Monday, February 26, 2018

Red Oak, Ohio and Presbyterians Pledged to Abolition

 Rev. James Gilliland

Follow the north star. Slaves knew a group of stars as the Drinking Gourd. Two stars on the cup’s edge always point to the North Star. By finding the “drinking gourd” in the sky, people traveling at night could always find the North Star that pointed the direction toward a free state. But, once in Ripley, Ohio, escaped slaves would often ditch astronomy and rely upon the Presbyterians and their stations along the Underground Railroad. These brave, faithful Americans helped many to escape a life of bondage.

James Gilliland was born in Lincoln County, North Carolina in 1769. After college, he was licensed to preach by the Presbytery of South Carolina in 1794. He was ordained and installed as the pastor of the Broadaway Congregation in South Carolina in 1796. There, he served his congregation a little less than eight years.

At Broadaway, Gilliland had been silenced because he preached that slavery opposed the will of God. The church courts forbade him to mention slavery from the pulpit, and for eight years Gilliland abided by the court's decision. Yet all the time, he yearned for a place where he could preach as his conscience directed.

Gilliland was determined to reside in another state. After he was dismissed from Broadaway in 1804, he and his extended family came to the free state of Ohio. Gilliland settled at Red Oak in Brown County where he remained the rest of his life with his wife, Frances Baird (who died in 1837), and their 13 children.

Seventeen years later, Hannah Simpson Grant, in her second trimester, carried her first born within her. Less than four months later, she delivered her baby, Hiram Ulysses Grant, in a small cabin, thirty miles downstream from the Rankin family on Front Street. And, it was 1829 when John Rankin moved his wife and nine children (of an eventual total of thirteen) to a house at the top of a 540-foot-high hill that provided a wide view of the village, the Ohio River and the Kentucky shoreline

By that time, the Red Oak congregation had already built their third sanctuary. People with dark skin had been learning to read and write inside the Red Oak Presbyterian Church. The first two sanctuaries were made of log and burned to the ground. In 1817, Red Oak built their third building in stone, which still stands today. Stone could not be ignited by slave owners' torches.

For more than four decades, James Gilliland poured his life and ministry into ending slavery.

The earliest Presbyterian or Reformed congregations in Adams and Brown counties took their names from the creeks which flowed into the Ohio River. One of these streams was Red Oak Creek. Season after season the creek water washed over fugitives' feet, removing telltale scents and confounding slave-hunting dogs.

Reverend Gilliland served both the Straight Creek and Red Oak Presbyterian churches in the years before Reverend John Rankin arrived.

In 1830 Gilliland headed an effort to compose a pastoral letter, together with Samuel Crothers, on the subject of slavery. Eighteen-thousand copies of this letter were printed. The Presbyterian churches at Ripley, Georgetown, Russellville, and Decatur, all of which became well-known for their abolition sentiments sprang from Gilliland's church at Red Oak and for his vehement anti-slavery preaching.

James Gilliland is buried in the pioneer cemetery next to the stone church. He was born in 1769 and died in 1845; his headstone reads, “Faithful Minister, Good Citizen, Ardent Abolitionist, Lover of Liberty, Friend of the Friendless.”

(The church has been recognized by the National Society of Colonial Dames XVII Century in 2000 and the American Presbyterian and Reformed Historical Site No. 289 registered by the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia, Penn. Samuel Salisbury hosted the installation of Gilliland in 1806; Salisbury family members are still active in the parish. Rosa Washington Riles is one of the most famous members of the church. She is better known as “Aunt Jemima” of Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix fame. Rosa became Aunt Jemima in the 1950s, following the death of Nancy Green, the former Aunt Jemima. Rosa died in 1969 and is buried in the "newer" cemetery at Red Oak, beside her parents, husband and daughter. A collection of Aunt Jemima memorabilia is housed in the church, recording the celebrity of Rosa Washington. Every year a pancake breakfast is even held at the early 19th century Presbyterian church on the same property. The proceeds are used for the upkeep of the old part of the cemetery next to the church where several Revolutionary War veterans are buried. )

The Dunlap Connection

William Dunlap, the reviewer of early road surveys, settled six miles north of the Ohio River, and helped found the Presybyterian congregation at Red Oak in 1797, almost twenty years before Ripley chartered a Presbyterian church.

Fleeing feet were probably foremost in his mind when he helped point Ohio's earliest roads toward Paint Valley and Greenfield. Ohio's freedom train ran on tracks of close family relations in those places.

William Dunlap fathered Dr. Milton Dunlap, a doctor who arrived in Greenfield in 1829 at the age of 22. Strict Orthodox Red Oak Presbyterians focused on duty, especially duty to the God who voiced concern for the oppressed. They understood life as duty expressed through concern for justice.

Greenfield, Red Oak, and the early line of antislavery homes running through Adams County pulled together. When the Greenfield history mentioned Dr. Milton Dunlap's sister, the Widow McCague, it confirmed Dunlap “installed” his sister as housekeeper because she stood up for her convictions. G.L. Corum, author of Ulysses Underground, rightly stated. “These families raised children with spines of steel.”

In 1845, Dr. Dunlap offered hospitality to Frederick Douglass. Enslaved in Maryland, Douglass had disguised himself as a sailor and escaped in 1838. A decade after *Weld lectured in Greenfield, author Frederick Douglass came town for the same purpose and stayed in the home of Dr. Milton Dunlap for a week. It is written, “During his stay he delivered several impassioned addresses in local churches and made many converts to the cause of abolition. When he left, he was presented with a good riding horse and saddle.”

(In 1834, Connecticut-born Theodore Weld ignited an abolition explosion within Lane Seminary, forty miles west of Ulysses Grant's home. Repercussions sent abolition lecturers into every town around the Grant family. Ulysses matured in the middle of this movement and had mentors on both sides.)


G.L. Corum. Ulysses Underground. 2015.

Marla Toncray. “Faith of Our Fathers -- The quiet history of Red Oak Presbyterian Church” The Ledger Independent. June 10, 2011.

Many people with Greenfield connections made a difference.”

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