Portsmouth's First Presbyterian Church and the Antislavery Movement in Southern Ohio

In the decades leading up to the Civil War, the congregation now known as First Presbyterian of Portsmouth, Ohio, was a nexus of the antislavery movement in southern Ohio and it’s members, elders, and ministers represented a wide spectrum of antislavery thought and action, from gradual emancipationists and colonizationists to immediate abolitionists and Underground Railroad supporters. 

First Presbyterian is home to one of  the oldest religious societies in the city, with an origins dating to 1817, when fourteen area residents organized the congregation in the "the old Court House on Market Street," under the ministry of the Rev. Stephen Lindsey. The founding elders included Josiah Morton, David Mitchell, William Russell, and John Lawson.

Without a settled, permanent minister prior to 1817, local Presbyterians had welcomed visiting ministers, including the Rev. William Williamson of Adams County and Rev. James Gilliland of Brown County. These two Presbyterian clergymen were renowned emancipators, who had freed their slaves in South Carolina before immigrating to southern Ohio.

Notably, the congregation was racially integrated from an early date, with two of its longstanding African American members -- Peter and Charlotte Weaver -- being remembered fondly in the pages of local history. According to Nelson Evans, "they came to Portsmouth before the town was located and built a cabin," making the Weavers perhaps the first African American residents of the city.

Peter Weaver worked as a shoe and boot black, as well as "an attache of the Court House," helping with various custodial duties. Charlotte Weaver, according to Evans, "was a character. She was a midwife and a factotum about town. No child could be born, no woman buried and no social function be given, without her assistance." Both had been born into slavery. Peter first bought his own freedom, then Charlotte's, but they were never able to raise the money needed to purchase the freedom of their child, who tragically remained in slavery. The Weavers, with their connections to the town's black and white communities, undoubtedly helped runaway slaves find a ride on Portsmouth's Underground Railroad.

In 1822, this congregation built their first place of worship -- what was the first dedicated religious structure in the city, as well -- on the south side of Second Street below Market. In 1849, under the leadership of Rev. Marcus Hicks, the congregation hired noted Portsmouth architect William Newman to build their current home on the southwest corner of Third and Court streets. The congregation, with some 115 members, first gathered here on April 6th, 1851, observing it as a “day of humiliation, fasting and prayer for the conversion of the world to Jesus Christ.”

In retrospect, the congregation’s most famous abolitionist minister may have been the Rev. Edwin H. Nevin, who served in Portsmouth for two years in 1837 and 1838. Afterwards, Nevin became known as the outspoken President of Franklin College in New Athens, Harrison County, Ohio. While the college lasted it would be known, like the more long-lived Oberlin College, for its support of abolition.

With the arrival of Rev. E. P. Pratt in 1852, the congregation would be led by an active supporter of the American Colonization Society, a nominally antislavery organization that promoted a federally funded gradual emancipation, which would compensate slaveowners and remove emancipated slaves to a colony on the west coast of Africa. The colonization scheme found support among Presbyterians and other evangelicals, particularly in border states of the union, like Kentucky and Ohio. The Presbyterian General Assembly had endorsed colonization as early as 1817 and its popularity as a proposed solution to the problem of slavery remained strong into the the 1860s. Its most popular expression was found in the pages of Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, which championed the cause of both emancipation and colonization, while also justifying the morality of the Underground Railroad.

According to oral tradition (passed down by members of the church), the storage areas under the church’s stairs were used as hiding places for African Americans who sought refuge on their way to their next stop on the network to freedom.

The congregation belonged to the Chillicothe Presbytery, one of the most radical and activist antebellum church bodies in the nation and its leaders participated in the national debates over how the church should act in regards to slavery and its perpetuation in the United States. In September 1829, while meeting in West Union, Ohio, the Chillicothe Presbytery adopted a resolution by unanimous vote that declared the "buying or selling, or holding a slave, for the sake of gain, is a heinous sin and scandal, and requires the cognizance of the judicatories of the church."

The Presbytery followed this up with two pastoral letters that explained their opposition to slavery, in general, and slaveholding by church members, in particular. They printed 1,800 copies and then mailed them out to Presbyterian churches across the nation, north and south. Therein, the Presbytery declared: "If slave-holding is a transgression of the will of God, any plea for continuing in it, is neither more nor less than a plea in behalf of serving the Devil rather than the Holy One." With fiery rhetoric like this, the Presbyterian congregations of southern Ohio (including Portsmouth) were at the forefront of the agitation of the slavery question at the state and national levels of their denomination.

With such strong antislavery sentiments originating in the region, it should not be surprising to find supporters of the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society (OASS) -- the state's most radical abolition organization -- involved in the affairs of Portsmouth's Presbyterian Church. Joseph Riggs, who served as an elder in the church, also volunteered as a regional manager for the OASS and as a subscription agent for the Philanthropist, its abolitionist newspaper.

Before moving to Portsmouth, Joseph and his wife, Rebecca Baldridge Riggs, belonged to an antislavery Reformed Presbyterian church at Cherry Fork in neighboring Adams County. Riggs was a successful iron manufacturer and politician. In 1831, he was elected to the first of two terms as an Ohio Senator, representing Adams and Brown counties. In 1833, he and John Campbell, another noted abolitionist and Underground Railroad operator, built the original Hanging Rock Forge and the Lawrence Furnace for a company of investors that included James Rogers, Robert Hamilton, Andrew Ellison, and the Rev. Dyer Burgess, another abolitionist minister, who served the West Union Presbyterian Church.

The historical record is silent as to whether Joseph and Rebecca Riggs ever personally assisted runaway slaves, but there is no doubt that the Riggs secretly funded local Underground Railroad operations in Portsmouth. According to Congressman James Ashley, the author of the Thirteenth Amendment who spent his childhood and early professional career in Portsmouth, Joseph Riggs once gave him a twenty-dollar coin, unexpectedly, with an approving nod, after he had successfully assisted a group of African Americans cross the Ohio River and find safe passage on the network to freedom.

Portsmouth's First Presbyterian Church, with its connections to the larger Chillicothe Presbytery, and its regional network of antislavery activists and Underground Railroad operators, played an important part in the sectional conflict over slavery and its final abolition. Looking back, there is no discounting the contributions of Joseph Riggs and other unnamed or yet-to-be-identified members of First Presbyterian Church whose unknown work on behalf of "the oppressed" made a difference in people's lives and shaped the course of American history.