The Reverend William B. Dodge (1783-1869) of the Millburn Congregational Church was an outspoken abolitionist and leader in Lake County's anti-slavery movement.
Rev. William B. Dodge (1783-1869), shown here in 1860.
Image from: The First Hundred Years: the Story of the Millburn Congregational Church 1840-1940.
Dodge was 61-years old when he came to Millburn in 1844. His roots in New England, where he worked in education and the anti-slavery movement, set the stage for his leadership role in Lake County.
Dodge was born in Rowley, Massachusetts in 1783, the son of Revolutionary War veteran, Phineas Dodge, and Lucy Nelson Dodge. In early 1807, Dodge married Sarah Dole (1781-1870) and the couple moved to Salem, Massachusetts.
In Salem, Dodge opened the city's first Sunday School, and was an educator in the public schools for over thirty years. In 1827, he was appointed chaplain of the city almshouse, a position he retained for 17 years.
Salem, Massachusetts in 1839. Engraving by J.W. Barber.
In 1834, the city established an elementary and high school for African American students. Although Salem's schools were integrated, the free African American community still faced adversity. William B. Dodge was hired as the school's principal due to his reputation as a teacher and anti-slavery activist.
One of Dodge's pupils was Robert Morris (1823-1882), who became one of the first African American lawyers in the United States. As an attorney, Morris worked on cases regarding African American education and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.
Robert Morris (1823-1882), lawyer and abolitionist. (John J. Burns Library's Blog)
Dodge was invited by his former students to return to Salem for a visit (around 1861), and Robert Morris was one of his hosts. Morris recalled that Dodge was responsible for his education and had ensured he was "treated justly, and even kindly."
The entire Dodge family was active in the anti-slavery movement, and abolitionists on the Underground Railroad. The family used their home on North Street to harbor individuals escaping from slavery.
In 1834, Dodge's wife, Sarah Dole Dodge, and daughters, Lydia Little Dodge (1811-1848) and Lucia Nelson Dodge (1815-1845), became founding members of the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society.
Sarah Dole Dodge (1781-1870), wife of William B. Dodge. Photo circa 1860.
Robert Miller Collection, Ancestry.com
The society's constitution stated: "That slavery should be immediately abolished; that people of color, enslaved or free, have a right to a home in the country without fear of intimidation, and that the society should be ready to acknowledge people of color as friends and equals."
Ledger entry from the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society regarding a meeting held at the William and Sarah Dodge home on January 10, 1838. Original ledger in collections of Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum.
Online collections Congregational Library and Archives www.congregationallibrary.org.
By 1842, Dodge retired from teaching and became the "antislavery agent" in the churches of Massachusetts.
Around this time, part of Dodge family headed west to settle on the frontier, including daughter Hannah Little Dodge (1819-1884) to Millburn, Lake County, Illinois, and son Samuel D. Dodge (1809-1875) to Peoria, Illinois.
In the spring of 1844, William and Sarah Dodge set out "to settle among [their] children" and arrived in Millburn on May 14. They purchased 120-acres on the southwest corner of today's Route 45 and Sand Lake Road in Avon Township.
Millburn Congregational Church circled in red (top center). William B. Dodge farm denoted by red star (bottom center), and Dodge Schoolhouse across from the Dodge farm, circled in red. Map of Lake County, Illinois, 1861.
While William and Sarah undoubtedly wished to be near their children, uprooting themselves to begin anew on the "frontier" was a remarkable undertaking. More than likely Dodge understood the opportunity this provided him to continue his work in the anti-slavery movement.
Within a few months of his arrival, Dodge was asked by the congregational community to become their pastor. His official installation was held at the dedication of the church's new meeting house on June 1, 1847. (From 1840 - 1847 the congregation met in a log structure).
Reverend Dodge became known throughout the county as "Father Dodge." He spoke at meetings and celebrations across Lake County and "entered heartily into all reforms as they claimed his attention and support."
By the mid-1840s, northeastern Illinois was the strongest area of anti-slavery sentiment in the state. This was in part due to the large concentration of settlers from New England (such as the Dodge Family), who brought anti-slavery sentiments with them.
Dodge aligned himself with people of like mind, and soon distinguished himself as a leader. In 1846, he co-founded the Lake County Liberty Association which denounced the notorious Illinois Black Laws (1819-1865) that restricted the civil liberties of African Americans.
Dodge continued to take a great interest in education and in 1854 supported a tax levy to build a new schoolhouse. Neighbors met at his home and voted to approve the school, which was named Dodge School. The schoolhouse was built by William Bonner (see previous post on Bonner) and located across the road from Dodge's homestead. The first teacher was Dodge's son, James M. Dodge (1812-1887).
The community of Millburn, though small, was very much engaged in national affairs. Of particular interest was the growing divide between North and South over the issue of slavery. The news of radical abolitionist John Brown's impending execution after his failed raid at Harper's Ferry, Virginia, October 16-19, 1859, brought the Millburn congregation together for a special meeting.
On December 2, 1859, the congregation passed a resolution that read in part: "That we will do good to those who have escaped from bondage as we have opportunity by supplying their present wants and aiding them in their flight."
Excerpt of the resolution passed by the Millburn Congregational Church under the leadership of
Reverend "Father" Dodge, December 2, 1859.
Original in the archives of the Millburn Congregational Church.
This resolution was in direct opposition to the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required that all "escaped slaves" be returned to the South and that citizens of free states cooperate or be fined and jailed. Involvement in the Underground Railroad was dangerous and illegal, and therefore very secretive, making the open defiance of Reverend Dodge and his congregation quite extraordinary.
From letter of Anna White to David Minto, November 1862: "I believe we are to have a new minister at Millburn before a great while. Mr. Dodge is to be released from the church next Tuesday. There seems to quite a difference of opinion in regard to which they shall have presbyterian or a congregational minister but I presume it will come out all right."
Minto Family Collection, Bess Bower Dunn Museum of Lake County (BBDM 93.45.502.2)
Though Dodge gave up his duties as pastor, the door to his home was always open. William and Sarah Dodge welcomed their neighbors with a cup of tea and comforting words.
During the Civil War, Dodge's support of his neighbors remained unwavering. A number of young men from Millburn enlisted, including two of Dodge's grandsons: Samuel W. Dodge (1838-1909) and George C. Dodge (1842-1904), who served with the 96th Illinois Infantry. On the home front residents worked tirelessly for the war effort by making quilts and bandages, and writing letters to the "Soldier Boys."
Following the war, the congregation's membership had grown and a new church was needed. When the church was dedicated in January 1867, "Father Dodge" had the honor of addressing the congregation in the old church. With his aged Bible in hand, Dodge walked alongside the new pastor, Reverend Bross, followed by a procession of the membership to the new church.
Reverend Dodge led a procession from the old church to the new Millburn Congregational Church (shown above),
on January 20, 1867. Photo circa 1880.
Photo courtesy of Historic Millburn Community Association www.historicmillburn.org
Reverend "Father" Dodge died on April 1, 1869, leaving a legacy of good works and selflessness. He was steadfast in his anti-slavery activism and concern for the oppressed, and was "greatly revered for his knowledge and for his great goodness of heart."
- Bess Bower Dunn Museum of Lake County www.LCFPD.org/museum
- Congregational Library and Archives, Boston, Massachusetts. Online collections www.congregationallibrary.org "Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society."
- Dodge Family Association www.dodgefamily.org
- Historic Millburn Community Association www.historicmillburn.
- John J. Burns Library, Boston, Massachusetts. https://libguides.bc.edu/Burns. This library is the repository for books from the personal library of Boston lawyer, Robert Morris (1823-1882).
- WikiTree. William Bradford Dodge. https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Dodge-2227
- Boyle, Elizabeth A. "Mobility, Migration, and the 1855 Philadelphia National Convention: Robert Morris." (2013) Colored Conventions: Bringing 19th-Century Black Organizing to Digital Life. http://coloredconventions.org/
- Centennial Historical Committee. The First Hundred Years: The Story of the Millburn Congregational Church 1840-1940. (Millburn, Illinois, 1940).
- "Dedication of the New church at Millburn," Waukegan Gazette, January 27, 1867. www.historicmillburn.org.
- Genealogy of the Descendants of John White of Wenham and Lancaster, Massachusetts : 1638-1900 : in Memorials of Elder John White, One of the First Settlers of Hartford, Conn , and of His Descendants, Almira Larkin White, Haverhill, Mass., Chase Bros., printers, 1900-09.
- Halsey, John J. A History of Lake County, Illinois. (Chicago: R.S. Bates, 1912).
- Hefferman, James. "Robert Morris: A Man of Energy and Will." John J. Burns Library's Blog jamesburnslibrary.wordpress.com.
- Johnson, Reinhard O., The Liberty Party, 1840-1848: Antislavery Third-Party Politics in the United States. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2009).
- National Park Service. African American Heritage Sites in Salem: A Guide to Salem's History, (Revised edition, 2008).
- "Obituary: Rev. William B. Dodge," Waukegan Gazette, April 10, 1869. www.historicmillburn.org
- Portrait and Biographical Album of Lake County, Illinois (Chicago: Lake City Publishing Co., 1891).
- Turner, Glennette Tilley. The Underground Railroad in Illinois. (Newman Educational Publishing Company, Glen Ellyn: Illinois, 2001).
- Wilson, Cynthia. "Robert Morris Sr. (1823-1882)," March 25, 2018. www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/morris-robert-sr-1823-1882/.