WATERVILLE, Maine — He was born on a pioneer farm 14 miles east of here, graduated first in his class from the tiny Baptist college planted precariously on a barren bank of the Kennebec, set out West to become a river-town schoolteacher, prepared for the ministry, drifted into journalism — always remaining true to the teachings of his church, his family and the hymns they sang around a crude Maine country hearth: His job on Earth was to cleanse the world of sin.
It was for that reason that, fired by idealism about the divine mission of the young country and full of revulsion over its stain of slavery, he became an outspoken abolitionist. In his reckoning, he was but a sentinel of the Lord. In the reckoning of his enemies in frontier Missouri, a slave state, and abolition opponents in Illinois, a free state, he was a symbol of northern arrogance and ignorance.
On Nov. 7, 1837, Elijah Parish Lovejoy became America’s first martyr to the freedom of the press. His story is barely known outside Alton, Ill., where he died, and Waterville, where his alma mater, now known as Colby College, is preparing to celebrate his legacy. But his is an American story of heroism, nobleness of character and enduring moral grandeur, and it bears repeating at this week’s 175th anniversary of his death.
Lovejoy’s life was uplifting and his death brutal. His abolitionism transformed tucked-away Alton into a fiery center of the slavery debate, and his paper emerged as a booming voice against bondage in a town that devoutly preferred serenity to sermons. Three times, his press was destroyed by his opponents. On Nov. 3, 1837, Lovejoy addressed the town:
“While I value the good opinion of my fellow-citizens, as highly as anyone, I may be permitted to say that I am governed by higher considerations than either the favor or the fear of man. I am impelled to the course I have taken, because I fear God. As I shall answer it to my God in the great day, I dare not abandon my sentiments, or cease in all proper ways to propagate them.”