A Sandwich minister living on Liberty Street founded the town’s first abolitionist society—31 years before slavery was abolished in the United States.
Despite never being known as a racially diverse town, Sandwich was one of the first towns in Barnstable County, if not the first, to form an anti-slavery society.
In 1830 the total population in the county was 28,514. Fewer than 1 percent of those people were described as colored in the 1830 United States Census based on data from the National Historical Geographic System.
The Reverend Joseph Marsh, born Joseph Mash, was an English-born Methodist minister who moved to Sandwich around 1832. He was a respected glass blower at the Boston and Sandwich Glass Factory and was also known for his sermons across New England.
In the years leading up to the Civil War, the reverend preached across Cape Cod and New England about ending slavery, becoming known for his zeal for both abolition and temperance, which he saw as man being a slave to alcohol.
His fervor was not always met with reverence. At one point he was even stoned for his efforts.
Mr. Marsh began preaching against slavery shortly after moving to America.
Two years after he and his family came to town, Mr. Marsh and five other men founded the Sandwich Anti-Slavery Society, of which he was named the first president.
The very first meeting of the society was held privately at the Main Street home of Edmund Fish on June 27, 1834. In addition to the reverend and Mr. Fish, others in attendance were Josiah Gifford, Seth Freeman, Thomas Puttilow and Josiah Clark.
Ultimately, a total of 83 men and women of Sandwich claimed membership in the society. Many were from the Nye and Tobey families; there were also people named Hallett, Hoxie and Wing.
On Independence Day that year, the first public meeting of the society was held. The Barnstable Patriot reported on July 16, 1834, that the meeting was held at Reverend Cobb’s meeting house, likely located on Main Street, near River Street. There were 29 members present.
In addition to electing officers, the meeting served to outline the society’s constitution. Among its assertions were that all people were created by God to be free and equal and that people were not meant to be bought and sold. The second article of the constitution stated intentions to expose the reality of the conditions under which slaves were kept and to free them of those conditions.
“The object of this Society shall be to collect and disseminate correct information of the character of Slavery, of the actual condition of the Slaves and free people of colour in our country,” it reads. “To endeavour by all means sanctioned by law, humanity, and religion, to affect the total and immediate abolition of Slavery in the United States, and to improve and eleviate [sic] the character of our free coloured population.”
While Mr. Marsh was a Methodist, the organization was made up of members of varying religions. They resolved to meet annually on the 4th of July.
Slavery in Massachusetts had come to an end in 1790, but the establishment of anti-slavery societies in the county was not generally well received. Residents wrote to the local newspapers questioning whether the members of the society were truly unified in their ideals.
“Your Constitution declares in favor of immediate emancipation, while individual members say it is not only impossible but improper,” an unidentified person wrote in a letter in the Barnstable Patriot on August 6, 1834. “Others say it does not mean now, but some future time.”
In the same publication the following March the society responded to the letter, saying in no uncertain terms that its goal was, in fact, immediate emancipation.
“Immediate emancipation brought about in such a way, so far from being full of danger is the only safe way to rid our country of a dreaded evil, of all other the most to be feared,” signed Humanitus and dated January 12, 1835.
Notes from the Sandwich Archives indicate that the second annual meeting of the society in 1835 was held at the West Sandwich (now Sagamore Beach in Bourne) Methodist Church due to “strong opposition found to public meetings.” Likewise, notes from this meeting do not appear to have been published in the newspapers. (What is now Bourne was part of the town of Sandwich until the new town was formed in 1884.)
By the third annual meeting, the society was again meeting publicly. In 1836 the meeting was held at town hall and Ezra Tobey was named the president. The minutes from that meeting again respond to opposition, stating that those in the societies are people of peace.
To that end, the society claimed that if blood were to be shed in the freeing of enslaved people, the blood should be that of the abolitionists and not the slave or slaveholder.
“We wish to do them only good—to redeem themselves from iniquity, no less than their slaves from a cruel bondage,” Mr. Gifford said in the minutes. “It is not our fault that they do not, or will not understand, that this is with us a high moral and religious question; that we shall as soon deny our God, and worship idols, as abandon the advocacy of the rights of man; that we are ready to go to the gibbet or the stake, sooner than forsake the cause of our enslaved countrymen; but that we will not fight for them with carnal weapons.”
Mr. Gifford added that if freed slaves were to become violent, the abolitionists would not assist them.
He said the abolitionists were willing to fight for and, if need be die for, the freedom of the slaves. However, they were not willing to murder another person to that end.
He also said that any war that might come from the abolitionist movement would not be the fault of the anti-slavery societies.
“If a servile war should desolate the South, it will be justly attributable not to what we have done, or written, or said; but to what our opposers have said, written and done, to excite the fears of the masters, and the false hopes of the slaves,” he said. “We would emancipate the slaves only by the spirit of repentance in the bosoms of their masters; and procure the abolition of the system of oppression, only by the power of the corrected public opinion.”
Shortly after Texas declared independence from Mexico and applied for annexation to the United States, the society held its fourth meeting. Among Texas’s demands at the time was that the citizens of the territory wanted to be able to keep their slaves. Members of the anti-slavery society were not agreeable to these demands.
The society passed nine resolutions at this meeting, three of which specifically related to the abolition of slavery. The first was the need to elevate the character and living conditions of free Black people, second that the annexation of Texas under the conditions at the time would be a great evil that they were in protest of, and the third being that the Congress had the complete power to abolish slavery as well as the ability to end to slave trade in Washington, DC.
During this time, Sandwich was not the only anti-slavery society in the county. Barnstable, Chatham, and Brewster had also established chapters in those towns. However, Mr. Marsh was not satisfied by this and by 1839 was publicly calling for the formation of a county-wide convention in the name of abolishing slavery.
He wrote to the Yarmouth Register in March of that year, calling for the abolitionists of the county to gather for the purpose of forming the Barnstable County Anti-Slavery Society.
“We believe there is as much good feeling and deep interest in the great cause of human rights on the Cape as in any other section of the country,” he said. “Only let a channel be opened through which the philanthropy of our people may flow out, and we believe we shall not be behind any other community of our fellow citizens, of equal means, in every good word and work.”
The convention happened the following month and the countywide society was formed. Mr. Marsh was elected to be one of the vice presidents of that organization.
He traveled across the state preaching abolition, though not always to appreciative crowds. The Barnstable Patriot reported after the war about an anti-slavery lecture given at the Methodist Episcopal Church in Wareham in October 1838 where the proceedings were cut short by an angry, drunken mob. As the paper tells it, the reverend was lucky to survive the attack.
“There was a window in the rear of the pulpit and a stone came crashing through this window, evidently aimed at the lecturer’s head, but a heavy window-curtain saved him probably, from instant death,” the article states.
The reverend continued to speak on Cape Cod about emancipation even as he was reassigned as a preacher to different churches in the commonwealth. As the country marched closer to war, he spoke at sermons and conventions on behalf of the Free Soilers and the Liberty Party.
Once the war had begun, a letter to the Barnstable Patriot editor noted that the reverend had predicted the war 20 years earlier. The author’s identity is not in the letter, which tells of a discussion on slavery held at the Congressional Church in Orleans in September 1861.
Mr. Marsh was the selected speaker at the event.
“The preacher thought that Slavery was the chief cause of the Southern rebellion, and recommended its abolition by an amendment of the Constitution,” the author wrote. “He predicted the civil war now upon us twenty years ago, and for so doing was stoned in the streets.”
During war years, there was little mention of the societies in the Barnstable Patriot and Yarmouth Register. However, the reverend’s involvement in the movement was recalled throughout the remainder of his life.
Of the original six founders of the Sandwich Anti-Slavery Society, Mr. Marsh was one of only two who is known to have survived to see the passage of the 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution, enacted in 1865, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude in the United States. The other was Mr. Freeman, who moved to Peoria, Illinois, in 1840 and lived until 1895.
Mr. Fish, Mr. Gifford, and Mr. Puttilow all died a decade or more before the Civil War even started. Credible information about when Mr. Clark died could not be found.
Mr. Marsh died in Sandwich at age 90 and is buried in the town’s Mount Hope Cemetery. His anti-slavery sentiments were mentioned in his obituary, printed in the Barnstable Patriot on May 31, 1887.
“In the early days of anti-slavery agitation his feelings were fully in accord with such men as Garrison and Phillips,” the obituary said, referring to abolitionists Wendell Phillips and William Lloyd Garrison. “His life work taken as a whole, is a pattern to all who would follow the Christ-life, and has left behind him an influence which will not be soon forgotten.”