Methodist History: Bishop Fought Slavery
A huge collection of 1000 letters donated to The United Methodist Church's archives agency tells the story of Bishop Gilbert Haven. Haven was a Methodist Episcopal pastor and one of the most outspoken U.S. abolitionists of the late 1800s. We learned more about his story when we visited the General Commission on Archives and History in 2013.
(Voice of the Rev. Robert J. Williams) "When you begin to open up these letters and work on processing them and to see these names that you read about in history books, and you can touch a piece of paper that they actually put a pen to, I find it gets pretty exciting 'cause it links that bridge across the centuries."
"My name is Robert Williams. I'm General Secretary of the General Commission on Archives and History of The United Methodist Church."
(Locator: Madison, New Jersey)
(Reviewing documents) Williams: "The script, while it's a beautiful script, sometimes is a bit challenging to read." Researcher Justin Causey: "It is. You almost have to get used to it."
Williams: "One of the most exciting acquisitions that we have been able to get are about a thousand letters, most of them to Bishop Gilbert Haven. He was a bishop from 1872 to 1880."
"Prior to that he had been editor of Zion's Herald and a teacher. But his importance is that he was one of the most vocal abolitionists in the mid-19th century for the Methodist Episcopal Church."
"The Methodist Episcopal Church in its leadership tended to support the colonization movement, which would have been taking freed slaves, free African Americans, and repatriating them to Africa. Bishop Gilbert Haven, on the other hand, was one of the very few who argued not only for the end of slavery, but also for full social integration of African Americans. Even defended interracial marriage, supported the ordination of women when it was not done. So he was an extraordinarily progressive figure, and how much we would wish that we would have his voice to be heard even today. A hundred and fifty years later, his comments, his sermons on national issues, would be just as relevant. And in this collection of letters, which we received from descendants of Bishop Gilbert Haven, there are letters from Bishop Matthew Simpson suggesting where Gilbert Haven should serve; several letters from Frederick Douglass, the great African-American abolitionist; letters from President Ulysses Grant and the vice president; letters from William Lloyd Garrison, the great abolitionist who published 'The Liberator.' Not that William Lloyd Garrison and Gilbert Haven saw eye to eye, but they were certainly allies in this great cause."
Researcher Justin Causey: "Douglass is talking about being in Baltimore at the time and almost being in fear for his life."
(Dramatic reading of Frederick Douglass excerpt) "I have been threatened with violence here and no doubt that if I could be caught in the dark, I might receive an unlucky blow."
Causey: "This is the one from Douglass and he is referring to his issues or the disputes with then President Andrew Johnson. The assumption among Douglass and the others is that Johnson was significantly less in favor of black voting rights or black rights at all. In the aftermath of the war, so many abolitionists considered him to be pro-Confederate."
Williams: "There was more letter writing in the 19th century than more recent years. But for the family to have saved that, a thousand letters&ellipsis; is unusual to get something of that size."
"Some of them are quite mundane. But what was striking was who they were coming from. One letter, for example, I think it was either William Lloyd Garrison or Frederick Douglass was writing to Gilbert Haven saying, 'We think our good friend Sojourner Truth is staying somewhere on Cape Cod.' Strictly mundane, 'Where is Sojourner Truth?' But here you get this picture that they're just writing to each other, trying to keep track of each other. Nothing exciting. Nothing world shaking. But Sojourner Truth's name comes up. Or when the vice president was adding a note for Haven to go to México saying, 'I know Gilbert Haven and he's a good guy. You know, you can host him well.'"
"What makes this really significant are the issues that are involved. It's not just a letter from the 1850s, 1860s. These are issues that are still with us. How to have racial justice. How to have liberty and justice for all. And these letters just bring it alive, that there have been those Methodists that have cared about this across the decades and across the centuries."
The Gilbert Haven collection of letters is housed on the campus of Drew University in New Jersey.
Haven was also an early supporter of Clark College, which is now Clark Atlanta University. He wanted it to provide the education of freedmen (former African American slaves). Clark Atlanta is one of the schools supported by the United Methodist Black College Fund.
The General Commission on Archives and History website offers a virtual encyclopedia of United Methodist history with featured stories, biographies, and family genealogy search tips. For more information, visit gcah.org or call 973-408-3189.