Elijah Pennypacker –and Henry David Thoreau

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Terence Maguire, for the Kennett Underground Railroad Center




Screen Shot 2015-10-13 at 6.08.39 PMElijah F. Pennypacker, born in 1804, had a farm in Schuylkill Township, called “the most Eastern station in Chester County.”  Early in adult life he was devoted to public service through the existing political system, serving four terms in the state legislature and acting as secretary for the state’s Canal Board.  He was involved in improving education, railroads, currency, and tariff protection. At this point in his life he would seem to have been a conventional good man.

However, Elijah’s Quaker wife, Sarah Coates, may have influenced his thinking.  In his mid 30s, he became distrustful of government systems and retired from public life, a year later joining the Society of Friends himself.  He then began to devote his time and considerable energy to matters of public welfare that were outside the legal system.  In addition to speaking out against war and the use of alcohol, he became an ardent abolitionist and agent of the Underground Railroad.

In the early 1880s, when Smedley was collecting material for his UGRR history book, Elijah could recall few specific stories about the hundreds of fugitives whom he helped to freedom.  He did recall helping 43 freedom seekers across the Schuylkill River on their way farther north during a period of several months, but there were few other specifics.

A gifted speaker, Elijah often traveled to different Meetings as a minister of the Quaker faith.  On one such occasion in 1848 he spoke in Philadelphia.  During his sermon he decried “the misdirection of the human mind, by which…men are led to tolerate and patronize legalized and popular crimes….”  Chief among these “legalized crimes” was slavery.  The meeting members to which he lamented adherence to such crimes found his thoughts disturbing and convinced him to sit down.  According to a local reporter, Elijah, “a man universally beloved and revered by those who knew him… was silenced by his own society.”  

Opposition to the law of the land was common among Quaker abolitionists, but another person who advocated resistance to unjust laws was non-Quaker Henry David Thoreau.  In the same year that Pennypacker was silenced by that Quaker meeting, Thoreau gave a lecture that, in essay form, was called “Civil Disobedience,” one of the most influential writings of the last two centuries.  It shaped the thinking and the actions of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and others.  Willing to take the consequences for opposing unjust laws, Thoreau wrote that the true place for a just man in unjust times is, in fact, prison.  While Thoreau was as passionately opposed to slavery as any Quaker, there is no evidence that he ever aided a fugitive to freedom as did Pennypacker and dozens of Underground Railroad agents.  

Few people in the world today know the name of Elijah Pennypacker—but the descendants of those he helped to freedom must number in the thousands.