In recognition of Black History Month, founding board member of Biblical/MISSIO Seminary, Rev. Lin Crow, offers his reflections on the Underground Railroad. I am reminded of the words of Frederick Douglass who fled slavery for freedom in 1838: “I prayed for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.” Take a moment to think deeply about the theological implications of those words. –FAJ

“You’ve got to remember; no one came for us. Yes, some kind-hearted Quakers and Mennonites helped us along, and eventually the anti-slavery societies joined in, but it was Africans ourselves who created the Underground Railroad. We were the ones who took the initiative to leave in the middle of the night, cross frozen rivers, and follow the stars, simply believing that God would make a way out of no way.” The voice of our pastor, Rev. Edward Maurice Bailey, senior minister at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, echoes through the room as he begins another presentation of “Living The Experience”, a reenactment of the faith story of the Underground Railroad.

Bethel A.M.E., started in 1817, is the oldest Black church in Lancaster County, PA. It sits squarely in the cross-hairs of the overlapping trails and networks that made up one of the most active centers of the Underground Railroad during the tense decades before the Civil War. Lancaster, situated only about twenty miles from the border of Maryland, a slave state, was an early stopping point for many freedom seekers as they headed toward Philadelphia and the sanctuary offered by its large free Black population. Although Pennsylvania was nominally considered a “free” state, the enactment of the Fugitive Slave laws had made it possible for bounty hunters to chase down the formerly enslaved all over the North. Rogue operators, like the Gap Gang, roamed Lancaster County seeking to capture even legally emancipated Black men, women, and children, then rush across the border to Maryland and sell them South into bondage again. Even Richard Allen, famed founder of Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church in Philadelphia, was snatched off the streets of the City of Brotherly Love and was only saved from deportation into slavery again by showing his emancipation papers in court.

It was in this context of harrowing terror that many ancestors of Bethel’s current members stepped in, risking even their very lives or possible imprisonment to provide support and safe passage to those on the Underground. The famous “Tent Sisters” provided food, shelter, and perhaps more importantly, new clothes, to those fleeing into cities like Lancaster & Philadelphia so they wouldn’t stand out as ragged refugees among the crowd. Several of Bethel’s ministers were engaged in various support roles. Rev. Robert Boston, while working as a barber in town, spied on the activities of bounty hunters to provide warnings of anticipated raids as well as keeping an eye on the shifting political forces in the city. Although Bethel’s church building itself was not used as a hideaway for fear of reprisals by Southern sympathizers in the city, its members hid freedom seekers in their homes all over “Churchtowne”. Black lumber merchants, Stephen Smith and William Whipper, had close ties to the congregation and they’ve become renowned for their ingenious system of hiding folks in secret compartments of their railroad cars headed to Philadelphia.

Bethel’s beloved wood framed building would not survive the aftermath of its members’ heroic stand against slavery. Even while the bones of many of its members who were Civil War veterans lay in the graveyard outside, the church was firebombed in 1879 during the heyday of the Jim Crow era and burned to the ground. It was a bitter reminder of the price of freedom for the African community. Rebuilt on the same foundation, Bethel continues today to be a beacon of Gospel freedom, preaching not only the salvation offered by faith in Jesus Christ, but also liberation from the bondage of corruption and hatred that continues to stain our divided nation. During this Black History Month, let us, the community of Missio Seminary, commit ourselves to emulate the faith of those courageous freedom seekers of the past who cast fear aside to build a better country.

Rev. Lin Crowe (Missio alum, 1968)

For information about Living The Experience, an interactive reenactment of the Underground Railroad, call 717-393-8379 for upcoming dates and individual and group tickets.

Lin Crowe taught history at Drexel University for 39 years, including 12 concurrently at Philadelphia College of Bible. During those years he served on the founding board of Biblical/Missio Seminary under Dr. Allan MacRae and Jack Murray’s leadership. He also served 7 years as Assoc. Minister at 10th Presbyterian Church while continuing as an adjunct at Drexel. Then almost two decades as president of the Philadelphia Leadership Foundation led him into his current ministry in the Philadelphia prisons with The Navigators in partnership with Bishop Ernest McNear and Kingdom Care Reentry Network.