2019-02-07 / Editorial

Abolitionist legend in Biddeford gets a fresh look

Guest Column
By Renée DesRoberts and Melanie Taylor Coombs

MC: McArthur Library is a very special place. It’s hard not to be in awe of a building that has been standing since 1863 and has served as both a spiritual center and a library. When you look at old pictures of the building (there are many on our local history website www.biddefordhistory.com) it is hard not to notice stunning design elements, arched windows, the former bell tower and the date carved over the front entrance. These tangible building elements give a solid framework for the building’s history. What I have always found interesting are the stories surrounding our library’s origins.

February is Black History Month and we will be celebrating it here at McArthur Library. We have two very strong reasons to recognize our brethren. One, libraries strive to be open to all, regardless of race, creed, sex, etc. and to offer a place a safety, warmth and learning and to be a cultural center in the community. Two, because of a fantastic rumor that involves McArthur Library and Frederick Douglass.

The rumor. In the very early 1860s, our tumultuous nation was on the brink of war over the issue of slavery. Frederick Douglass was invited to speak at the Pavilion Church, Biddeford. Like America, the church members were divided over the issue and the church split into the First Pavilion Church and Second Pavilion Church. In 1863, the Second Pavilion Church was built and hosted Mr. Douglass. Long after the war in the late 1890s, the two churches mended differences and re-formed into one church, leaving the Second Pavilion Church empty.

Our benefactor, the esteemed Robert McArthur, insisted that the building be purchased as a library for the citizens of Biddeford. He used his time, money and influence to make sure it happened, in 1902 the library bearing his name, McArthur Library was opened to “all inhabitants of the City of Biddeford.”

That is the rumor. What is the truth? I’ve asked our extremely knowledgeable and resourceful archivist, Renée DesRoberts, to help shed some light on the subject.

RD: Urban legends are fun and exciting to talk about, and they are great for getting people thinking critically about local history. Biddeford and Saco are home to some fascinating legends – like the Curse of the Saco River, and Eva Gray, the Ghost that Haunts City Theater. In honor of Black History Month, my boss Melanie challenged me to see if I could prove or disprove the legend surrounding the abolitionist origins of Pavilion Congregational Church in Biddeford. The library (which is housed in the former Pavilion Church) has enjoyed this tale as it means we live in the “good guys” building – and everyone wants to believe they are associated with the good guys.

As far as I understand it, the legend goes that Frederick Douglass was in Biddeford to give an antislavery speech the late 1850s, and was barred from giving his talk at Second Congregational Church (a.k.a. the “White Church”). Abolitionists in the congregation, disgusted by their pro-slavery brethren, broke off to form the Pavilion Society (or Third Congregational Church – in whose building the library has resided for the last 117 years).

As soon as I started looking into this, it became apparent that the story wasn’t quite right. The facts that I could dig up don’t seem to support the legend. In fact, it appears to be a somewhat backwards telling. But I’ll let you judge for yourself.

The front page article about Second Church in the Biddeford Journal for April 26, 1895 tells us the following: “The direct cause of the division in the Second church was not a disagreement as to Bible doctrine, but a difference of opinion as to what subjects the pastor should or should not preach upon. In the fifties this country was intensely wrought up by the discussion of two topics, namely, slavery and temperance. […] Preachers in all the denominations began to denounce human slavery by name as the “Sum of all Villainies.” and rum selling as the “Gigantic Crime of Crimes.” Oddly enough, it was not this style of deliverance, called by some “preaching politics,” which divided the Second church, but the lack of it appears to have had much to do with that result. That portion of the members which believed the pulpit should speak out upon these and kindred topics, proved to be in the majority, and they brought matters to a crisis by intimating to their pastor that his resignation would be accepted. As a result Rev. Samuel M. Gould was dismissed as pastor.”

From this telling, would it not appear that Mr. Douglass would likely have been quite welcome to speak his views at Second Congregational Church?

To cast further confusion, a letter to the editor printed in the Biddeford Journal on Oct. 13, 1945 and written by James Bradbury, whose parents were members of the Pavilion church states: “The church was founded by the late William P. Haines, the first regular agent of the Pepperell, who, with 25 others, withdrew from the White church and formed the Pavilion church. Although the church was founded during the war, war nor politics had anything to do with it. The minister of the White church, Old Parson Gould (Rev. Samuel M.) became involved in a little trouble with the church and was obliged to resign. Mr. Haines and the others whose sympathies were wholly with Parson Gould withdrew from the church and took Parson Gould with them, who became the first pastor of the Pavilion church.”

I went to the 1857-1858 newspapers, to try and read my way to the truth, but that just underscored how crazy things were politically, years before the Civil War erupted. The paper we have at the library from those years is the Maine Democrat, which was on the opposite side of the issue. It is really clear, and really fascinating, to read their scathing articles on the abolitionist speakers in Biddeford, on Kansas-Nebraska, free states and slave states. But then on the same page you’ll read a report about the efforts to fight the “inhuman traffic” of the African slave trade…to modern eyes, I would describe it as confounding.

I think I will need to read much more to wrap my head around this topic – and I encourage you all to do so as well. As of this writing all of our early (Civil War and before) newspapers are up and accessible 24/7 at our Biddeford Historic Newspaper Archive (http://biddeford. advantage-preservation.com/). It’s a chance to read for your-selves about this tumultuous time in our nation’s history and how it played out right here.

In summary, we have no evidence of a specific event that drove the congregation apart; and the rift had to do with whether the church was supposed to be socially and politically active or no. So as far as I can tell, the urban legend is a little off, but there is still an important story there to which we should pay attention.

MC: To further honor Black History Month, the library is pleased to present “The Underground Railroad in Maine” at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 28. Award-winning author Mark Alan Leslie, whose historical novel, “True North: Tice’s Story,” is set during the era that the Underground Railroad was active in Maine, will present a talk that unveils the Biddeford area’s connection to the Underground Railroad. This event is free and open to the public, and refreshments will be served. Please join us!

Melanie Taylor Coombs is adult services supervisor/ librarian at McArthur Public Library in Biddeford. Renée DesRoberts is archivist.

Return to top