Browsing in Our Archives: John G. Fee and Abolitionism in Kentucky

By Jacob F. Lee
Special Collections Assistant

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Edward C. Thurman (1882-1950) working with his philatelic collection shortly before his death. Edward C. Thurman Collection, The Filson Historical Society.The collections at The Filson sometimes reveal items that, due to older cataloging methods, have not been appreciated for their content. In 1950 the Edward C. Thurman Collection was donated to The Filson.

Cataloged shortly after its donation, the Thurman Collection was identified primarily as a grouping of postal covers and cancellations from the pre-stamp era. In mid-2006 the Thurman Collection was recataloged as part of an initiative to bring older collections up to The Filson’s current cataloging standards. Among the items in the collection were a large number of letters concerning Kentucky’s pioneer and antebellum periods, including a letter from abolitionist John G. Fee (1816-1901) describing his early work in Kentucky.

Born in Bracken County, Fee was educated at Augusta College in Augusta, Kentucky, before attending the Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati. In 1844 Fee returned to Kentucky and began working as a minister in Lewis County. From Fee’s earliest abolition work in the state, proslavery forces attacked him, both physically and in print. Devoted to nonviolence, Fee relied upon Cassius M. Clay, arguably the most famous antislavery Kentuckian, for protection. Clay also gave to Fee the land that became the town of Berea. After the two men broke over ideological differences in the 1850s, Fee worked to establish an integrated college in Berea. However, a proslavery mob drove Fee out of the state, and it was not until 1866 that he founded the school that became Berea College in 1869. Until his death in 1901 Fee opposed segregation and worked for racial equality. 

In the following letter from the Edward C. Thurman Collection, Fee discusses his antislavery work in Lewis, Bracken, and Fleming Counties and describes both his tactics and local sentiments toward him and other abolitionists.

The first page of John G. Fee’s 1848 letter to John E. Benton. Edward C. Thurman Collection, The Filson Historical Society.Cabin Creek P.O. Lewis Co. Ky.
Feb. 22d. 1848
John E. Benton

Dear sir,
I have just received your interesting letter of 9th inst. You and other friends of Gods poor propose to give them the word of life. “He that watereth shall be watered.” You ask can it be done to give the Bible to the slaves as well as to the poor white man. I answer I have done it, and I never have heard of a master or masters refusing that their slaves should have Bibles. I do not know what they may do when they are fully tested by a systematic work which can accomplish something . . . I feel very anxious that you may go on and make a full trial of what can be done. That is an end of responsibility.

I am willing to cooperate with you. I have agreed to receive [Bibles] from friends like you and as far as I can give Bibles to the slave. My work though will be limited compared with that of a colporteur. You ask for a field in Ky. I know of none more favourable to commence in than in Lewis and Fleming and Bracken counties. Bracken County is my native county. I am now living in Lewis near the Edge of Mason – ten miles from Maysville and not far from Fleming County. I expect there is a good field in Barren County Ky. . . . 

For the portion of Ky with which I am acquainted I know of no field more destitute and more favourable for the proposed work than that round about me, taking a part of Lewis, Fleming and Mason. True I am near a rich, wealthy portion of our state and where it is to be expected that destitution would not be found but in slave states as among European aristocracies there may often [illegible] destitution in sight of prodigal abundance.

Let the proposed work be done by all means. Let it be entered upon with resolute determination to carry it through. When I commenced here there was opposition. The mobs assembled. They waylayed me. Our fellow attempted to slow on the highway. God delivered me. The smell of fire is not on my garments. With the threatnings [sic] and false accusations that have been p[r]oclaimed & published against me yet no violence has been done to my person. I met false accusations with truth & over came them. The violator of the peace of society I arraigned before our courts of justice, was successful in having him punished. We have now [illegible] liberty to speak and circulate what we choose. I know my being a native of the state has given me great advantages but I believe the proposed work can be done by a discrete God fearing man from Newyork. One from Kentucky would not be so likely to be mobbed have [h]is person violated and his books burned. And I can find a man in my own congregation a native of the state, who is willing to make trial of the work. . . . 

John Gregg Fee (1816-1901) as he appeared later in life. Frontispiece to Autobiography of John G. Fee, Berea, Kentucky (1891). If you can find a man in Newyork who is devotedly and ardently pious, who will “take his life in his hand” for God & the poor seen him along – better come from Newyork than Ohio – less prejudice from a man from Newyork & more intelligence expected. . . . I would love to see one in this region who would work, hold prayer meetings, and could exhort sinners. Also I would like to have a man in the fie[l]d who would not be afraid to talk with all men on the subject of slavery – know their sentiments – know who would cooperate. We are now forming small antislavery societies in Ky. We have but little to hope for a permanent & pure gospel until slavery is removed. Its removal is “sine qua non.” The public mind is anxious on this question now. The people are asking for something to read on the subject. Nothing is seized with more avidity. I expect to distribute thousands of tracts on this subject. Expect to print in a few days (say 8 or ten) a manual on the subject, showing its moral & social wrongs. Would to God we had more means and then men to scatter the printed truth. Much can be done in this way when the public speaker could not yet get a meeting. Send us, Oh! Send us a working man or else commission the one we have here.

Yours in behalf of a pure Gospel,
John G. Fee

Volume 6, Number 3

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