Archive for the ‘Fugitive Slave Act of 1850’ Tag

Feast of Thaddeus Stevens (August 12)   6 comments

Above:  The Honorable Thaddeus Stevens, 1860-1868

Image Source = Library of Congress

THADDEUS STEVENS (APRIL 14, 1792-AUGUST 11/12, 1868)

U.S. Abolitionist, Congressman, and Witness for Civil Rights

“The Great Commoner”

One of the advantages of keeping a calendar of saints on a blog is recognizing people–whether or not from a denomination’s authorized calendar.  Today I choose to recognize a saint who, to the best of my knowledge, does not occupy space on any church body’s calendar.  That fact constitutes an oversight on their part.  Many people–especially defensive Southerners with emotional attachments to the Confederacy–have heaped abuse on the reputation of Congressman Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania.  Representations of him from the bad films The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Tennessee Johnson (1942) are laughably inaccurate.  Of course, the Klansmen were the heroes in The Birth of a Nation, a movie which should make a person cringe if it does not bore one into unconsciousness first.

I begin at the end.  Thaddeus Stevens lies buried in a cemetery at Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a town where he had lived for many years.  His epitaph follows:

I repose in this quiet and secluded spot

Not from any natural preference for solitude

But, finding no other cemeteries limited as to Race by Charter Rules,

I have chosen this that I might illustrate in my death

The Principles which I advocated through a long life


Thaddeus Stevens was born in Vermont on April 14, 1792.  He was the second of four children of Sarah Morrill, a devout Baptist, and Joshua Stevens, a shoemaker  and a surveyor.  Joshua, a man with “rather dissipated habits,” abandoned his family, leaving Sarah to raise her children.  She was devoted to them, and Thaddeus remained devoted to her until she died in 1854.

Our saint had a difficult personality.  Inborn traits might have had something to do with that fact, but so did his disability:  a lifelong limp caused by a clubfoot.  This caused much taunting during his youth.  And some thought of the disability as a curse from God.  That accusation of being cursed by God might have influenced Stevens never to join a church, not that he was estranged from the Bible or hostile to organized religion.  In fact, he knew the Bible very well, having kept a copy by his bedside throughout his life.  And, in the early 1850s, in an attempt to convince his mother to leave Vermont and move to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where there was no Baptist congregation nearby, Stevens offered to pay split the construction costs for a Baptist church with the Baptists.  Sarah died first, however.

Well-educated, Stevens moved to Pennsylvania in 1815 and opened a law office at Gettysburg the following year.  In 1821 he was complicit in returning a slave woman and her children to servitude.  This troubled his conscience greatly, so he became a strong, uncompromising abolitionist.  Stevens was, in fact, chiefly responsible for the equalization of pay for White and African-American soldiers and the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 in 1864.  He also favored Radical Reconstruction, with its insistence on enforcing the civil rights of former slaves.  And he worked hard to remove President Andrew Johnson (in office 1865-1869), an unapologetic racist and foe of the former slaves, from office.  The saint’s methods constituted an overreach, but his heart and mind were in the right place.  (Johnson had said of the former slaves,

Damn them!

To call him a twit is to understate the case greatly.)

As a man Stevens encouraged people to virtue and tried to act kindly, despite his acerbic tendencies.  He discouraged his nephew from drinking.  And Stevens was a kind employer to the workers at his iron works.  Steeped in the Bible, Stevens, as a state legislator in 1842, opposed capital punishment, stating,

Society ought to know nothing of vengeance.

Eight years earlier, he had pushed through the legislature a law creating free public schools in the commonwealth.  A year later, in 1835, he had prevented that law’s repeal.  The major complaint against free public schools was that some people did not want to pay for schools they did not intend to use.  But, Stevens rebutted, people already paid for courts and jails they did not intend to use.

Stevens, as a political creature, supported equality of access to opportunities for social advancement and personal improvement.  This led him to favor a strong role for the government in society, hence his support for public schools and for public works projects, such as those of Henry Clay’s proposed American System.  Stevens was a natural Federalist then Anti-Mason then Whig then Republican.  As I have explained to students in U.S. history courses, the political labels “Democratic” and “Republican” have been constant since 1854 yet the substance of them has changed more than once.  The fact that a certain historical figure fit into a particular political party in the 1800s does not mean that he or she would find a home there or in its successor today.  My readings about Stevens and my knowledge of modern U.S. politics cause me to conclude that he would not have fit easily into the post-Goldwater and Reagan Republican Party.  Certainly the Southern Strategy (appealing to Southern segregationists, beginning in the 1960s) would have offended his morality.

Stevens died about midnight on August 11-12, 1868, after having been ill for a while.  At the tail end of his life he received  a Roman Catholic baptism.  How conscious he was of this baptism was uncertain then and remains at least as uncertain today.  Yet we can be certain of the fact that there was a Protestant funeral him to rival the Roman Catholic funeral.

Professor Hans L. Trefousse, author of Thaddeus Stevens:  Nineteenth-Century Egalitarian (Chapel Hill, NC:  University of North Carolina Press, 1997), the main source of my notes for this post, concluded:

His policies often sounded harsh, whether vindictive or not, but his legacy made possible racial progress in the twentieth century, finally showing that his life had not been a failure.  Ahead of his time, he worked for an interracial democracy.  It was a goal for which he assuredly deserves to be remembered.

–page 245





Holy and righteous God, you created us in your image.

Grant us grace to contend fearlessly against evil

and to make no peace with oppression.

Help us, like your servant Thaddeus Stevens,

to work for justice among people and nations,

to the glory of your name,

through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord,

who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,

one God, now and forever.  Amen.  

Hosea 2:18-23

Psalm 94:1-15

Romans 12:9-21

Luke 6:20-36

Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), page 60

Twenty-Second Day of Easter: Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year B   Leave a comment

The Good Shepherd

Loving One Another Can Be Risky

APRIL 25, 2021


Acts 4:5-12 (New Revised Standard Version):

The day after they had arrested Peter and John for teaching about Jesus and the resurrection, the rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired,

By what power or by what name did you do this?

Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them,

Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is “the stone that was rejected by you, the builders;/it has become the cornerstone.  There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.

Psalm 23 (1979 Book of Common Prayer):

1 The LORD is my shepherd;

I shall not be in want.

2 He makes me lie in green pastures

and leads me beside still waters.

3 He revives my soul

and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I shall fear no evil;

for you are with me;

your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me;

you have anointed my head with oil,

and my cup is running over.

6 Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,

and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

1 John 3:16-24 (New Revised Standard Version):

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us– and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?

Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.

And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.

John 10:11-18 (New Revised Standard Version):

Jesus said,

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away– and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.

The Collect:

O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


Some Related Posts:

Twenty-Second Day of Easter:  Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year A:

Twenty-Second Day of Easter:  Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year B:

Acts 4:

1 John 3:

John 10:

Very Bread, Good Shepherd, Tend Us:

Shepherd of Souls, Refesh and Bless:


We read in 1 John 3 that we ought to “love one another,” as the text tells us, “not in word or speech, but in truth an action.”  In other words, talk is cheap and writing nice sentiments is easy, but loving actively matters.  The Good Shepherd of John 10 lays down his life for the sheep, which is what Jesus did. And, when we turn to the lesson from Acts 4, we need to know that Peter and John are facing charges before the Sanhedrin.  Peter had just healed a crippled beggar at Temple’s Beautiful Gate then delivered a sermon.  Now he faced charges of “proclaiming that in Jesus there is resurrection of the dead.”  Peter, who had recently denied Jesus three times, did not back down this time.  He loved Jesus in truth and action.

Psalm 23 speaks poetically of God setting a table for us in the presence our enemies.  Yes, loving one another will make enemies for us.  What is so allegedly offensive about love?  Despite much rhetoric to the contrary, many of us, in our societies, enjoy privileges derived from unjust inequality.  There will always be some inequality, such as that based on the fact that some people are more talented in certain ways than are others.  This is fine, for absolute equality is not desirable, as constitutes universal mediocrity.  Those who stand out because of their talents have something valuable to teach the rest of us.

But there is artificial inequality, the sort I find offensive.  This results from marginalizing people unjustly, for reasons such as physical disability, sex (usually female), ethnicity, and race.  This treatment of people stifles their opportunities to explore and develop their God-given talents and, in so doing, retards the progress of the society which condones and practices it.

And, when the wages of many are unjustly depressed and the wealth of a relative few is vast and growing, there is a basic instability in an economic system.  We will always have the wealthy and the poor among us for a set of reasons, but a narrower gap between the two economic extremes is healthy for society.  It also comes nearer to reflecting God’s economy, in which there is enough for everybody.

To resist unjust inequality properly is to act out of love for one’s neighbors.  It also threatens the status quo and  is, in some cases, criminal.  Under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, for example, helping an escaped slave gain his or her freedom was a federal felony.  I think also of those courageous Righteous Gentiles (often Christians) in Europe who sheltered Jews at great risk to themselves during the time of the Third Reich.  I hope that, if dire circumstances and the Law of Love ever require, I will have the moral courage to become a criminal in the style of those who sheltered Jews and escaped slaves.

As risky as loving our neighbors can be, we can take comfort that God will set a table for us in the presence of our enemies.  If God is for us, who can be against us and triumph in the end?

May we love one another regardless of the risks.  We are sheep; may we recall what our shepherd has done for us and follow him.



Published in a nearly identical form at LENTEN AND EASTER DEVOTIONS BY KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR on July 31, 2011