Let my people go

Today we’re going to look at one of the greatest stories of the entire Bible. It’s a story which dominates the Old Testament, and still echoes today.

It’s from the book of Exodus, and the whole story is too long to read to you. So I’m just going to share the heart of the story, and we’ll talk about it more as we go along.

“Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.’”

But Pharaoh said, “Who is the Lord, that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and I will not let Israel go.”

Exodus 5:1-2

The story of Moses, the struggle to gain the freedom of an entire people, is one of the greatest stories of the Bible. As I said, it’s dominated the thinking and the understanding of God’s people ever since.

The people of Israel had been slaves for four hundred and thirty years when this happened. It wasn’t their fault that they were slaves. It wasn’t their punishment. It wasn’t anything they’d done wrong. They weren’t the first people to be enslaved in human history. And they certainly weren’t the last.

Slavery is an evil we have to fight against in every generation. Every time that people are forced down, every time anyone says this has to be permanent, we need to push back. Because nobody who’s made in God’s image is born to be a slave.

We know that. We know it from the Bible. We know if from our hearts. No one wants to be a slave. Everyone naturally wants to be free.

Down through history, every time people who are slaves have the opportunity to gain their freedom, that’s what they do. The problem comes when other people try to keep them there, or when people stay on the sidelines and won’t decide to help.

Next week is our annual Memorial Sunday. That’s a day we set aside every year at Springfield, to remember our past and remind ourselves about some of the things we did and some of the people who led us over the last 250 years.

Our speaker next Sunday is going to be Max Carter. He’s a Quaker minister from over in Greensboro, who taught at Guilford College for many years. He’s going to be talking about Quakers in this area who were active with the Underground Railroad.

But before Max comes, I’d like us to look at the story which inspired so many people to work and risk everything for freedom.

It wasn’t just Moses deciding that he wanted his relatives to be free. The Lord called to Moses, out in the wilderness, out of a burning bush. The Lord called out, “Moses, Moses!” And Moses said, “Here I am.”

The Lord said, “I have seen the misery of my people. I’ve heard their cries. I know their sufferings. I have come down to deliver them. I’m sending you to Pharaoh, the ruler of the mightiest nation in the world, to bring my people out of Egypt. Go to Pharaoh and tell him, ‘Let my people go!'”

See, it’s not really our decision that people should be free. It’s not just our opinion that’s going on here. It’s the Lord’s decision. It’s the Lord’s opinion, not ours.

The question is, whether we’re going to go along with what God is doing, or whether we’re going to get in the way of what God is doing.

The Quakers were one of the first Christian groups ever to come to complete agreement that slavery is against the will of God. It took Quakers over a generation to reach that decision. It took a lot of soul-searching and convincing.

That time of soul-searching and convincement took place right about the same time that Springfield was founded. Let me share a deep, dark secret: there used to be Quakers who owned slaves.

Some of them tried to be kind masters. Some of them ignored or resisted their conscience. But for more than a generation, Quaker ministers had worked to convince people that slavery is wrong, and to bring Quakers everywhere to full agreement on that point.

Some people said they depended on slave labor, that they’d be ruined if they had to give up keeping slaves.

Other people said that slaves should be grateful, because they were given food and clothing and a place to stay – even if it wasn’t their choice to live in terrible conditions.

Or they said that slaves were too ignorant to live as free people, or that they were racially inferior and didn’t deserve to be free. This was at a time when it was forbidden by law to teach slaves to read and write, when people could be punished for trying to help them.

You know about all this, of course. But I want to refresh our memory, because many of the same, lame arguments keep getting dusted off and re-used, even today.

Some of the greatest early ministers at Springfield devoted years of their lives to convincing people that God’s word, “Let my people go!” was just as active and powerful then as it was to Moses and the people of Israel.

Ministers like Nathan Hunt and John Carter were members of Springfield. They not only preached here, they traveled all around the area and even around the country, bringing their message.

One of the biggest issues which Quakers in the founding generation of Springfield had to face, was that it was Illegal to help enslaved people, either to buy their freedom or to help them escape.

For about 25 years, many Quakers in this area were active in what were called manumission societies.

If you owned a slave and wrote a legal paper to set them free, that was called manumission. In some parts of the South, it was customary to give an especially faithful slave their freedom, perhaps after they saved someone’s life, or at the time of the death of their master.

The Quakers grabbed on to this idea, and organized to free slaves, either by convincing their masters, or by raising the money to buy their freedom.

They ran into a lot of resistance, because other people said that the former slaves would be a burden on the community. They said that former slaves had no land and couldn’t support themselves.

People also said that having freed slaves around would only encourage the rest of the slaves to run away and try to be free themselves.

So, by the 1830’s, laws were passed greatly restricting the possibility of legally freeing people from slavery.

There were also a lot of laws passed to help slave-owners to pursue escaping slaves and force them back into slavery. They were allowed, by law, to cross state lines, even into states where slavery was illegal, and bring them back again.

This forced the Quakers here in North Carolina and here at Springfield into a difficult position.

It’s easy for us to judge them, in 2020 hindsight, and say what they should have done. It was much more difficult, to live every day, and see the daily suffering, and not feel right buying or selling everyday products made by slave labor.

You couldn’t go to the store – you couldn’t go to town and get shoes put on your horse – you couldn’t do hundreds of everyday things, and not come face to face with people who were put down, and people who were putting them down.

Now, Quakers have always tended to be pretty law-abiding people. They read the Apostle Paul in Romans chapter 13, where Paul says: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for this is no authority except form God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.”

Paul argued that it’s better to be obedient, even to a bad government, than to disobey the law, and contribute to anarchy, lawlessness and violence.

Quakers took that very seriously, and there was a lot of pressure not to break the laws about slavery, even when we all agreed that slavery was totally evil.

It was not an easy time to live your faith. Different Quakers came up with different solutions. And not all of them agreed with each other.

  1. A large group of Quakers here in North Carolina simply up and left. They moved to the “free states” – places like Ohio, Indiana and Iowa. More than half the Quakers here in North Carolina made that choice. Entire meetings full of people sold everything they could, and left, rather than participate in a society they felt was founded on evil which was against the will of God.
  2. Many Quakers who stayed here, did their best to disengage their lives from slavery, while remaining within the law. This was not a cowardly choice. The Quakers continued to try to change the laws, to gain privileges for slaves, to do whatever they could to work around the law.
  3. A third group of Quakers, including some here in our meeting, took a deep breath and decided to disobey the law, and help people who were trying to escape to freedom. They joined in what was called the Underground Railroad.

The Underground Railroad was a secret network of slaves, former slaves, and sympathetic white people who helped slaves, mainly from the “border states”, to make their way to freedom, either in the Northern states or in Canada.

The Underground Railroad was active for 30 years, from about 1830 until 1860. It was extremely illegal. The majority of workers on the Underground Railroad were probably African-Americans. They risked severe punishment or even death if they were caught. At the very least, they risked being returned to slavery.

The white people who helped them were mainly Quakers, though there were also people who helped from other denominations as well. They risked huge fines – $1,000 for helping just one slave escape. That would be at least $30,000 in today’s money.

They also risked being despised and cut off by their neighbors, and even by some of their own fellow Quakers who chose to obey the law.

But they felt that God had a higher law than the U.S. government or the State of North Carolina. They heard God telling Moses, “Go to Pharaoh and tell him to let my people go!” And they felt what they read in the Bible took precedence over the laws and customs of their nation.

We have very little surviving evidence from the Underground Railroad. As I said, it was extremely illegal. And also, any papers might have been seized and used to re-capture former slaves and force them back into slavery.

Allen Jay, who came here after the war and spent eight years helping to re-build the shattered schools, meetings and communities in this area, worked on the Underground Railroad as a boy.

Matthew Coffin, who was the clerk of Springfield Monthly Meeting, was a first cousin of Levi Coffin, who was one of the greatest leaders of the Underground Railroad. He would certainly have known what his famous cousin thought about slavery. There’s a very good chance that Matthew Coffin, the clerk of our meeting, might have been active as well.

Over in the Museum, there’s a big stone that was taken from the farm of Allen U. Tomlinson, another clerk of the Monthly Meeting. The stone has an arrowhead scratched deeply into its surface. According to legend, the stone was a marker to point the way to the next stop on the Underground Railroad.

You can see the stone next week, when the Museum is open for Memorial Sunday.

We are still part of the story today. Not just because it’s in the Bible. Not just because it’s part of our own history.

Slavery may be abolished as a legal institution. It ought to be as dead as Pharoah in the Pyramids. But the echoes and scars of slavery, the lingering hatred and the ingrained injustice, are very much alive. We only have to look as far as our own daily news to know that.

This is something which goes deeper than whatever political party we belong to. This is something which involves more than simple solutions.

The Underground Railroad is an amazing part of our history, and we mustn’t forget it. But there is more history, and there are newer, fresher challenges to our conscience and to our choices.

When people are crying, God is still listening. We can’t close our ears. God still cares. We can’t not care.

God still says, “Go and tell the mighty, let my people go!” We can’t be silent.

Thanks for joining us today. This is a complicated issue, and if you’re watching this, I know you all have many different opinions. Please write to me or call me. I’m glad to listen to you.

Springfield Friends Meeting is alive and well, partly because you support it. If you belong to some other fellowship, I hope you support them.

Please pray for us here. Please pray for our community, for our country, and for people everywhere who are in trouble and pray to God for help.

Until we meet again, be safe and stay healthy. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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