Forgotten Heroes of Southern History: Joseph Doddridge, Pioneer Minister and Anti-Slavery Advocate

From time to time, we’ll take a look at some forgotten heroes of Southern history – the slaves, the abolitionists, the draft dodgers, the Unionists. Though they fought against the Confederate Cause, they were Southerners through and through. The same Southern blood ran through their veins, and they held the same affection, reverence and undying devotion to their own cause. It’s our duty, Southerners or not, to cultivate, perpetuate and even sanctify their memory and their place in Southern history.

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The Reverend Joseph Doddridge was Pennsylvanian by birth, but Southern by what he might have called the “grace of God.” Born in 1769 near Bedford to parents from Maryland, the Doddridge family moved west to Washington County before Joseph was even four years old. Though near enough to Pittsburgh and western Virginia, the county was so far west was it was basically the wilderness, complete with Native Americans and pioneers. Since there were no real schools in the area, his father sent him to an academy in Maryland. Upon returning, having learned all that he could, Doddridge worked on the family farm.

Along the way, Joseph, along with his three other siblings, was raised in the Wesleyan Methodist tradition, attending the church built by their father. Before the age of twenty, Joseph had found his calling and became a traveling preacher, evangelizing the good word to fellow settlers in western Pennsylvania, Ohio and Virginia. By 1793, at the age of twenty-four, Doddridge had three parishes in Virginia – one in Ohio County, the two others in Brooke. More in Ohio followed shortly, but for the next decade, he would preach regularly in Virginia.

Somehow, he also found time to put in a stint at an academy of higher learning and soon began his career as a medical doctor, moving to Wellsburg, Virginia, and opening a practice, all while continuing his preaching work. 1Narsissa Doddridge, “Memoir of the Rev. Joseph Doddridge, by His Daughter, appearing in Notes on the Settlement and Indian Wars (Akron: The New Werner Company, 1912) 243-256.

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At this time, the Episcopal church in western Virginia had no problem whatsoever baptizing people of color. Some of the churches throughout this part of the South were even integrated. Though Doddridge’s small pioneer churches saw few congregates who weren’t white settlers, before long, the idea of keeping other humans in slavery became distasteful to him. 2George Peterkin, ed., A History and Record of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Dioceses of West Virginia (Charleston, WV: The Tribune Company, 1902.

“Can we charge the most sore-handed despotisms in existence with anything worse than the personal slavery of the African race in our country?” asked Doddridge of another. “No! Even in the piratical states of the Barbary coast, if the Christian slave turns Musselman [Muslim], he is free. Amongst us, if the slave becomes a Christian brother, he, nevertheless, still remains a slave.” 3George Washington Julian, The Rank of Charles Osborn as an Anti-slavery Pioneer (Indianapolis: The Bowen-Merrill Company, 1891) 22.

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Doddridge’s own work as a doctor effected his views on race just as his spirituality had done. Science had not quite yet figured out why some races bore lighter skin, and others darker. Doddridge wrote page upon page of speculation on why the Natives were one color, the Africans another, and the Europeans still another. He wondered what it was about skin color that made members of his own white race feel that black people and Natives were undeserving of rights.

“An African in black, has a woolly head, and a flat nose, he is therefore not entitled to the rights of human nature!” he sarcastically exclaimed in a journal entry. “He is, therefore, a proper subject for slavery.” Similarly, “the Indian has copper colored skin, and therefore the rights of human nature do not belong to him! […] He is, therefore, to be exterminated; or at least despoiled of his country, and driven to some remote region where he must perish!” Finally relenting, he admitted that “Physiology will in time discover this phenomenon.”

From a medical or spiritual point of view, none of this made any sense to Rev. Doddridge:

“Such has been, and such is still to a certain extent, the logic of nations possessed of all the science of the world! – of Christian nations. How horrid the features of that slavery to which this logic has given birth. The benevolent heart bleeds at the thought of the cruelties which have always accompanied it; amongst the Mohammedans as soon as the Christian slave embraces the religion of his master, he is free; but among the followers of the Messiah, the slave may indeed embrace the religion of his master; but he still remains a slave; although a Christian brother.”

Doddridge considered something few at the time took into account. The enslavers, he claimed, “would willingly give freedom to their slaves if they could do it with safety.” They were, he understood, afraid that the freed slaves would simply be barbarians and, at the very least, disrupt society. Therefore, for the benefit of the black race, it was best that they were kept in bondage. But he countered that argument by pointing out: “We debase them to the condition of brutes, and then use that debasement as an argument of perpetuating their slavery.” 4Joseph Doddridge, Notes on the Settlement and Indian Wars (Akron: The New Werner Company, 1912) 45, 47-48.

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Rev. Doddridge lived the rest of his life in Virginia, visiting his sister and son in Ohio in the summers. But come the autumn of 1826, at the age of fifty-seven, with his health in an ever-deteriorating condition, as his biographer and daughter put it: “finding that he gained no strength, hopeless of any favorable change in regard to his health, preferring in the bosom of his family to await the summons which should release him from suffering and from earth, he returned home, as he emphatically said, ‘To die.'”

And on November 9th of that same year “his protracted suffering terminated,” and he died at his home in Wellsburg, Virginia. 5Narsissa Doddridge, “Memoir of the Rev. Joseph Doddridge, by His Daughter, appearing in Notes on the Settlement and Indian Wars (Akron: The New Werner Company, 1912) 271-272.

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Eric
Eric has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, he wrote the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, he decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.
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