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February, 2000

from the Lake Villa - Lindenhurst Review 17 February 2000
Lake County church active in anti-slavery movement
In a darkened room, the Rev. Paul Meltzer struck a match, then lit a candle. In the 1800s, he said, abolitionist meetings were held in quiet places among trusted allies. And in 1859, the Millburn Congregational Church, tucked into the northeastern corner of Lake County, was the perfect venue for such a meeting, he told members of the Lakes Region Historical Society in Antioch a few years ago.
By recreating a scene from that year, Meltzer seeks to evoke the church's history wearing 19th century clothing and using a few small props to assume the role of the Rev. William Bradford Dodge, an abolitionist.
Early Lake County abolitionist history, in fact, was established upon the church's grounds. The gathering of the congregation on Dec. 12, 1859 recorded their commitment to abolishing slavery, something rarely done anywhere in the country.
"Dodge had a long history of involvement in the anti- slavery movement," said Meltzer. Four years ago, a teacher at Woodland School in Gages Lake asked Meltzer to discuss the Underground Railroad with students.
"I decided I'd do a living-history presentation, pretending I was Father Dodge," said Meltzer.
Through his presentation, Meltzer explains the Underground Railroad was a secret network of people, places and forms of transportation to help enslaved people reach freedom in Canada. Illinois was a major route for slaves from Kansas, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana. The goal was to reach Milwaukee or Chicago to use Lake Michigan for the final stage of the journey. Lake County was the land passage to Wisconsin.
Abolitionism was a social reform movement, assuming its most radical form in 1830 when members uncompromisingly opposed slavery. They set the terms for the on-going debate about slavery and made it a compelling moral issue. Few people in the northern United States, were abolitionists and many of those were regarded as dangerous fanatics. It was not a cohesive movement, but instead consisted of many local, state and national groups working generally for the same cause.
Abolitionists active in the 1800s set the ground work and established the ideas used by slavery opponents in the 1900s. Their sentiments had emerged from the early opposition to slavery in the 1750s by the Society of Friends, or Quakers. The underground railroad was an important example of direct action against slavery by abolitionists in the 1800s.
Dodge arrived in Lake County in 1843. He was 61 and an abolitionist.
Born in Salem, Mass., Dodge attended school in the East and started his ministerial career there. He was described as "a man of great rectitude and sturdiness of character" in a 1912 Lake County history written by John J. Halsey. "His influence did much to give Millburn its ancient reputation for 'plain living and high thinking,"' wrote Halsey.
Historian D. A. Williams, in the same history of the county, described Dodge as "loved and respected by all who knew him."
Meltzer said the reputation of Dodge is closely tied to his abolitionist views and activities, but he also was a man of action in other areas. "He had a strong interest in education," Meltzer said. "He took an interest in creation of the public school system in the area."
For example, in the middle 1800s, people feared fire. "People could be just devastated by fire," Meltzer said. Because of those concerns, Dodge worked to create the oldest mutual fire insurance company in Illinois.
Dodge also had a reputation for being a skilled mediator.
In September of 1845, barely after he arrived in the county, Dodge helped organize a meeting of the County Washington Temperance Society. Then, six months later, word went forth from Antioch about a mass meeting Feb. 17 to organize the Lake County Anti-Slavery Society. Dodge was named President of The Liberty Association, formed out of that meeting.
Dodge became Millburn Congregational Church's permanent pastor in 1845. He insisted the congregation build a house of worship; it was completed within two years. During his 16 years of service, his wisdom and character greatly influenced the congregation.
Halsey wrote: "In his hospitable home many temperance advocates and anti-slavery agents found a welcome. From here started many an oppressed slave on the Underground Railway for the land of freedom. It is not surprising to find the church under his leadership giving no uncertain sound against slavery, and pledging to abstain from intoxicating liquors, and for many years standing opposed to secret societies."
In Lake County, in 1844, the center of abolitionist sentiment was in areas near Millburn, Antioch, and Libertyville. In large part, it was Dodge who gave form and action to those beliefs.
County sentiments
"The anti-slavery movement here in Lake County was quite widespread," said Meltzer. Many people came to the county from New England and brought their sentiments with them, he said.
On Dec. 2, 1859, members of the Millburn Congregational Church gathered at a meeting called in response to the death of John Brown, a white revolutionary abolitionist. At the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Va., on Oct. 16, Brown had led five black and 13 white people on a raid intended to provoke a general insurrection by enslaved people. Col. Robert E. Lee and U. S. Marines captured Brown. He was convicted of treason and hanged Dec. 2.
In the records of the church of the meeting by the Millburn Congregational Church are written commitments to the Underground Railroad. "That's the only direct reference to the Underground Railroad in our records," said Meltzer.
It is also one of few documented records anywhere of a reference to the railroad. "It was very unusual for people to put down something (in writing) on the Underground Railroad because it was very risky," Meltzer said. "It is one of those rare instances of documentation."
As a way-station, the church and buildings and places in the area were intended to help people flee to safety. Written records about locations could create trouble for the abolitionists, and yet one man, the Rev. Dodge, took the chance of recording one of Lake County's radical contributions to race relations history.
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