, but said its fate was in God’s hands, not man’s. And so slavery would end, as it must, he said, but that end would come in God’s own time, and by God’s mighty hand, not by human agitations. Abolitionism is no more than some men trying to force God’s hand. That made it, he said, an abomination.
For years, George White had preached his message in Friends Meetings from Boston to Indiana, to large and welcoming audiences. He warned them all that abolitionism meant only trouble, for Quakers, and for the country.
Hopper’s back had stiffened and his eyes flashed when he heard this, though surely it was all familiar to him. But his voice was still calm, and even a bit lower, when he replied: “Simon,” he said, “I can only tell thee my convictions: that we are called to be the hands of God in this world, as best we can. And that all time is God’s time, which includes our time. We are to put our hands to God’s work now, today, as best we can. And liberation to the captives was in the first message Jesus preached. That is the part of God’s work I am striving to join.”
The committee was unmoved, and left him soon after. Its verdict was swift: Isaac Hopper, along with Gibbons and Marriot, threatened the unity and reputation of the Society of Friends by their abolitionist actions. They were thus pronounced to be out of unity with Rose Street Meeting, and disowned by Friends.
But being disowned, I knew, did not prevent an offender from attending worship– unless he was expected to be disruptive, like Stephen Foster. But that did not fit Isaac Hopper. He was determined, yes; but calmly so. He had, in fact, been seen at meeting here at Rose Street every First Day since the committee acted, taking his regular seat up front. But quietly so.
In which case, why was Simon Goodloe waiting to see if he would appear today? The meeting had, I could tell, begun settling into quiet. We were late, lingering there on the steps.
A thought came to me. I tapped the news clipping. “How far has this Philadelphia story spread,” I asked.
His expression turned rueful. “Far enough,” Simon said, “to be read by Armistead Merriweather.”
“Who?” The name was strange to me. It didn’t sound Quaker. More like southern.
I had guessed right. “MISTER Armistead Merriweather, Esquire,” Simon said, emphasizing the titles which Friends normally avoided. “Of Savannah, Georgia. He is an agent for many leading southern planters. And a client of Goodloe and Goodloe.”
“Ah,” I said. “He saw this report too, then.”
“Yes,” Goodloe agreed. “On his way to New York, on one of Goodloe and Goodloe’s ships, loaded with cotton. He came with it to make sure everything was in order.”
“Which it was, I’m sure,” I said. After all, Goodloe and Goodloe was one of the largest and most respected American shipping companies.
“On the ship all was well,” Simon said. “But when he saw the article at a stop in Baltimore, Merryweather resolved to make sure all was in order off the ship as well.”
Simon removed his hat and wiped his brow, though the air was not all that warm. Then he clamped it back on his head, frowned at an unpleasant memory, and affected a southern drawl.
“‘Mr. Goodloe,’ he mimiced, ‘I am aware that your people have some different views about some of our southern customs. Now I can live and let live, suh: you follow your conscience, and we follow ours. But my planters need to be sure of that policy. And I am also aware that there are other shipping companies in New York, firms that are operated by men of other faiths. Presbyterians, for instance. Now the Presbyterians have made it clear to us that they too are on board with a live and let live approach to social matters. Can you, Mr. Goodloe, suh, give me similar assurances to take back to Savannah?’”
My mouth gaped. “What?” I almost shouted to Simon. “Well I never! The very idea that he was questioning the good faith of a Quaker firm like Goodloe and Goodloe. It’s unheard of!”
“Thank thee, Jacob,” Simon said, “for thy high opinion of us. But I must say that, despite my high regard for thy opinion, unless thee also has many boatloads of cotton for my ships to carry, I must also pay very close attention to the views of MISTER Merryweather.”
The sarcasm in his voice was most unusual, but the point was clear. For Goodloe and Goodloe, Friends were welcome. But customers were necessary. “As he said,” Simon added, “he is not bothered that we refuse to own or sell slaves. But association with the abolitionists, who want to free all slaves in the south, including those who grow and harvest the cotton — neither he nor his planters will tolerate that. Does thee know, Jacob, they have now made it a crime to distribute any papers questioning slavery in the southern states?”
I had indeed read of those recent disturbing laws. “So, what answer did thee give him?” I asked.
A small tight smile crept onto Simon’s face. “What does thee think?” He said. “My answer was to invite him to join us here at worship. Especially with George White back from Philadelphia and speaking for us in the meeting. I’m counting on the sobriety and good business sense of Rose Street Friends to be so evident that Merryweather will come away with all the assurance he could hope for.”
So THAT’s who he was waiting for. Not Isaac Hopper at all.
Now Simon was looking down the street again, and his face seemed to brighten, though with what seemed to me a forced air of welcome. “There he is now,” he whispered, waving one arm.
I glanced around, and saw a large man striding toward us. His white linen suit stood out like a flag, even from half a block away.
“If thee don’t mind,” I whispered back, “I will join the meeting,” and went past him through the men’s doors. The large meeting room was nearly full, and an usher directed me up the stairs to a seat in the gallery.
The room was quiet. From my perch, I saw Simon and Merryweather enter and brush past the usher to take Simon’s accustomed place near the front.
And a few rows further up, there was Isaac Hopper, in his usual seat, silent and seemingly serene.
The quiet did not last long. A minister rose in the elevated facing benches at the front of the room and began to preach.
His message was something about the spiritual importance of arriving at worship in a timely manner, as we were exhorted to do in our Book of Discipline. Then another minister soon stood, doffed his hat, and began to pray for the safety of all those who sailed the hazardous seas, and for government officials who carried the heavy burdens of state, and for all others who were burdened, of which he had a lengthy list. Nothing very radical, or interesting so far, I thought.
But then, after a short silence, a stocky figure stood, in the body of the meeting, and began to speak.
It was George White. He admitted to us that he was guilty of a breach already spoken of, in that he had arrived late, and so was not in his accustomed seat on the facing benches with the other ministers. But then he began his message proper, which was another version of his abiding plea to put all our burdens and problems onto God and Jesus. We were to turn to them, he said, because as hopelessly sinful men, we could do nothing for ourselves.
He spoke for almost an hour — I admit I covertly checked my pocket watch– and this for him was a relatively brief sermon. As he continued he also made sure to denounce abolitionism as an abomination, along with Temperance societies and the new groups who wanted to gain more legal rights for women.
These too were among his usual targets: all were faithless, useless inventions, he said, efforts by men to displace and hinder the work that belonged to God alone. All of them were bound to fail, he insisted, and to create havoc and misery as they did so. I looked around the room. As usual, it was evident that his message was being well-received by most of the Friends.
Once White sat down, I expected the elders on the facing bench to shake hands to mark the close of worship.
But before they could do so another figure was standing. I leaned forward for a better view: yes, it was Isaac Hopper, who almost never spoke.
At once I felt a twinge of anxiety: was Hopper now, with nothing to lose, going to join Stephen Foster in bringing abolitionism into Rose street and challenging George White? Was he about to dash the hopes of Simon Goodloe to retain Armistead Merryweather’s confidence and trade?
I needn’t have worried. After surveying the group for a moment, on whose faces were many expressions of caution or even hostility, he spoke:
“I am reminded this morning,” he intoned, “of those words of Jesus, among the last that he spoke on the cross. They are recorded in the twenty-third chapter of the Gospel of Luke. He said,’Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.’”
Forgive whom, I wondered? The elders, including me, who approved his disownment? The southern slaveholders whose property he meant to snatch away from them? George White, for condemning reformers like Hopper himself? Or something else, perhaps of a personal nature?
But that was all; Hopper then sat down, my questions dissipated. The elders quickly shook hands, and we rose.
A few minutes later, I saw Simon introducing Merryweather to George White. I couldn’t hear what the southerner said, but he was all smiles. And above him, Simon’s face wore an unmistakable look of relief. Whatever Isaac Hopper’s cryptic quote had meant, it made no difference here. So it seemed as if Simon Goodloe had obtained for his visitor the assurance he sought, or something close to it.
But as I left the building, there was a tap on my shoulder. I turned to see Isaac Hopper at my side. In his hand was a piece of paper, which I recognized as cut from the newspaper. “Thee saw this?” He asked quietly.
“Yes,” I said.”From Philadelphia.”
He glanced down at the text. “Jacob,” he said, “I do believe those who incited the attack on Stephen Foster can be forgiven. As can those who have wronged me and others here.”
He folded the paper and slid it back into his coat. “But I believe something else, too: God’s forgiveness aside, those who think they have put an end to something, in Philadelphia and here in Rose Street, are very much mistaken. My case here may be finished. But others will follow, and the matter of liberty to the captives is not over, no, not at all.”
Before I could think of a reply, he touched his hat, said, “Good day to thee, Friend,” and walked down the steps and up the street.
Watching him go, something struck deep within my inward parts, like a stone sinking into my belly. I could somehow feel that, whatever Simon Goodloe and Mr. Merryweather had arranged this morning, it was Isaac Hopper, the offender now disgraced and cast out from among us, who was right about the future.
And as this sense sank into me, I began to feel ill again, so headed home, and back to bed.
Copyright © by Chuck Fager. All rights reserved.
Note, my new books on Progressive Friends, Angels of Progress and Remaking Friends, describe the actual history on which this story is based in much more detail, based on extensive research. They are available at the links, and from Amazon.