In 1837, 14 women in Stoneham publicly stated that they could no longer be silent about their era’s big lie: the belief, subscribed to by many in the North as well as the South, that the Black race was inferior, even subhuman, and as such could justifiably be enslaved.
In July of that year, a pastoral letter from the General Association of Congregational Churches had been read from the pulpit in churches throughout Massachusetts. The letter called on women to refrain from public discourse. It was a response to growing concern over the Grimké sisters, Sarah and Angelina, abolitionists from South Carolina, who had been lecturing in New England on the evils of slavery.
The first problem was their sex. Women, the ministers wrote, should not try to displace men as the appointed teachers of morality. When “a woman assumes the place and tone of man as a public reformer . . . her character becomes unnatural,” the letter read. The clergy also opposed the Grimkés’ subject, writing that the sisters’ accounts of cruelties witnessed on their father’s plantation were too harsh for the delicate sensibilities of women.
The message to women across the Commonwealth was clear: Keep quiet about slavery.
For Sarah Gerry, a widow who had raised three children in Stoneham, silence wasn’t an option. As she met with other churchwomen, her town was in turmoil. On March 21, 1837, abolitionists speaking at Town Hall were shouted down. A week later, after another raucous meeting, a fight broke out and a man was fatally stabbed.
And then in May, citizens voted 62-35 to ban all discussion of slavery in Town Hall. “The question of African slavery was cleaving asunder the community,” historian William B. Stevens wrote in his “History of Stoneham,” published in 1891. “Political fervor was red hot.”
What was happening in Stoneham was happening throughout the Northeast. In 1838 in Philadelphia, rioters stormed Pennsylvania Hall, where Angelina Grimké was speaking, forcing the abolitionists to leave. The next day they burned the hall to the ground. In 1835 in Boston, a mob attacked the offices of The Liberator, the antislavery newspaper published by William Lloyd Garrison, interrupting a meeting of the Female Anti-Slavery Society. The ruffians forced the women out, tied Garrison up, and paraded him through the streets. Only the mayor’s intervention prevented Garrison from being tarred and feathered. In 1837, barred from meeting in churches and halls, the New England Anti-Slavery Society met in the loft of a hotel stable.
Back in Stoneham, silenced by their church and town, Sarah Gerry and her companions proclaimed their beliefs in a letter to the leaders of the Stoneham Congregational Church. They wrote: “We the undersigned have been convinced that slavery is an evil of immense magnitude in the sight of Heaven and is now sustained and defended by almost the entire Christian church at the South with whom we are in fellowship.”
Silence, the women stated, was complicity. They called on their church to “show plainly that our influence is on the side of justice and humanity.”
Their appeal had an effect. The following October, church members met in a deacon’s home and passed a resolution calling on their minister “to bear faithful pulpit testimony against the sin of slavery.”
In 1838, Gerry and 26 other women, including her daughter-in-law Paulina Gerry, formed the Stoneham Female Anti-Slavery Society. Sarah Gerry, the president, died before the chapter was formally announced in 1839 in The Liberator. That announcement, written by Paulina Gerry, lamented her mother-in-law’s death and praised her commitment to ending slavery. “When the subject was first presented,” she wrote, “and she saw her society and church tempest tossed, reeling to and fro, she paused and hesitated. But then she looked again and saw it was the cause of God and liberty.”
A year later, the men of the church formed an anti-slavery chapter of their own.
The conflict over abolition came to a head in 1850 with passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, which mandated the return of all fugitive slaves from the South and imprisonment for anyone aiding or abetting them. Most religious and civic authorities in Massachusetts called for the federal law to be enforced. Even the esteemed Senator Daniel Webster argued that this “compromise” law was needed to contain slavery and prevent its spread.
But for the Rev. William C. Whitcomb, the new minister of Stoneham’s Congregational Church, the Fugitive Slave Act was a challenge to the very core of Christianity. He proclaimed as much on a chilly Sunday morning in November 1850, when he addressed his congregation. “Fellow-citizens and Christian friends, the new Fugitive Law . . . will enslave you and me as well as the black man — IT WILL MAKE SLAVES OF US ALL.”
Whitcomb called on his parishioners to join him in his resolve to pay the price, whatever it might be, for following their conscience. “Hide the outcast or help him on his journey to a safer place,” he said, “even though you may risk personal security, property, and life.”
As Whitcomb spoke, two families in Stoneham had begun harboring fugitive slaves and made their homes stops on the Underground Railroad.
Sarah and Paulina Gerry and the other Stoneham women’s refusal to remain silent about the evils of slavery started a process of transformation in their church and town. In years to follow, some of them would join another great cause, equal rights for women. In 1850, Paulina Gerry traveled to Worcester to attend the first national Women’s Rights Convention. Organizing, rallying, speaking, and petitioning, she and others became foot soldiers in the decades-long struggle for women’s suffrage.
Ben Jacques is a retired English teacher and the author of “In Graves Unmarked: Slavery & Abolition in Stoneham, Massachusetts.”