Elijah Parish Lovejoy, Presbyterian minister and first
martyr for the abolition movement
(Photo credit: Appletons’ Cyclopædia of American Biography)
The schism dividing American Jews and other liberals over loyalty to the Zionist project and support for the 45 year-old Israeli occupation, long anticipated and discussed on this site, may finally be underway. What is unclear is the magnitude of the social upheaval that will result as the rupture widens: will the ensuing turbulence resemble that of the 1960s or be closer to the 1860s on the social Richter scale?
It is generally agreed that among the factors that served to fix America on a path toward civil war in the 1860s was the raid on Harpers Ferry by the abolitionist John Brown in 1859. With the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) assembling in Pittsburgh next week to consider divestment from the Israeli occupation, it is worthwhile to remember that a key personal motivation for John Brown was the murder of the Presbyterian minister and editor Elijah P. Lovejoy, a fierce opponent of slavery and America’s first martyr to the abolition movement.
The son of a minister, Lovejoy grew up in Maine and after college settled in St. Louis, Missouri where he worked as editor of the Presbyterian weekly newspaper, the St. Louis Observer. He was subsequently ordained and became pastor of the Presbyterian Church in St. Louis. His editorials for the St. Louis Observer strongly condemned slavery. St. Louis was a major port in a slave state, and Lovejoy’s writings angered pro-slavery factions in the city. On three separate occasions pro-slavery mobs destroyed his printing presses, attempting to silence him.
Because of rising tensions in St. Louis over slavery, Lovejoy moved his family across the river to Illinois, a free state, in 1836. There he settled in the town of Alton, founded the Alton Observer and continued to publish and distribute anti-slavery tracts. Alton was a center of abolitionist activity and a hub on the Underground Railroad, but was often raided by slave-catchers and was home to pro-slavery forces. A mob of pro-slavery partisans raided the warehouse where Lovejoy had hidden his printing press in November 1837. Lovejoy died from a shotgun blast defending his press as the mob tried to burn down the warehouse. The mob broke up the printing press and threw the pieces into the Mississippi River.
In Hudson, Ohio where John Brown was living at the time, a local church held a memorial service for Elijah P. Lovejoy. At the conclusion of the prayer service, John Brown, sitting silently in the back, rose and lifted his right hand saying: “Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery.” Brown’s public oath upon Lovejoy’s murder was in 1837. Twenty-two years later John Brown was hanged from a gallows that, according to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Brown made “glorious like the Cross”.