September 12, 1881

Stephen Symonds Foster, a radical abolitionist and author of the broadside The Brotherhood of Thieves; or A True Picture of the American Church and Clergy: A Letter to Nathaniel Barney, of Nantucket, died in 1881.

Foster, who was famous for his dramatic and aggressive style of public speaking, spoke at an anto slavery convention at the Nantucket Atheneum in August 1842. During his lecture, Foster told the audience that, because members of the Southern clergy in the Methodist, Episcopalian, Baptist and Presbyterian churches held slaves and Northern members of those churches kept fellowship with slaveholders, they were all, by extension, guilty. The church, Foster proclaimed, was the “Bulwark of Slavery,” its clergy “a designing priesthood” and its membership a “Brotherhood of Thieves.”

His lecture riled a great many Nantucketers who were offended by Foster’s criticism of the church. In addition, the town was in the middle of a tempestuous struggle to integrate the public school, and tensions were running high. The next night as the convention met, a hostile mob threw stones and rotten eggs at Atheneum windows and pursued attendees as they fled looking for a safe place to finish their meeting.

A year later, Foster published his Brotherhood of Thieves speech. As a youth, Foster had attended Union Theological Seminary but left when the seminary refused to accommodate a protest meeting. Convinced that American churches did not uphold genuine Christian principles, the embittered Foster became one of the most extreme and vitriolic of the abolitionists, and religious institutions were often his target.

Excerpted from On This Day In Nantucket History
By Amy Jenness
The History Press
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