Christians, Teetotalers, and Abolitionists. The Foundations of Galesburg and Knox College

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Christians, Teetotalers, and Abolitionists. The Foundations of Galesburg and Knox College

Written by  Owen W. Muelder
Rev. George Gale Rev. George Gale

George Washington Gale arrived in Illinois in the mid 1830s with a colony of people from upstate New York to establish Galesburg and Knox College. These serious minded people were mostly Presbyterians and Congregationalists. Once they had settled in Western Illinois, they committed themselves to establishing their schools. The education of both boys and girls--young women and young men, was considered to be of the highest priority. Religious training of their young people was at the core of the curriculum and central to classroom instruction.

The founders of Knox College were so dedicated to their educational mission that for the first 18 years of the college's existence, classes were conducted on Christmas day. This was the case, not only because they believed in the values of regular hard work, discipline and perseverance, but also because they looked with disdain upon the fact that the Winter Solstice and Christmas were rooted in pagan traditions and on Catholic activities associated with the celebration of Christ's birthday.

When Gale arrived in Illinois he made it clear that he had come to establish, in the Upper Mississippi Valley, a community dedicated to the Bible and social reform. Consequently, he was committed to extending missionary work throughout the region. The missionaries Gale sent out from the college were subsidized by the American Home Missionary Society, an organization established years earlier in the East to help sustain religious communities on the frontier. One of the most dominating features of Galesburg's early years was evangelistic preaching. Gale had been a leading figure in the so called, "Great Revival" in New York before he moved to the West. At the heart of this movement was a religious emotionalism conducted with fire and brimstone zeal. The highly charged oratory delivered by the movement's clergymen and pastors was intended to instill anxiety in those who heard their sermons. They hoped nonbelievers would be converted on the spot and those already in the flock would be reminded to stay on the straight and narrow path.

In addition to the religious mission of Galesburg's founding, there was also a total commitment to supporting and promoting Temperance. Americans who attached themselves to the Temperance movement believed that habitual drinking fostered drunkenness that in turn encouraged crime, poverty, and violence perpetrated on women and children. They also felt that total abstinence from the consumption of alcoholic beverages demonstrated sound morals, self-control, and a refusal to give in to human craving for self-gratification.

A third and very controversial position maintained by the founders of Galesburg, was an uncompromising stance of Anti-Slavery advocacy. George Washington Gale was a member of the American Anti-Slavery Society that had been established in Philadelphia in 1833. Prior to moving to Illinois, Gale had founded the Oneida Institute in upstate New York. The students at this ministers' training school close to Whitesboro had organized the first abolitionist society in the state of New York. After arriving in Illinois, Gale and his followers continued to call for the emancipation of slaves in the United States, despite the fact that most of their neighbors in surrounding villages and hamlets opposed this position.

But the citizens of Galesburg did more than simply talk about the need to free the Nation's slaves. Indeed, they took the more radical action of supporting the movement of fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad. Despite the fact that most people in Illinois, at that time, opposed the work of abolitionists and Underground Railroad agents, a network of UGRR hideouts sprang up across Western Illinois from the mid 1830s until the end of the Civil War. In the state's west central counties, "UGRR stations" were found on farms and in small towns, but the most important Underground Railroad communities were in Quincy, Galesburg, and Princeton. More Underground Railroad lines entered Galesburg than any other community in downstate Illinois. Freedom seekers headed towards Galesburg after they had fled from the slave state of Missouri or from states south of the Ohio River. It was also the case that scores of the enslaved were used on riverboats and barges moving up and down the Mississippi River. Some of these slaves bolted from river crafts when they had determined they had a decent chance of escaping safely. Galesburg became such a safe haven for these fugitives that there is not a single record of a runaway slave being returned to bondage after making it inside the town's city limits. These fugitives were ushered along freedom's highway to other UGRR operators north and northeast of the college town. Ultimate safety was not achieved, of course, until they made it all the way to Canada.

Galesburg remained a community with a notorious abolitionist reputation until the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in 1865. Abraham Lincoln, fully aware of Galesburg's Anti-Slavery background, selected Knox College, during the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas Debates, to deliver his first strong condemnation of slavery on moral grounds.

Mr. Owen Muelder, a retired Knox College administrator, was appointed Director of the Galesburg Colony Underground Railroad Freedom Station at Knox College in July of 2004. He is a noted speaker and writer, especially on the Underground Railroad.