Always Reforming

When I read stories, sometimes it is great to have something straightforward. What Nehemiah does when he returns is quite straightforward. He does not march into town, display his credentials, and occupy the governor’s mansion; instead, he spends three days looking into the ruins that were Jerusalem. Before taking his position, he went and looked at things for himself.

Nehemiah was a reformer. When he came back, the rebuilding of Jerusalem was decades overdue. He heard reports that the old administration utterly failed. They did not rebuild what was to be rebuilt; the people did not have what they needed to survive. The harsh truth is, the biggest problem Jerusalem had was a corrupt leadership. Nehemiah saw for himself before he took a position and continued to do exactly the same things that had been done wrong for decades. Nehemiah was a reformer who cleaned house, and who called out the bad behavior of every level of leadership. A reformer is somebody who embraces a prophetic message and an takes on an administrative role; a reformer is that rare person who both calls for change and implements it.

In today’s Sunday School class we read the words of Priscilla Hochhalter who talked about Quakers work in Abolition before the civil war. This is my favorite part of American Quaker history — perhaps because my Quaker ancestors moved to Kansas to vote “Free”. Today, there is a picnic at the meetinghouse where Abolitionist Friends in Indiana met and organized. They are going to take a tour of Levi Coffin’s home. Levi Coffin, as you might know, is known as the president of the underground railroad.

I think that this is something that we should expound on; When our nation was formed, we might have said that all men are created equal — but it is clear that there were some men who we did not feel were truly men. We built a system that was very different than the ideals that our nation claimed, and there were a number of people who worked very hard to reform the system that is the United States of America.

We live in a place that is rich in this history. Back before the United States became a nation, Friends ended slavery within the Society of Friends. Participating in the system of slavery by owning, or trading in slaves became a disownable offense. In the following century, Friends such as Charles Osborn who preached that those who bought cotton grown and processed with slave labor and used that to make textiles profited from the slave economy just as the slave traders and the slave owners did. Osborn preached that those who bought goods that depended on slave labor to create were supporting this evil system, and shared some of the guilt of the system.

Levi Coffin took on this message fully, and he operated a store that sold slave free items. Like Charles Osborn, he called for people to be free of this economic blood on their hands. Coffin, Osborn, and many others called for a reformation among Friends where Friends would do more than let somebody else do the dirty work — but to find a way to live where nobody had to have their hands dirtied by slavery. Coffin, as well as many others, also got involved in an act of civil disobedience called the underground railroad. The underground railroad helped runaway slaves escape to Canada, where they would be safe from being captured and returned to their owners.

As you might expect, the majority of Friends in Indiana were offended by the suggestion that they shared guilt for slavery. Many felt that it was not appropriate to break the law and help runaway slaves. Levi Coffin, Charles Oswald and other outspoken leaders were kicked out for condemning the economy. A number of people followed them to build a new Yearly Meeting in 1842. Some Meetings in our Quarterly meeting had as many as 40% of their membership join the antislavery yearly meeting. Indiana Yearly Meeting Antislavery lasted from 1942 to roughly 1957. The reason the Anti-Slavery yearly meeting ended was that the larger body invited them to rejoin the Yearly Meeting. It took time, but eventually Indiana Yearly meeting decided that they accepted the prophetic message, and that they would accept those who took part in acts of civil disobedience against slavery back. Levi Coffin, Charles Oswald, and the Hinshaw family living in Henry County, and so many others built an organization from nothing to stand against the evil of slavery. When their organization collapsed, the message continued.

At the same time, there was another voice that was speaking out and doing something in New England. Before John Greenleaf Whittier was a famous poet, he wrote for anti-slavery newspapers. Whittier was a boy who’s love of books was not appreciated by his parents, but he dreamed of writing. When he wrote against slavery he found himself blacklisted by the mainstream. He worked hard for the anti-slavery movement. Not only did he write for anti-slavery newspapers but he became involved in politics. Whittier worked hard building the free soil party, and recruiting candidates to run on that ticket. When the Whig party collapsed, Whittier became active in a new opposition party that included Free-Soil voices called the Republican Party. His hard work was part of the reason legal slavery ended in the United States. While the political work was massive, a big part of what he did was he humanized those who were seen as less than human — let me read one of his anti-slavery poems!

After the Civil War was over, and the thirteens, fourteens, and fifteenth amendments were passed, there was still a lot to be done. There were millions of former slaves who had nothing of their own, could not read, and had never learned the skills to take care of themselves. Levi Coffin continued to work for the cause of bringing the slaves to freedom from 1826 to 1870. After slavery was ended, he worked hard to raise money to provide relief to those millions who were released with nothing of their own. He also worked, along with many others, on educating freedmen so they could take care of themselves. 1870 did not only mark when the 71 year old Levi Coffin retired, but it was also the year that the fifteenth amendment was finally passed, guaranteeing that former slaves were not only free but had full rights as citizens.

Levi Coffin wrote in his memoirs that: “I resign my office and declare the operations of the Underground Railroad at an end.”. By law, the reform that the abolitionists worked for was finish. Reform was hard — Coffin identified with the cause of Abolition or it’s aftermath from age 7 to 70. Even after the government was reformed, people worked hard to ignore or undo it. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated for his work in civil rights almost a century after Levi Coffin’s work ended. Even today, there is a population who wants to reverse such things as the right of all citizens to vote.

Reform is hard. Systems protect themselves when the system is bad. When there is corruption or injustice in the system, those who benefit fight to keep what they have. There is an old phrase that protestants every where know: “The church is reformed, and always reforming.” While I don’t know who said this first — only that it has been said since at least the 17th century. This is the issue with reformation, whether personal or institutional. The job of reforming is never finished.

Last week, I know Karla asked you what difference we will make. This is still an important and powerful question. Levi Coffin started by asking a slave why he was bound back when he was a child. Nehemiah started by listening to his brother, and then seeing the ruins for himself. What reform do we seek, and how do we move forward?


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