Luther Lee…ever heard of him?

For my History of Christianity course, I just finished reading a biography of Luther Lee written by my Ashland professor, Dr. Paul Kaufman. Lee is arguably the most influential person you’ve never heard of in the fight against slavery in America. Names like Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Beecher Stowe and William Lloyd Garrison you likely are familiar with. Before this biography, no one had ever told the story of Luther Lee.

After a conversion to Christianity in his teens, Lee sensed a divine calling to ministry. Having barely passed his deacon’s examination, he began his career as a circuit rider with the Methodist Episcopal church. Riding horseback from city to city throughout northern New York, Lee preached the gospel in open-air, public venues. It was during this time he heard the story of Elijah Lovejoy, a Presbyterian minister who was killed for his abolitionist views. Lee was so angered by this story that he set out on what would become a relentless 50-year struggle to rid the Methodist church of its tolerance of slavery.

With no formal education and with barely enough money to feed his family, Lee rose to the ranks of the fiercest, most well-trained abolitionists in American History. In a public speech (in a highly pro-slavery area) Lee called a law that supported slave-catching (requiring anyone to report to police if they found an escaped slave): “a war upon God, upon his law, and upon the rights of humanity; that to obey it, or to aid in its enforcement, is treason against God and humanity…I never had obeyed it- I never would obey it.” He then proceeded to tell the audience, which included police officers, his home address, knowing that if he were to be thrown in jail he had “friends enough to level it to the ground before the next morning.” 

He embarrassed pro-slavery preachers in public debates that filled schoolhouses and churches to overflow. He battled for women’s right to serve in ministry. He advocated fair labor conditions for women forced to work 15-hour days as seamstresses. He stood toe-to-toe with Harvard-educated Universalists to defend the Trinity, the authority of the Bible, and the exclusivity of Jesus for salvation…and he made them look silly! He was an outspoken advocate for temperance at a time when America’s consumption of alcohol was the highest per-capita it has ever been (yes, higher than today). He actively assisted runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad, begging train operators to let them ride to Canada where they would be free. 

If you want to know about about this obscure yet remarkable man, here is the link to the book.

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4 thoughts on “Luther Lee…ever heard of him?

  1. Eric Asp says:

    Interesting stuff. Can’t say I’ve ever heard of Luther Lee, but it’s interesting to hear your account. Thanks for the synopsis.

  2. Jacob Miley says:

    Well, I assume you finished the book. I must say that I am looking forward to your knowledge and experience overflowing into my life. Also to see how the knowledge will turn into action.

  3. matthewjmcclure says:

    Thanks for commenting, guys.

    The story Luther Lee causes me to ask myself this question: Are there tragedies today that ought to simply derail the course of our lives? Is there an injustice so terrible and so urgent that it ought to be the one thing to which we give our lives, no matter the cost? Slavery was that ‘one thing’ for Lee.

    I don’t know the answer to the question of whether it ought to be the only thing, but I know it has to be at least one of the things to which I give my time and energy and emotion.

  4. mark says:

    I think it’s really interesting that you ask that question.

    When we look back on historical events like this we usually think to ourselves, “I would have been an abolitionist back then” or “I would have marched for civil rights” and so on. But our own disengagement in today’s injustices testifies against us. Slavery still exists today, and we purchase its products often. There are still systematic injustices that contradict the words of Jesus just as shamefully as the slave system did 150 years ago. The government is debating issues such as torture, how to treat illegal immigrants, and, maybe even lesser known, the rights of latin americans to control the resources of their own lands. Where is our voice on these things? Where is the church’s voice?

    Here is what eats at me the most in all of this. If I don’t do anything about this, and I don’t give these things energy, emotion, and action, do I really believe that they are that wrong? Have I just become another complacent observer in history?

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