SMITHFIELD COMMUNITY CENTER
Peterboro Presbyterian Church
Donna Dorrance Burdick
Historian, Town of Smithfield
In the fall of 1835, members of the anti-slavery movement in New York State publicized their plans to establish a state society (Morrison 65). Announcements went out for the inaugural meeting to be held at the Second Presbyterian Church, Bleecker Street, Utica on October 21. After the meeting had convened, about eighty men pushed their way into the church with cries of “Open the way! Break down the doors! Damn the fanatics! Stop your damn stuff!” (Morrison 61). The meeting was successfully interrupted.
Gerrit Smith was present in Utica and invited the convention attendees to complete their meeting in Peterboro the next day. About three or four hundred delegates accepted his offer (Frothingham 165). Their progress toward Peterboro was not without incident. Logs were placed in the roads and several were pelted by mud, eggs, clubs, and stones (Sevitch 260).
One of the most vivid descriptions of the trip is contained in the memoir of James Caleb Jackson, who was present at Utica. With one hundred and three others, he traveled by the Erie Canal to Canastota. From there this group walked to Peterboro, a distance of ten miles. They met with little resistance but much curiosity. Residents asked “What is the matter; is war declared?” The response was “Yes, war to the death against slavery . . . We have begun the grandest revolution the world has ever seen; and if we do not die, we mean to see that revolution accomplished, and our land free from the tread and fetter of the slave.” (Jackson 4).
Jackson’s account ends with the statement that the October 22 meeting of the newly organized New York State Anti-Slavery Society was held in the Peterboro Presbyterian Church. He also indicates that at this meeting “Garret [sic] Smith formally renounced American colonization and adopted the tenets of and accepted association with the abolitionists.” (Jackson 7).
In 1834, just a year before the convention, Gerrit Smith had established a manual labor school for “young men of color” in Peterboro. Five of the students were present at the October 22 meeting. Their names appear in the official proceedings of the New York State Anti-Slavery Convention and State Society for 1835 (45). Several of these students became ministers, orators, and/or poets.
The New York state society returned to Peterboro for its convention on January 19 and 20, 1842. In a letter to his sister Christian, Smithfield resident Henry Campbell states, “We are to have a great State convention on the 19th and 20th of this month at Peterborough and all the vicinity are put in requisition for their hospitality. We have agreed [to] lodge a Team and 2 people.” (Jan. 10, 1842). At this meeting Gerrit Smith encouraged the slave to “take [what] is absolutely essential to your escape, the horse, the boat, the food, the clothing, which you require.” (“Address” 11). Since slaveholders were manstealers, Smith believed that it was only right and just for the enslaved person to steal in order to gain his freedom.
In March of 1851, the English abolitionist George Thompson, accompanied by Sojourner Truth, Abby Kelley and her husband Stephen Foster, lectured in Peterboro (Sterling 269-273). Henry Campbell, again writing to his sister, says, “We had Geo. Thompson at Peterboro for 2 or 3 days last week.” (Mar. 8, 1851).
Although the 1842 and 1851 events do not seem to specify the site, the only possible building large enough to accommodate groups of size would have been the Peterboro Presbyterian Church. In fact, in February of 1842, Gerrit Smith was already encouraging the “union” of churches in Peterboro. He suggested that the Baptist Church be turned into an academy and that all denominations become one by using the Presbyterian Church “which is larger and better situated.” (“To the Christians”). Smith did organize his own Free Church, the Church of Peterboro, in 1843. Even though a small chapel was built for this congregation in 1847, it was often necessary to use the Presbyterian Church when large gatherings were anticipated. The building continued to be used for anti-slavery rallies and meetings throughout the pre-Civil War and Civil War time period.
On January 23, 1859, Gerrit Smith gave a discourse at the Peterboro Presbyterian Church on the “New Religion.” His anti-slavery views were clearly evident in the words of several hymns sung on that day, excerpted below:
And then if ask’d to vote for men
Who dramshops will maintain,
Or those who slave laws don’t condemn
We’d go to Christ again.
And ask Him our poor souls to save
In this temptation’s hour;
And let us not betray the slave,
Nor swell the huge rum power.
He casts no vote for men who own
That rum for bev’rage may be sold:
Nor either those who are not known
“NO LAW FOR SLAVERY” to hold. (“Gerrit Smith has consented”)
The citizens of Peterboro and the surrounding area gathered at the Presbyterian Church on May 15, 1861, to bid goodbye to the members of the Peterboro Volunteer company as they headed to war. Prayers were offered, songs were sung, and a speech was given by Gerrit Smith. Each soldier was given a “House-Wife,” containing pin-ball, needles, thread, buttons, and combs, along with a “God bless you.” (Stone)
From the time of the early agitation against slavery to the opening of the conflict that was hoped would end that discrimination for all time, the Peterboro Presbyterian Church served as a site where people united on one topic: the abolition of slavery.
“Address of the Peterboro State Convention to the Slaves, and its Vindication.” Cazenovia, New York: R. L. Myrick, Printer, 1842. Available online in the Samuel J. May Pamphlet Collection at http://encompass.library.cornell/edu.
Campbell, Henry. Letters to his sister Christian Campbell, owned by Stuart Grant, Im oberen Boden 150, 8049 Zurich, Switzerland (1999 address). Mr. Grant’s wife is a great grandniece of Henry Campbell. The letters can also be viewed online at http://www.rootsweb.com/~nymadiso/bit-of-past/borg/smhenc1a.htm (1842) and http://www.rootsweb.com/~nymadiso/bit-of-past/borg/smhenc32.htm (1851).
Frothingham, Octavius Brooks. Gerrit Smith: A Biography. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1878.
Jackson, James Caleb. “The Formation of the New York AntiSlavery Society.” no date. Memoir transcribed from a handwritten manuscript by his direct descendant, J. Edward Jackson, 16 Kettering Drive, Rochester, NY 14612 (1999 address). Copy of memoir available from Donna D. Burdick, Smithfield Town Historian, 110 Crescent, Kirkwood, NY 13795.
Morrison, Howard Alexander. “Gentlemen of Proper Understanding: A Closer Look at Utica’s Anti-Abolitionist Mob.” New YorkHistory, January 1981.
“Proceedings of the New York Anti-Slavery Convention, held at Utica, October 21, and New York Anti-Slavery State Society, held at Peterboro’, October 22, 1835.” Utica, New York: Standard & Democrat Office, 1835.
Sevitch, Benjamin. “The Well-Planned Riot of October 21, 1835: Utica’s Answer to Abolitionism.” New YorkHistory, July 1969.
Smith, Gerrit. “To The Christians of Peterboro and Its Vicinity.” Peterboro, February 25, 1842. In the Gerrit Smith Broadside Collection at Syracuse University, available online at http://libwww.syr.edu/digital/collections/g/GerritSmith/419.htm.
---------------. “Gerrit Smith has consented to deliver a Discourse in the Presbyterian Church in this village on Sunday the 23d inst. at 11 A.M., in behalf of the religion of reason, or, as it is frequently called in this community, the “New Religion.” Peterboro, January 14, 1859. In the Gerrit Smith Broadside Collection at Syracuse University, available online at http://libwww.syr.edu/digital/collections/g/GerritSmith/716.htm.
Sterling, Dorothy. Ahead of Her Time: Abby Kelley and The Politics of Antislavery. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991.
Stone, Wm. A., Sec’y. “PETERBORO, Wednesday Eve., May 15, To the Editor of the Sachem:” OneidaSachem, May 16, 1861, p. 2, c. 5.