1848: Responding to the World

by Rick Teller '70, Williston Northampton Archivist

WNS15ALM10_175l small lr“Youth ought to be in a course of preparation for that field of great interest now opened to us in the providence of God. . . . What say you? Shall I not resign my situation and enter at once into the work of getting some in a course of training for Africa?”

It is April of 1848. Williston Seminary’s first Principal, the Rev. Luther Wright, has returned from a public meeting, full of excitement over the news of Liberia’s declaration of independence. Liberia, in West Africa, had been created in 1821 by American Abolitionists, specifically the American Colonization Society, as a haven for Free Blacks.   Over the next decades thousands of African Americans, most of them free-born, emigrated to Liberia.  Perhaps the Society’s motives ranged from naïve to unsavory – there was a suggestion that White New Englanders, while hating slavery, were nonetheless happier in a monochrome society.  But in 1847, Liberia declared its independence.  It would no longer be a subsidiary client of the ACS, but Africa’s first republic, governed by Africans.

A map of Liberia and environs, from the 1830s (Library of Congress)
An 1830 map of Liberia and environs (Library of Congress)  (Click images to enlarge)

Writing to his friend, the Rev. Lavius Hyde of Becket, Mass., Wright declared his desire to embark upon a program to train young free Blacks to be educators and leaders in the new country.  He also commented on the United States’ war with Mexico, and on the rise of the Second Republic in France.  He shared his concern over the health of friends, and even told a story about his boyhood friend and current employer, Samuel Williston.  Wright’s personality resonates through the letter. Such documents provide students of history not only with contemporary references to world and national issues, but with the immediacy of one man’s response to the world in which he lived.  (The full text of the letter is transcribed below.)

The first page of Luther Wright's letter.
The first page of Luther Wright’s letter.

Rev. Lavius Hyde1

East-Hampton, April 2, /48
Sabbath Evening

Dear Brother Hyde,

Yours of yesterday is before me, and I thank you much for it.  Truly I am glad to hear from you and yours.

I have just returned from our Monthly Concert, and though it is half past nine o clock yet I must write to Brother Hyde this evening.   My soul is pained as well as yours at this unrighteous Mexican war.  I want words to express my emotion in view of it.  I try often to express my feelings as my pupils can testify.  They will remember me, I am sure, for my detestation of this war & all wars.   Southern Africa was our subject this evening at the concert.  I pointed the audience to another bright spot on our map that hangs in the Hall, viz. Liberia.  You know if I was so near that, as Southern Africa, I would not let slip the opportunity to direct the attention of my hearers to that dear spot.  I told them that colored youth ought to be in a course of preparation for that field of great interest now opened to us in the providence of God.  And now brother Hyde could I not do something to arouse the minds of Christians to this great subject?  What say you?  Shall I not resign my situation and enter at once into the work of getting some in a course of training for Africa?  Can I not find some friends in one place and another who will favor & patronize such a blessed enterprise?  Let a few be clustered in one city, and an upper chamber, and a few in another in a still and quiet way, &c, &c.  Is this a visionary project?  I know not how to die, till I have done something for poor Africa that God’s will be done, He doeth all things well.

Principal Luther Wright, who served from 1841 to 1849
Principal Luther Wright, who served from 1841 to 1849

Yes, truly, what a revolution that is in France!  But, if I understand it, next Sabbath is the day of their election for their 900 or more deputies for Legislature of the new so called Republic!  Consequently I predict a speedy downfall of their imaginary Republic.  No Republic can live without the Sabbath.

One word of explanation for Mr. Williston.  When the last Tariff was settled in Congress it was arranged that the article of which his buttons are made should be charged a very low duty.  And in order to convince the Custom-House officers that the article was for that specific purpose & for no other, it was cut in various ways which process of cutting did not injure it for his business, but spoiled it for any other purpose.  This being the understanding, where is the fraud?2

We are getting on very pleasantly with our school: — about 150 pupils; not far from 80 Classical.

We all have our troubles.  You, it seems, have some on the mountain, as well as I in the valley.  May we both read the 46th Psalm & trust in Christ. If we do this habitually, we shall soon be in that golden streeted City, whither so many of our beloved ones have already gone.  How many of my friends have recently left me!  Mr. Hall, Mr. Crocker, and others highly valued by me.  In a few months many have passed away.  I shall soon, if I live much longer, begin to speak of the “leavings of Pharsalia,”3 as did one of Hannah More’s correspondents to her.  May we finish our course well & be ready to meet those who died in Christ in the mansions above.

Mr. Ely is still at the hospital.  I know not much about him quite lately; though my impression is that it is a very sad case.  The family are here in town, in trying circumstances.  They need the sympathies of all.

Mrs. Wright & Sarah will write Mrs. Hyde soon.  They are well & send love.

Come see us as soon as you can & spend some time with us.  It would do us all good to see you & Mrs. H. at our home in the valley.   If you have anything to say to me about my obligation to poor Africa say on & let me read it soon.

Your very affectionate friend,
L. Wright

P.S.  If you see br. Humphrey, please ask him if he heard of any thing when he was in N. York in Nov. to encourage the friends of African education?  In Sept. he told me he should bear it in mind.  My very kind regards to Mrs. Hyde.

Luther Wright (1796-1870) resigned his position at Williston Seminary in 1849, in part because he felt that he could not meet Samuel Williston’s high expectations.  He never went to Liberia.  For the remainder of his life he lived on his ancestral Easthampton farm, “in most gracious service of the church and public schools of the town.”4


  1.  In a long career as a clergyman, Lavius Hyde (1789-1865) led congregations in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island.
  2. Local wits had circulated a story, probably true, that Samuel Williston had avoided paying the tariff  on high-quality imported fabric by asking the weaver to punch a few holes in the cloth, so that it could be imported as rags.
  3. An obscure classical reference derived from a passage in Joseph Addison’s equally obscure Cato.
  4. Joseph Henry Sawyer, A History of Williston Seminary (Easthampton: Trustees of Williston Seminary, 1917), 105.

Wright’s letter was acquired by the Archives through the generosity of Richard S. Prescott.

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