The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

March 25, 2013

Unfair characterization


The Associated Press

— I am writing to correct the impressions made by the headline and text of your article, “Records show slavery tolerated locally.” The headline and story mislead readers into thinking that the Presbyterians, among the earliest settlers of Union County, approved of slavery and were predominant among local slaveholders in the late 1700s.

The headline and article were based on a talk given by Jeannette Lasansky, local historian and author, whose presentation on Feb. 23 focused on slaveholders who attended the first Buffalo Church building. Lasansky pointed out only the few pews in the early log church (long since torn down) that were occupied by slaveholders. She did not mention the 111 members of this congregation who never owned a slave. Instead, she talked about only the nine (out of 120) members who did own slaves at one time or another. The talk, however, was critical of the entire membership.

Lasansky’s talk, drawn from census and tax records as well as local histories, ignored the 111 non-slaveholders, and failed to recognize the five of those original nine who later freed their slaves. Among the latter was Samuel Maclay, the only person from Buffalo Valley who was elected a United States Senator. No reference was made to the highly regarded Colonel John Kelly, a member of the congregation who never owned a slave. Kelly was honored by George Washington personally for his bravery during the first battle won by the Colonial army during the Revolutionary War, and his name is the most prominent among place names in Union County today.

Like Kelly and Maclay, the Presbyterians were Scots-Irish, famous for being among the first settlers in areas newly purchased from the Native Americans. The Scots-Irish were largely Presbyterians, which denomination was founded in Scotland. These 120 local Presbyterians formed the first congregation in the area in 1773, only five years after the area was opened to European settlers. However, being a Presbyterian did not mean that followers of that faith believed in owning slaves, as evidenced by the small number of slaveholders in the first church.

Lasansky referred to the 1790 Census, which shows that the number of slaveholders in Union County was 88, in excess of the Presbyterian slaveholders, which was the basis for her talk. If only nine (and perhaps less by 1790) of those 88 were Presbyterians, who were the others, and where did they worship? No indication was given of the religious affiliations of the other slaveholders.

Publicity advertising Lasansky’s talk spoke of “many staunch slaveholders” in the early Presbyterian Church. Such language is a gross inaccuracy and an unfair characterization, unsupported by the records.

Jean M. Ruhl, Lewisburg