Religious Conflict and the Evolution of Abolitionism at Knox College

Galesburg has George Washington Gale’s name written all over it, literally. As the founder of Knox College and Galesburg, Gale brought his abolitionist beliefs into their foundations. Today, Knox proudly displays its abolitionist history, yet, the history is more complicated; it is a history of religious and moral strife. Gale’s abolitionist actions changed with developing church strategies, and this conflict in turn shaped Knox’s abolitionist policies. Knox may have been founded with the goal of developing morality in students, but this idea weakened with time and it did not live up to its standards.  Differing religious views held by groups in Galesburg of the immediate abolition of slavery led to a dwindling of active abolition in Knox College’s culture. 


Pamphlet with "A Brief History of Knox College" by George Washington Gale and "Public Men, and Public Institutions of the Church" by Jonathan Blanchard

The spread of religion and religious conflict were entwined with education in Knox College’s foundation. The animosity between Presbyterians and Congregationalists is demonstrated by early college leadership and their contrasting anti-slavery beliefs. Gale and many other Presbyterians were central to Knox’s beginnings, as well as Congregationalists, and they shared a church. Yet the two denominations started to clash as they expressed their abolitionist sentiments. The founders of Knox set out as radical abolitionists. They received funding from anti-slavery groups. However, in some ways this also limited the financial support they received from other sources.[1] The first president, Hiram Kellogg, was made to leave as he didn’t bring in enough support. He believed this was because of a lack of support from Eastern conservatives who “objected to Knox’s overly ‘radical anti-slavery reputation’”.[2] Gale was of this opinion. He wished not to create more conflict in the church and receive more financial support, so he grew less and less radical. Overall, the Presbyterians valued church membership and finances more than their anti-slavery morals.[3]

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My Life Work by Jonathan Blanchard

Address on his abolitionist and religious career

On the other hand, Knox’s second president, Congregationalist Jonathan Blanchard, brought with him a fury of anti-slavery sentiment. Blanchard came into the job with strong morals he was prepared to share with the college. He addressed his beliefs on the actions of church figures in an address titled “Public Men, and Public Institutions of the Church.''[4] He strongly believed the church could not in good conscience work with groups who supported slavery. He had been a long time advocate of abolition, and he discussed this in his speech: “At Plattsburg in 1834 I advocated the ‘immediate abolition’ of slavery, because I saw it was defying God, and destroying our country.”[5] As part of the immediatism movement of abolition, he believed action needed to be taken right then. This type of abolitionist thinking can be understood through the lens of Edward Beecher, an abolitionist and supporter of Blanchard. Beecher similarly held immediatist beliefs. Robert Meredith discusses Beecher’s abolitionist journey in his biography of him. Meredith writes, “[Beecher] felt himself implicated in a kind of sin: ‘to treat slaveholding as no crime, and to give the same honor to those who are guilty of it as to others, is to sustain it’.”[6] This supports Blanchard’s attitude that one cannot just be a bystander to slavery, as that makes one guilty as well. Blanchard’s side believed they could not just accept the status quo and had to take action. 

The conflict led to an investigation of the founding of Galesburg and Knox. A committee met to conduct this examination, and they created a collection of their evidence and findings.[7] Gale and the Presbyterians argued they never meant to make Knox a sectarian school: “The founders of Knox College designed it to be…a co-ordinate instrumentality, jointly with others, to diffuse knowledge and to promote morality and religion in this young but prospectively rich and glorious country.”[8] The original goal was to develop students’ ethics. Although founded with the intention of working together, the school became more and more divided. Eventually the tensions became too much for the community and both Blanchard and Gale were asked to resign from the faculty.[9]


Rights of the Congregationalists in Knox College

Committee evidence and findings on the conflict between Congregationalists and Presbyterians in Galesburg

This event had a lasting impact on Knox’s attitude for social change. Blanchard may have been asked to resign, but that didn’t mean he didn’t have support in Galesburg. Knox students and faculty resisted his departure. Notably, nine out of ten of the graduating seniors protested by failing to participate in graduation ceremonies. Blanchard was then kept on as a faculty member for one year.[10] In the end, Blanchard left and the presiding Knox leaders demonstrated their disagreement with his policies. The appendix of the investigation includes third Knox president Harvey Curtis’s inaugural address. He supports the argument that Knox wasn’t intended to be sectarian, stating that it was meant to have a culture of Christian community and cooperation. He continues this idea with his vision for Knox post-conflict, which was a place of little strife. He writes, “ the college is not the place, and this early stage of education is not the fitting time, in which to inculcate distinctive opinions on doubtful or contested points, either in religion or morals.”[11] College wasn’t the place to discuss controversial issues. Curtis acknowledged that professors would have opinions, but, “they should not compromise the character of the college by becoming propagandists of any individual or partizan peculiarities.”[12] Rather, professors should be neutral. He claims that this is because students should be able to form their own opinions. Yet in the context of the time, this implies a lack of discussion of abolition.

Meanwhile, Blanchard continued to attempt to spread his beliefs at Wheaton College. He believed American Christianity needed saving and he was being called to do so in Wheaton.[14] He became president of the college, where he was committed to religious orthodoxy. He also made attempts towards diversity, such as introducing the Lovejoy scholarship that supported Black students. [15] Owen Lovejoy was an abolitionist, trustee of Wheaton, and U.S. senator. Blanchard created the scholarship in his memory.[16] In his study comparing Knox and Wheaton, Thomas Askew summarizes Wheaton’s development with Blanchard: “Henceforth, it tended to gather as supporters and friends a body of people who had deep convictions, strong evangelical commitments, and were not afraid to bear criticism from the more worldly wise.”[17] Blanchard’s strong abolitionist and religious beliefs and motivation for action were shared in Wheaton’s culture.

The policies of leaders of Knox and Wheaton bring into question the role of education in activism. The example of Knox shows that it is important to consider the duty education has to cultivate student knowledge. After Blanchard’s departure, Knox became significantly less radical. Knox proudly celebrates its abolitionist foundations, yet glides past the complexities. Blanchard and his conflict with Gale are not as prominently displayed. In exploring and discussing Galesburg, Gale’s name comes up more frequently. President Curtis’s calls for Knox not to instill beliefs in students is still relevant today. The idea that colleges “indoctrinate” students is often discussed in the media today. Like Blanchard’s belief the institution could not collaborate with slaveholders, students should be aware of college actions such as financial partnerships, and have a say in these decisions. By understanding Knox’s history, the community can be informed when moving forward.

Religious Conflict