A Prophet Not Easily Discouraged
by Terence Maguire, for the Kennett Underground Railroad Center
Strong advocates of abolition and those actively involved in Underground Railroad activity were often not appreciated by their neighbors. In many instances members of Quaker meetings took the harsh step of “reading out” such zealots from their midst—in a sense, excommunicating them. Wilmington Monthly Meeting considered doing that to Thomas Garrett but stopped short. Marlborough Meeting so discouraged several of its members that they left to help start the Longwood Progressive Meeting, to which John and Hannah Cox donated property (now the Chester County Conference and Tourist Bureau). The Coxes and Isaac and Dinah Mendenhall had been made to feel unwelcome at Kennett Friends Meeting, and they became founders of this new progressive meeting, advocating not only abolition but women’s suffrage, and equality of races.
At the Willistown Friends Meeting, Nathan Evans, an agent of the UGRR, was offending his fellow Quakers, as well as his neighbors, by his unceasing advocacy of abolition. His fellow meeting members “admonished him to cease from bringing these subjects into his sermons.” Though not a fiery speaker, he was not easily discouraged. Eventually, they grew tired of his lecturing and, “he was disowned from membership.”
However, Evans challenged his disownment and had it overturned by Concord Quarterly Meeting. He resumed attendance at Willistown and dwelt on the same subject. On one occasion he went into grim details about a party of fugitives whom he and his family had just aided: their rags, their hunger, their weariness, “their flesh bearing the marks of the lash,” the agony of a mother who had seen her child “torn from her and sold to traders.” This time his fellow Quakers reacted not with anger or censure but with a plea for sympathy. “Have a little mercy on us,” asked one elderly member.
How ironic! Hearing an account of the hardships of others, for no reason other than the color of their skin, the meeting members asked Evans to spare them. Evans complied, though, and finished by discussing “kindness and love.”
In the ensuing years Nathan Evans continued to help all freedom-seekers who came to his home. His son David kept a diary cataloging the numbers and dates of their “visitors”—an unusual step, as most UGRR agents did not keep records of their activities, which could be used against themselves as well as those whom they helped. David’s journal is a rich resource of details; one early autumn night, for example, 25 fugitives came to the Evans household.
Nathan, nearing the end of his life, sadly concluded that the issue of slavery would probably only be settled by a “great calamity.” He died in 1852, well before that calamity. Only during the war were “the principles he maintained … adopted in his own neighborhood.”
Quotes are from Robert Smedley, A History of the Underground Railroad in Chester County…, pp. 339-43.