John’s day of attempting to sell his produce in Elmira, N.Y., had ended, and he was driving his wagon back to his farm. Suddenly he saw a carriage with a runaway horse careening toward him.
He directed his horse to pull the wagon over and courageously lunged for the bridle of the runaway. With all his strength he held the horse and spoke gently to calm it. Amazingly, the horse settled down without injuring him.
The door of the coach opened, and he saw the pale, frightened faces of three women. They were wealthy Mrs. Charles Langdon, her daughter Julia, and a nurse. They lived nearby, on Quarry Farm.
This incident was a life-changer for John T. Lewis. Born a free black man in Maryland in 1835, he had migrated to southern New York at the beginning of the Civil War. A youth with intense spiritual interest, he had been baptized into the Brethren church at age 18.
The grateful Langdon family rewarded Lewis with gifts and money and asked him to come work for them as their coachman. At that time, a suitor of the Langdon’s daughter Olivia was visiting. He and Lewis initiated a close and lifelong friendship.
Olivia’s suitor, whom she later married, was Samuel Langhorne Clemens, also known as Mark Twain. Years later Clemens said of Lewis, “I have not known an honester man nor a more respect-worthy one…I hold him in high and grateful regard.” Lewis is considered to be one of the inspirations for the character named Jim in Mark Twain’s much-beloved book, The Adventures of Huck Finn.
The presence of a black man among the Brethren of that time is not surprising. Racial equality was an essential part of the church’s beliefs. After arriving in America in 1719, Jacob Price, a key elder, encouraged his son John to marry the granddaughter of Chief Tamanend, the Delaware leader who had made a treaty with William Penn.
The presence of slavery in their new adopted home was not something the Brethren had encountered in Germany. Their response was to search the Scriptures.
The Annual Meeting was the place where decisions were made concerning what was appropriate biblical conduct. Minutes from before 1778 are not available, but it is known that by 1782 the stance on slavery was assumed, “Concerning the unchristian negro slave trade, it has been unanimously considered that it can not be permitted in any wise by the church, that a member should or could purchase negroes, or keep them as slaves.”
By 1797, questions arose about new converts who were slaveholders. The minutes that year read, “…In case a person is drawn by the grace of God, who has negroes, and desires to be received into the church, …it is the brotherly and united counsel that brethren and members having negroes as slaves… to let their slaves go free, with a good suit of wearing apparel as is given to a white serve.” Also included was a way for those who could not afford to immediately free their slaves to seek the counsel of the church on when the purchase price had been satisfied and then to free them. In addition, if the slave had children, the church member was to “have them taught reading and writing, and bring them up in the fear of the Lord.”
Other minutes refer to the slave trade and slaveholding as “a most grievous evil, and should be abolished as soon as possible.” Those who insisted on continuing to hold slaves were to be treated by the church “as with any other gross transgression.”
In 1835, 25 years before the start of the Civil War, a question apparently came up about whether black persons could be full members of the church. e fact that they were members was assumed. It seems the problem involved their tradition of “greeting one another with a holy kiss.” The minutes that year underscored that the Bible is to be preached to all nations and races, and those who come as repentant sinners cannot be refused. However, they also acknowledge that some of the white members were not willing to give the holy kiss to their black brothers and sisters, and requested that the black members bear with their weakness, and “not offer the kiss to such weak members until they become stronger and make the first offer.”
There has been some discussion about records which show that some of the Brethren purchased slaves. Some historians have assumed it was an example of “do as I say, not as I do.” However, there is the example of Elder David Long, who preached strongly against slavery. At one point, as he passed a slave auction, he was so moved that he purchased all the slaves and proceeded to free them.
Knowing the unassuming ways of the Brethren and their strong disgust for slavery, it would not be surprising at all for them to quietly purchase slaves with the specific purpose of giving them their freedom. This explanation fits much better with what is known about the Brethren. There are records of a slave purchase made by one influential leader, Samuel Mumma. Based on the integrity and character expected of Brethren leaders, it is pretty certain he would not have been permitted to continue as a leader if he were going against the decisions made at the Annual Meetings.
Although the Brethren’s beliefs in human equality would have put them in the abolitionist camp, they believed just as firmly in pacifism and non-resistance. As the Civil War approached, the Brethren along the Mason-Dixon line found themselves suspect by both sides. In the first place, both sides were asking them to swear an oath of allegiance to commit to a side, and they did not believe in taking oaths. Besides, their pacifist beliefs led them to refuse to enlist, angering both armies.
In the last few years before the Civil War, Brethren leaders began warning their congregations that they might have to suffer imprisonment and possibly death for their stance on abolition and pacifism. Some of the Brethren did indeed suffer imprisonment, and Elder John Kline was martyred as he went back and forth fulfilling his pastoral duties.
Ironically, one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, Antietam, was fought partially on Brethren farmland.
Samuel Mumma, already mentioned, was one of the lead elders in the nearby Brethren, or Dunker, church. The location of his farm was considered strategic to both sides. Upon reaching the farm, the Confederates burned down all the buildings except a small springhouse. Other Brethren families found their crops destroyed, either by the fighting or by burning.
Many of the Brethren had fled as the fighting moved toward them, but the ones who were left retrieved wounded soldiers, regardless of whether they were Union or Confederate, and cared for them in their homes. Some of the wounded were moved to the church, which served as a hospital in the ensuing days. The church has been rebuilt and today serves as a monument on the Antietam National Battle Field.
At some point, one of the soldiers at Antietam appropriated the large Bible that had been at the front of the church. He took it home with him to New York, and it passed through several hands over the next four decades. Eventually, those who were left of his regiment decided to return the Bible to the church. There was one problem. They did not know whether the church was still in existence, or who the pastor might be.
There were no Brethren churches in New York, but someone knew of a Brethren man who lived in Elmira, John T. Lewis. He had kept in touch with the Brethren through their publications and was entrusted by the regiment representatives with returning the Bible to its rightful place, the little church near Antietam Creek.
As we look back on the early Brethren and the roots of Charis Fellowship, we see a people who stood against the culture of their day to advocate for God’s values as found in Scripture. May we, too, search God’s Word as we make decisions about how we will live. — by Viki Rife
Viki Rife is descended from a long line of Brethren families. She currently serves as executive director of Women of Grace USA.