John Gregg Fee is one of those forgotten heroes of Southern history. Born into a slave-holding Kentucky family in 1816, Fee had a religious conversion that also convinced him that slavery was a sin. He began his ministry amongst much opposition, but gained support and followers. This is his telling of that conversion and his dealings with his more conservative father.
What follows is his own story, in his own words:
My father came to the conclusion that if he would have sufficient and permanent labor he must have slave labor. He purchased and reared slaves until he was the owner of some thirteen. This was a great sin in him individually, and to the family a detriment, as all moral wrongs are.
My mother was industrious and economical; a modest, tender-hearted woman, and a fond mother. I was her first born. She loved me very much, and I loved her in return.
Her mother, Sarah Gregg, was a Quakeress from Pennsylvania. Her eldest son, Aaron Gregg, my wife’s grandfather, was an industrious free laborer, an ardent lover of liberty, and very out-spoken in his denunciations of slavery. This opposition to slavery and his love of liberty passed to his children and children’s children, almost without exception.
In my boyhood I thought nothing about the inherent sinfulness of slavery. I saw it as a prevalent institution in the family life of my relations on my father’s side of the house. These were kind to me, and occupied what were considered good social positions. I was often scolded for being so much with the slaves, and threatened with punishment when I would intercede for them. Slavery, like every other evil institution, bore evil fruits, blunted the finest sensibilities and hardened the tenderest hearts.
Vivid now is the impression made on my youthful mind on seeing a Presbyterian preacher, who was a guest in my grandfather’s house, rise before an immense audience and select for his text, “Cursed be Canaan: a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.” Of course the drift of the discourse was after the plea of the slaveocracy— “God decreed that the children of Ham should be slaves to the children of Shem and Japheth; that Abraham held slaves, and Moses “sanctioned such.”
All this was intensified by seeing a much venerated neighbor, and slaveholder, who had represented the people in the State Legislature, mount his horse, then uncovering his gray hairs, cry out in a loud voice, “The greatest sermon between heaven and earth.” The providence and truth of God led me, in after years, to a very different conclusion.
At the age of fourteen, Fee had his conversion to Christianity and became a Presbyterian. Soon after, he began his study at college in Augusta, Kentucky and Miami University of Ohio. By 1842, he entered seminary in Cincinnati, where he became friends with religious young men who were opposed to slavery.
These brethren became deeply interested in me as a native of Kentucky and in view of my relation to the slave system, my father being a slaveholder. They pressed upon my conscience the text, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and thy neighbor as thy self,” and as a practical manifestation of this, “Do unto men as ye would they should do unto you.” I saw that the duty enjoined was fundamental in the religion of Jesus Christ, and that unless I embraced the principle and lived it in honest practice, I would lose my soul.
I saw also that as an honest man I ought to be willing to wear the name which would be a fair exponent of the principle I espoused. This was the name Abolitionist, odious then to the vast majority of people North, and especially South. For a time I struggled between odium on the one hand, and manifest duty on the other. I saw that to embrace the principle and wear the name was to cut myself off from relatives and former friends, and apparently from all prospects of usefulness in the world.
Soon after the submission and consecration referred to, the question arose, Where ought Ito expend my future efforts, and manifest forth this love to God and man? I had invitations to go with class-mates into the State of Indiana, into communities thrifty and prosperous, with multiplied schools and growing churches. This was enticing to young aspirations, even to those who intended to do good. I was also considering seriously the duty of going with M. Campbell, my classmate, to Western Africa; and was in correspondence with the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in reference to my going as a missionary abroad.
Whilst these fields of labor were being considered, there came irresistibly the consideration of another field: that part of the home field which lay in the South, and especially in Kentucky, my native State. Then came before me my relation to the slave. I had shared in the fruits of his unrequited toil; he was blind and dumb, and there was no one to plead for him.
“Love thy neighbor as thyself” rang in my ears. I also considered the condition of the slave-owner. I knew he was willingly deceived by the false teachings of the popular ministry. I knew also that the great part of the non-slaveowners, who were by their votes and action the actual slaveholders, did not see their crime; that they despised the slave because of his condition, and that these non-slave—owners were violently opposed to any doctrine or practice that might treat the slave as a “neighbor,” a brother, and make him equal before the law.
I knew also that the great body of the people were practically without the fundamental principle of the Gospel, love to God and love to man; that, as in the days of Martin Luther, though the doctrine of justification by faith was plainly written in the Bible, yet the great body of people did not then see it; so now the great doctrine of loving God supremely and our neighbor as ourselves, “on which hang all the law and the prophets,” though clearly written in the Bible, was not seen in its practical application by the great mass of the people. Such was my relation to this people, and theirs to God and the world, that I felt I must return and preach to them the gospel of impartial love.
In my bedroom on bended knee, and looking through my window across the Ohio river, over into my native State, I entered into a solemn covenant with God to return and there preach this gospel of love without which all else was “as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.”
I had kept up correspondence with my father, and told him my convictions and purposes. He was greatly incensed, and wrote, saying, “Bundle up your books-and come home; I have spentthe last dollar I mean to spend on you in a free State.”
Fee then spent the next few years trying to find work as a minister, and continued trying to convince his father of slavery’s wrongs.
By this time it became apparent that my work in trying to convert my father to sentiments of justice and liberty was ended. He had supplied himself, from every possible source, with pro-slavery books and pamphlets, and became violent in his opposition to all efforts for the freedom of the slave. He still hoped to efface my convictions and lure me from my purpose. He offered to pay all bills if I would go to Princeton, New Jersey, and spend a year in the Theological Seminary in that place. This offer I declined. I said, I will not by any act of mine bid God-speed to an institution in which the teaching and practice is subversive of the fundamental principles of the Gospel,—love to God supreme, and to our neighbors as ourselves.
I was offered the pastorate of two churches in the county (Bracken), with abundant support, but on the condition that I would “go along and preach the Gospel and let the subject ‘ of slavery alone.” I replied, “The Gospel is the good news of salvation from sin, all sin, the sin of slave-holding as well as all other sins; and I will not sell my convictions in reference to that which I regard as an iniquity, nor my liberty to utter these convictions for a mess of pottage.”
I saw that my work in that region was ended. But my covenant was upon me to preach the gospel of love in Kentucky. I needed therefore to look for another field.
Fee looked for ministerial work in Cynthiana, but found there “the blight of slavery on every thing around me; the degradation of the slave.” He moved then to Louisville, preaching there for a season before again being asked by the church to give up on abolitionism. He returned home, marrying his childhood sweetheart in 1844. With that, he was invited by friends to preach at a church in Lewis County.
In that community there was but one other church, a small band of Old School Presbyterians. The man who preached to them, once in each month, lived many miles distant, and was pro-slavery in his teachings. I said, These people are practically without the Gospel; this is missionary ground; there is an open door and I will come. Efforts were made to secure for me a partial support. Nearly one hundred dollars were pledged by the people; application was made to the American Home Missionary Society for additional aid; and, as I now recollect, the sum was two hundred dollars. I returned to Bracken County, where I had previously left an appointment to deliver a lecture on the subject of slavery, in the court house in Brooksville, the county seat.
This appointment produced great commotion. Threats of violence were made, and with these came entreaties from relatives and friends to withdraw the appointment. During life, in all new or responsible engagements, I have been slow and careful in making them; but once made, as far as I can now remember, I have met my appointments, or made a vigorous effort in trying to do so.
I went to the appointment,—my wife with me. James Hawkins, then, the nominal slave of my father-in-law, went also, but “followed afar off.” He went not to be seen as a bearer, but to guard the horses and saddles of myself and wife, and this of his own devising;—not known to us. We found in the court house a small audience of men. I delivered my lecture and we came quietly home.
My father was so incensed that he said, “Enter not my door again.” After some two weeks I preached a sermon in Sharon church house. My father was present. After sermon he invited me and Matilda, my wife, to go home with him. Though he opened, for a time, the door of his house, he never opened the door of his heart to the sentiments of freedom to the slave, or to the doctrine of doing unto men as he would they should do unto him.
Fee would go on to found Berea College in 1855, the first in Kentucky that was not only co-ed, but also interracial. During the Civil War, he fled with is family to Cincinnati. Toward the end of the war, he preached to freed slaves at Camp Nelson. Following the war, he grew the college from a one room school house to a full on campus. In the coming weeks, we’ll hear more from John Fee.