A letter to President Lincoln from the Hicksite Quakers
Editor’s note: As part of the nation’s 150-year anniversary of the Civil War, the Henry County Civil War Sesquicentennial Task Force will be publishing a monthly column, written by Henry County historians. The research for the articles comes from Henry County newspapers published between 1861-1865, as well as diaries, journals and letters written by Henry County Civil War soldiers and their families.
By MIKAYLA L. BROWN
and JOY LYNN CONWELL
In late December 1862, the Prairie Grove Monthly Meeting, a Hicksite Quaker congregation in northern Henry County sent a letter to Washington via Senator James Harlan. Caleb Russell and Salie A. Fenton, clerks of the congregation, authored a letter to President Abraham Lincoln “expressing our united approval of thy late Proclamation of prospective Emancipation”.
The Prairie Grove Monthly Meeting was no ordinary Quaker congregation. They were one of only 3 Hicksite Quaker congregations west of Mississippi River. The congregation at Prairie Grove located in northern Henry County, next to the now extinct town of Winona, was joined by congregations in Mt. Pleasant and West Liberty. Hicksite Quakers branched off from the Orthodox Quakers in 1827 when the two groups started to disagree on their basic beliefs and actions. Henry County also had several Orthodox Quaker congregations located in Salem area.
In December 1856, the Prairie Grove Quakers held their first meeting at John Fenton’s house at which time Caleb Russell was chosen as their first clerk. Originally meetings were held in the neighborhood school house. In the fall of 1858, a meeting house was built and a cemetery established on land that was donated by Eli M. Price and Bennet G. Walters. The meeting house was a plain frame building measuring 24 by 48 feet set “on a beautiful dry knoll, surrounded by a grove of maples, box-elders, and evergreens.”
When Lincoln issued a preliminary emancipation proclamation in September 1862, the Prairie Grove congregation wishing to show its support for Lincoln’s actions, authorized Russell and Fenton to send a document of support to Lincoln. The text of the letter was as follows:
To Abraham Lincoln
President of the U.S.
On behalf of the Religious Society of Friends in the state of Iowa whom we represent we desire briefly to express to thee the very deep solicitude we feel that in the present perilous condition of the nations life. Thou mayest be favoured to ask counsel of Him, who holdeth the destinies of nations in his hands. We desire to express our united approval of thy late Proclamation of prospective Emancipation. We believe it intrinsically right, and in the direction to bring a permanent peace in our beloved Country and we hope it may be carried out uncompromisingly. At this very late period we can do but very little more than bear our testimony in favour of Justice and Liberty, and like Aaron and Hur of old would gladly hold up thy hands as they did the hands of Moses. In Christian love we subscribe ourselves thy friends
Prairie Grove Monthly Meeting
Henry Co. Iowa
12 mo 27, 1862
Salie A Fenton clerks
On January 5, 1863 Lincoln responded. Philip L. Ostergard, in his book, “The Inspired Wisdom of Abraham Lincoln: How Faith Shaped an American President and Changed the Course of a Nation,” states, “In his letter to Russell and Fenton, President Lincoln opened his heart in a powerful and most meaningful sentiment. As he closed his letter, Lincoln returned to the analogy of American liberty as a birthright given by God. With this birthright, Lincoln believed, comes the sacred responsibility of propagating it to all mankind.” The text of the letter was as follows:
January 5, 1863.
MY GOOD FRIENDS: The Honorable Senator Harlan has just placed in my hands your letter of the 27th of December, which I have read with pleasure and gratitude.
It is most cheering and encouraging for me to know that in the efforts which I have made and am making for the restoration of a righteous peace to our country, I am upheld and sustained by the good wishes and prayers of God’s people. No one is more deeply than myself aware that without His favor our highest wisdom is but as foolishness and that our most strenuous efforts would avail nothing in the shadow of His displeasure.
I am conscious of no desire for my country’s welfare that is not in consonance with His will, and of no plan upon which we may not ask His blessing. It seems to me that if there be one subject upon which all good men may unitedly agree, it is imploring the gracious favor of the God of Nations upon the struggles our people are making for the preservation of their precious birthright of civil and religious liberty.
Very truly your friend;
The Hicksite Quakers of Henry County, both Prairie Grove and Mt. Pleasant, were comprised of a number of noted families. Along with the Russells and Fentons, other noted families included the Dugdale, Price, Walters, Schooley, Murphy, Canby, Cooper, Paxson, Forman, Hatton, Hooper, Mendenhall, and Phillips families. Living their faith, these families were noted for their involvement in efforts related to the abolition of slavery, temperance, women’s right, prison reform, and many others. Following the Civil War, the Rev. Joseph Dugdale, and his wife Ruth, as well as his mother Sarah, an ordained Quaker minister, hosted such noted abolitionists as Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass when they came to Mount Pleasant. The Henry County Hicksite Quakers also counted among their friendships Lucretia Mott, William Lloyd Garrison, Theodore Parker, Lucy Stone, Wendell Phillips, Lydia Marie Child, Cassius M. Clay, along with their friend, Abraham Lincoln. Today, no Hicksite Quaker congregations exist in Henry County. All that remains are the memories of their efforts and their burial site at Prairie Grove.
Editor’s note: Mikayla L. Brown, a senior at Mount Pleasant Community High School, is completing an internship at Chadwick Library, Iowa Wesleyan College, with a specific focus on special collections and historic research. Original letter cited is held in the Dugdale Collection at the Friends Historical Society, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Penn.