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Anti-Slavery Poems


Collection of poems by leading antebellum antislavery poet John Pierpont (Boston: Oliver Johnson, 1843). Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.



John Pierpont (1785-1866), born in Litchfield, Connecticut, had careers as an attorney, merchant, and then minister.  In 1816 he began his religious work as a theology student, first in Baltimore and then at Harvard, afterwards accepting appointments as pastor at the Hollis Street Church in Boston (1819-1845), a Unitarian church in Troy, New York (1849-1853), and a Congregationalist church in Medford, Massachusetts (1853-1856).  He was instrumental in establishing the English Classical School of Boston in 1821 and gained national recognition as an educator.  He published two of the better-known early school readers in the United States, The American First Class Book (1823) and The National Reader (1828).  See Michael Belok, “John Pierpont and His American Schoolbooks,” American Book Collector 22 (1971) 3:29-32.

The latter years of Pierpont’s tenure at the Hollis Street Church were characterized by continuing controversy with some parishioners angered at his social activism against slavery and for temperance, a public controversy that eventually caused his resignation in 1845.  He ran for Massachusetts governor during the 1840s as a Liberty Party candidate, and in 1850 as a Free Soil Party candidate for the US House of Representatives.  After two weeks’ service as a 76 year-old military chaplain during the Civil War, Pierpont held an appointment in the Treasury Department in Washington from 1861 until his death.  See Dictionary of American Biography 14: 586-587, and John Neal, “John Pierpont,” Atlantic Monthly 18 (December 1866) 110: 650-655. 

Pierpont gained a literary reputation with his first book of poetry, Airs of Palestine (1816), re-issued in 1840.  He published moral literature, such as Cold Water Melodies, and Washington Songster (comp. 1842) and, with William Comstock, The Drunkard, or, The Fallen Saved, a Moral Domestic Drama in Five Acts (1860).   His many published sermons include, among others, The Burning of the Ephesian Letters (1834), Jesus Christ Not a Literal Sacrifice (1834), New Heavens and a New Earth (1837), Moral Rule of Political Action (1839), National Humiliation (1840), and A Discourse on the Covenant with Judas (1842).  With publication of Phrenology and the Scriptures (1850), Pierpont became known not only as a reform lecturer, but also as an expert on phrenology and spiritualism. 

Oliver Johnson, a leading antislavery publisher and Garrison associate, published Pierpont’s Anti-Slavery Poems in 1843.  The collection contains poems that had appeared mostly in the poetry columns of The Liberator and The National Anti-Slavery Standard.   Pierpont’s style, which may appear mawkish to contemporary readers, was heavily influential among reform-minded antebellum poets.  Together with Whittier’s verse, Pierpont’s poems were a recitation staple at public antislavery meetings.  Pierpont’s writings were anthologized widely in antislavery poetry collections, such as William Allen’s Autographs of Freedom (1853) collection.

Contrary to some inaccurate histories, John Pierpont was not the author of the Christmas song “Jingle Bells”; its author was his son, James Lord Pierpont (1822-1893), who served in the First Georgia Cavalry and wrote patriotic hymns for the Confederacy.  John Pierpont was also the paternal grandfather of financier J. Pierpont Morgan.

For further, see Abe C. Ravitz, “John Pierpont, Portrait of a Nineteenth-Century Reformer” Ph.D. diss., New York University, 1955, and Abbie A. Ford, John Pierpont, A Biographical Sketch (Boston: J. Allen Crosby, 1909).


— Joe Lockard