Women's Rights
Special History Study
NPS Logo


The Wesleyan Methodist Chapel of Seneca Falls was established on March 27, 1843, as part of a nationwide schism in the Methodist church over the issue of slavery and abolitionism. From the moment of its inception, the residents of Seneca Falls identified the Wesleyan Chapel with radical reform convictions. It came as no surprise to them when the first Women's Rights Convention was held within its walls in July 1848.

The 60-70 individuals [1] who met in the first Ward School House on the evening of March 27, 1843, to form the "First Wesleyan Methodist Society of Seneca Falls" [2] were, for the most part, excommunicated or disaffected members of other Protestant denominations in the village. Nearly all had separated from their original churches over the issue of slavery. While most of the churches in Seneca Falls considered themselves antislavery and passed resolutions to that effect during the 1830s and 1840s, [3] their convictions did not extend to abolitionism or immediate emancipation. The more militant members of the congregations attempted to instill a stronger abolitionist sentiment in their various churches, but met with little success. Certain members of the Methodist Episcopal Church in particular, were quite outspoken in their insistence that the northern Methodist churches break off all ties with the proslavery southern congregations. As early as 1839, the Seneca Falls Methodists sent a letter to the General Conference denouncing them for not adopting a stronger stance against slavery.

We love and revere the Methodist ministry . . . . Still, as you have taught us, a death-like Silence, and a cowardly inaction does not become us in any good cause. . . .

We believe sumthing [sic] effectual may be dun [sic] to save the Church from Slavery. . . .

We believe the time has arrived when the best counsels of the Church should concentrate there [sic] wisdom and energies, not . . . to quell the prevailing Solicitude or subdue & punish abolitionists as to devise some measures which may free the Methodist Episcopal Church from an evil which 'Mr. Wesley calls the sum of all villanies.' [4]

When it became apparent that the church leaders were going to ignore the slavery issue in the interests of national unity, the pro-abolition members of the Seneca Falls Methodist Episcopal Church broke away to form the new Wesleyan Methodist Church. They were joined by like-minded indivduals from the Presbyterian and Baptist churches. [5]

It is difficult to know exactly how large the original Wesleyan congregation was. Different sources give figures ranging from 39 to 70, and all admit that they are only estimates. [6] [7] Records for the early history of the Chapel are fragmentary, a member having burnt most of them in 1858. [8] Exactly why he did so remains a mystery. We do know that the membership never exceeded 200 during its first 2-1/2 decades and that the average number of members was probably close to 100. Momentary surges in membership occurred during several revival periods in the late 1850s and early 1860s. The earliest surviving entry in the church records refers only to the first six trustees: John C. King, H.L. Warden, Abram Failing, E.O. Lindsley, Joseph Metcalf, and William Fox, and their resolution "to negotiate for & purchase a Lot for the erection of a House of Public Worship & also to circulate a Subscription to raise money to buy a Lot & the Erection of said house of worship." [9] (See Illustration 2.)

list from Trustees Book
Illustration 2. List of Trustees of the First Wesleyan Methodist Chapel. From Trustees Book #1.

Assuming that the first membership of the Chapel numbered about 50, and that at least half of these individuals were probably non-property holding wives and dependents, the subscription list the trustees circulated in April of 1843 shows a strong spirit of involvement by the early members of the church. Twenty-four individuals pledged either services or money toward the completion of the Chapel. Joseph Metcalf, a former founding father of the local Baptist church, led the way with a pledge of $500. Less affluent members (12 in all) each promised $5 in cash, or $5 worth of such services as blacksmithing, tailoring, or brickwork. The remaining 11 subscribers rounded out the list with pledges ranging from $10 to $100. [10] (See Illustration 3.)

list of subscribers
Illustration 3. List of Subscribers of the First Wesleyan Methodist Chapel. From Trustee's Book #1.

The composition of this subscription list seems to indicate that the early Wesleyan congregation represented a wide cross section of Seneca Falls inhabitants. Drawn together by strong personal beliefs and a militant social awareness rather than hereditary church affiliation, they were a diverse group both socially and economically. Interestingly, the name R. P. Hunt appears at the end of the list next to a pledge for $100. This presumably was Richard P. Hunt, [11] a prominent abolitionist Quaker from Waterloo. Although never a member of the Wesleyan congregation, Hunt apparently felt strongly enough about what the Chapel stood for to offer the new church some financial assistance.

After the usual construction delays and difficulties the Wesleyan Chapel was completed within the year at a cost of about $1,770 [12] and dedicated in October of 1843. [13] (See Illustration 4.) Once settled in their new home, the outspoken congregation lost none of its militancy. In April 1845 they hosted the first convention of the several Wesleyan congregations which had recently formed themselves into the Rochester Conference of the Wesleyan Methodist Connection of America. The Reverend George Pegler, the pastor of the Seneca Falls Chapel, was elected president of the conference. [14] During this and subsequent conferences, the Wesleyans passed numerous resolutions stating their unequivocal stand on the moral and social issues of the day. A sampling of statements from conferences in the late 1840s and early 1850s reveals the Wesleyans resolute spirit on such topics as women's equality, slavery and temperance:

Resolved, That as Christians and Wesleyans we cannot identify our Christian and moral character with societies where women and colored persons are excluded (1847 Conference). [15]

Resolved, . . . therefore the Fugitive Slave Law, so called, is a violation of the law of God, and of the most sacred rights of humanity, that it is false in principle, wicked in its design, cruel in its operations, the crime of its authors and abettors, the foulest blot on our statute books, the infamy of this nation, and the disgrace of this age, and that no man can execute or obey it without sinning against God and man. . . . (1852 Conference). [16]

Resolved that we will not tolerate any member in our church who uses the elective franchise to promote the sale or use of ardent spirits as a beverage (1847 Conference). [17]

Wesleyan Chapel
Illustration 4. View of Probable Wesleyan Chapel behind the Arnett Mill. From the 1856 Cadastral Map.

The Wesleyans of Seneca Falls did not confine their reforming zeal to conference resolutions, but made an active effort to practice what they preached. The most visible evidence of this was their willingness to open the Chapel, free of charge, to any reform speakers seeking a public forum. This was a very important concession to make in 19th century America. Most people of the time considered themselves good Christians, and opposed slavery and discrimination on general principles, but they had no desire to force the issue and make social conscience a prerequisite for salvation. The various abolitionist, feminist, and temperance reformers who appeared on the scene at this time felt just the opposite and made a determined effort to force the traditional churches to adapt a social program to combat the evils and inequalities of the day. They invariably tried to deliver their lectures from the pulpit of a church, hoping that people would thereby come to identify social reform with a Christian life.

Seneca Falls witnessed a major battle on this issue in August 1843 when Abigail Kelley, a famous abolitionist speaker, arrived in the village to give a series of lectures against slavery. Her presence caused a good deal of excitement, both because of the subject of her talks and the fact that she, a woman, would be addressing a mixed audience. Because she could find no church willing to offer her a meeting place (the Wesleyan Chapel was not yet completed), she ended up giving her talks in Ansel Bascom's yard.* Subsequently, Rhoda Bement, a member of the Presbyterian Church was excommunicated for attending the lectures. The transcripts of her trial provide important insights into the sentiments in Seneca Falls regarding reform, women's rights, and freedom of speech, and help to explain why the Women's Rights Convention eventually took place at the Wesleyan Chapel.

*Bascom was an influential Seneca Falls resident and lobbied strongly in favor of the Married Woman's Property Act of 1848. He was a good friend of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and took an active part in the discussions at the Women's Rights Convention.

During Mrs. Bement's trial, the prosecuting church Elders made much of the fact that the lecture had been given by a woman, something they clearly considered "contrary to the established sentiment of the church." [18] Mrs. Bement was also charged with being "very unladylike & very unchristian" [19] for trying to persuade the pastor to read a notice from the pulpit announcing another abolitionist lecture. Women's rights was clearly an issue in Seneca Falls even before Elizabeth Cady Stanton arrived on the scene.

An 1843 article in the Seneca Falls Democrat noted that:

John Neal, an excentric [sic] genius, has been lecturing in New York on the rights of women. Hear what the Brooklyn news says of him: He thinks women should vote, should participate in the duties of juries, and have a voice in the civil and military engagements of our government. What absurd stuff is all this prattle about the "Rights of Women!" Suppose Mr. Neal's notions were carried into operation, what a beautiful spectacle would not this country present in a very short time! The strong, vigorous, enterprising Uncle Sam transformed into a Jerry Sneak—a gigantic specimen of a poor, hen-pecked son of sorrow. In time of war how effective would be our army and navy—the commander-in-chief in a delicate situation, her officers darning stockings. [20]

Not surprisingly, Mrs. Bement lost her case with the Presbyterian Elders who proceeded to excommunicate both her and her husband. Searching for a compatible church to join, they became members of the new Wesleyan Methodist congregation. [21] At least two other members of the Presbyterian Church also joined the Wesleyans about this time. [22] This infusion of new members, still smarting from their recent battles with the Presbyterians, could only have strengthened the resolve of the determined reform-minded Wesleyans.

Although the Trustees had agreed at the January 14, 1844, meeting that the Wesleyan "House of Worship shall not be opened for the purpose of speaking or preaching in favor of electing to Power either of the political parties of the county," [23] they immediately opened their doors to any abolitionist or reform groups seeking a place to meet. Mary Bascom Bull, the daughter of the Ansel Bascom who had placed his yard at the disposal of Abby Kelley, remembered that "very often the old chapel was lighted up of an evening and a champion of women's rights addressed the people. While we were sometimes honored by the presence of true good women like Frances Gage, or women of undoubted genius like Elizabeth Oakes Smith, we often had some very funny kinds of persons stray this way." [24] Major abolitionist speakers such as Frederick Douglass, Charles Lenox Remond, and William Lloyd Garrison also "held forth in the old Wesleyan Chapel," [25] in the 1840s.

When it came time for Elizabeth Cady Stanton to establish a meeting place for her proposed Women's Rights Convention, the Wesleyan Chapel would have presented itself as the obvious choice. It was the most aggressively liberal and reform-minded church in the village; it made a practice of welcoming radical speakers; it had a highly sympathetic congregation; and, not unimportantly, there was no fee charged for the use of the church. (The Trustees instituted a $5 charge for the use of the building in 1855.) [26]

Neither Stanton nor the church records tell us how the arrangements were made for the use of the Chapel. Much is often made of Stanton's statement in The History of Woman Suffrage that the Chapel door was locked when she arrived, and that her nephew had to climb through a window to unbolt the door from the inside. [27] Some commentators have interpreted this to mean that the Chapel authorities suddenly had second thoughts about opening their doors to such a radical group, and attempted to lock them out. This seems highly unlikely given the Trustees' past generosity toward reform gatherings, and the fact that Saron Phillips, the minister of the Chapel, was so much in sympathy with the Women's Rights Movement that he signed the Declaration of Sentiments. The more reasonable explanation for the locked door is that Stanton simply arrived before the key-bearer, or that this individual was a little late in arriving.

The two-day Convention began at 11 on the morning of July 19, and attracted more participants than even the organizers had expected. Three days before the event, Lucretia Mott had written to Elizabeth Cady Stanton warning her that "the convention will not be so large as it otherwise might be owing to the busy time with the farmers, harvest, etc. — But it will be a beginning & we may hope it will be followed in due time by one of a more general character." [28] Both ladies were pleasantly surprised to find "crowds in carriages and on foot" [29] moving toward the Chapel on the day of the Convention. Mrs. Stanton reported that "the house was crowded at every session," [30] and estimated the attendance at 300. Amelia Bloomer arrived late on the second day and remembered that she "was compelled on account of my late arrival, and the immense 'crowd' already congregated, to take a seat in the gallery." [31]

What exactly had drawn all these people from their homes on such short notice on a blistering hot midsummer day? [32] Charlotte Woodward, a 19-year-old glove maker from Dewitt who did piecework in her home in the country, remembered the sentiments that compelled her to attend the convention. She said that most women accepted their unequal position in life

as normal and God-ordained and therefore changeless. But I do not believe that there was any community anywhere in which the souls of some women were beating their wings in rebellion . . . . Every fibre of my being rebelled, although silently. All the hours that I sat and sewed gloves for a miserable pittance, which, after it was earned, could never be mine. I wanted to work, but I wanted to choose my task and I wanted to collect my wages. [33]

Seeing a chance to mingle with like-minded women, Woodward and half a dozen sympathetic friends piled into a farm wagon on the morning of the 19th, and headed for Seneca Falls 40 miles away. "At first we travelled quite alone . . . but before we had gone many miles we came on other waggon-loads [sic] of women, bound in the same direction. As we reached different cross-roads we saw waggons [sic] coming from every part of the country, and long before we reached Seneca Falls we were a procession." [34]

Unfortunately, we know very little about the people who formed this procession. Except for the 100 stalwart souls (Charlotte Woodward among them) who signed the Declaration of Sentiments, we do not even know their names. We can only assume that they, like Charlotte Woodward, were women who keenly felt the injustice in their lives and wished to do something about it.

Thanks in large part to the research of Judith Wellman of the History Department at State University of New York at Oswego, we do know a bit more about the 100 people, 68 women and 32 men, who signed the Declaration of Sentiments. Generally speaking, they were white, middle-class, middle-aged citizens from the immediate Seneca Falls/Waterloo area. Nearly all were already active in various reform movements, either through the Progressive Quakers of Waterloo or the antislavery Free Soil Party of which Henry Stanton was a member. At least one-third of the Seneca Falls signers were members of the Wesleyan Chapel, one-half of the Waterloo signers were Progressive Quakers. [35]

It appears that for the 100 signers at least, the Convention was less a sudden consciousness raising experience, as a chance to publicly affirm their support for women's rights. Most had already taken a stand on this issue through their affiliations with such reform-minded groups as the Wesleyans, the Quakers, or the Free Soilers, all of whom were already on the record as opposing sexual inequality. How much the other 200 participants shared these views prior to the Convention, it is impossible to say.

As the audience began to gather in the Chapel, the organizers were surprised to see about 40 men [36] scattered amongst the crowd. The announcement publicizing the Convention had said that the first day's session was to be for women only, but as Stanton later recalled

they were already on the spot, and as the women who must take the responsibility of organizing the meeting, and leading the discussions, shrank from doing either, it was decided in a hasty council round the altar, that this was an occasion when men might make themselves preeminently useful. It was agreed they should remain, and take the laboring oar through the Convention. [37]

Charlotte Woodward admitted that "it was the presence of these uncommonly liberal men that gave her courage to stay over for the second day's sessions." [38] James Mott was accordingly chosen to be the moderator, and Mary McClintock the secretary. [39] With the formalities out of the way, the Convention then began in earnest.

Mary Bull, the 13-year-old daughter of Ansel Bascom who attended both days of the Convention, remembered the event 32 years later:

. . . the whole scene comes before me as vividly as if yesterday,—the old chapel with its dusty windows, the gallery on three sides, the wooden benches or pews, and the platform with the desk and communion-table, and the group gathered there; Mrs. Stanton, stout, short, with her merry eye and expression of great good humor; Lucretia Mott; whose presence then as now commanded respect wherever she might be; Mary Ann McClintoc [sic] a dignified Quaker matron with four daughters around her, two of whom took active part in the proceedings. [40]

Elizabeth Cady Stanton opened the proceedings with a brief statement as to their purpose in gathering, and then turned the floor over to Lucretia Mott who presented "a survey of the degraded condition of women the world over, [and] showed the importance of inaugurating some movement for her education and elevation." [41] Elizabeth Cady Stanton then read the Declaration of Sentiments to which changes and revisions were made by the audience. The question of whether the men present should be allowed to sign the Declaration was "discussed in an animated manner; [and] a vote in favor was given." [42]

The meeting then adjourned until 2:30, when the Declaration was once again read and "papers circulated to obtain signatures." [43] The 11 resolutions to the Declaration outlining specific demands in the interests of justice and equality were next presented, followed by speeches from Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth McClintock. The meeting then adjourned until 10 the next morning. During the evening, Lucretia Mott gave a general lecture on reform movements, presumably in the Wesleyan Chapel. [44]

The Convention convened on the second day at its appointed hour, and the Declaration of Sentiments was once again read and debated. Thomas and Mary Ann McClintock, Ansel Bascom, and Frederick Douglass were all identified as being active participants in the proceedings. At the close of the morning session, the Declaration was, according to the printed report, "unanimously adopted." [45] This claim of entire unanimity is probably not completely true, as Stanton reports in The History of Women Suffrage that the ninth resolution calling for the vote for women was by no means universally accepted at the Convention. Strong debate occurred on the issue, but she and Frederick Douglass "persistently advocated the resolution, and at last carried it by a small majority." [46] In spite of this one disagreement, the unanimity of convictions among the Convention participants appears to have been strong and heartfelt.

The afternoon session on the 20th was concerned with discussions and revisions on the resolutions which, "after some criticism, much debate, and some alterations, were finally passed by a large majority." [47] The evening session, which began at 7:30, was largely taken up with general closing speeches by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Thomas McClintock, Mary Ann McClintock, Frederick Douglass, and Lucretia Mott. At one point, Mott proposed an additional resolution calling for the "overthrow of the monopoly of the pulpit, and for the securing to woman an equal participation with men in the various trades, professions and commerce." [48] The resolution was presented to the convention and adopted, after which the proceedings were closed "by one of Lucretia Mott's most beautiful and spiritual appeals." [49] (See Appendix D for Report of Convention and Appendix J for location of farmsteads of Waterloo signers of the Declaration of Sentiments.)

The Convention's organizers did not have long to wait for the public's reaction to their revolutionary ideas. Stanton recalled that "the proceedings were extensively published, unsparingly ridiculed by the press, and denounced by the pulpit, much to the surprise and chagrin of the leaders . . . [who] were wholly unprepared to find themselves the targets for the jibes and jeers of the nation." [50] She continued:

So pronounced was the popular voice against us, in the parlor, press, and pulpit, that most of the ladies who had attended the convention and signed the Declaration, one by one, withdrew their names and influence and joined our persecutors. Our friends gave us the cold shoulder and felt themselves disgraced by whole proceedings. [51]

Once the initial shock had worn off, however, Stanton resolutely set herself the task of bringing public opinion around to her way of thinking. The Convention had been a turning point for her. She later wrote, "The discussions had cleared my ideas as to the primal steps to be taken for woman's enfranchisement, and the opportunity of expressing myself fully and freely on a subject I felt so deeply about was a great relief." [52] With the much appreciated support of such liberal newspapers as Frederick Douglass' North Star, and Horace Greeley's New York Tribune, she embarked on her lifelong campaign for the cause of women's rights.

As with any proper revolutionary campaign, she had first to deal with the enemies in her own backyard. Not all of the churches in Seneca Falls were so open-minded as the Wesleyans, and the women's rights movement came under heavy attack from various pulpits in town. Conspicuous in this assault was the Reverend Horace P. Bogue, the same Presbyterian minister who had excommunicated Rhoda Bement for attending Abby Kelley's antislavery lecture five years before. According to Stanton, Bogue preached several sermons criticizing the Convention and the cause of women's rights, but she felt that she counterattacked quite neatly with an article in the county papers. [53]

The Seneca Falls Wesleyans and their liberal minister, Saron Phillips, presumably continued their support for the cause of women's rights. We can only hope that Reverend Phillips was not one of those who withdrew his name from the Declaration once the storm of ridicule broke Phillips left Seneca Falls in 1849, and was replaced by the Reverend Benjamin Bradford, who remained until 1852. [54] (See Appendix E.) The various resolutions passed by the Wesleyans at their conference conventions after 1848 show that they continued to press for social and moral reforms of all types. Between 1848 and 1869 they passed, among others, resolutions calling for an end to slavery, social inequality, and unjust wars in no uncertain terms. In 1864 for instance, they proclaimed that "we hate American Slavery with an increased hatred; and while we witness with gratitude the liberation of so many of the oppressed, we will increasingly pray Almighty God to cause, if need be the sword to be used until the last yoke is hewn from the necks of those who have worn it so long." [55]

While waging war against sin and social injustice in the wider world the Wesleyans were involved in some internal battles of their own. In 1852, Reverend Bradford and an unspecified number of his congregation left the Chapel in a dispute over church hierarchy, and attempted to form a new Congregational Church. This experiment lasted only 1-1/2 years, and most of the former Wesleyans returned to the Chapel when Bradford's health forced him to abandon his plans in 1854. [56]

The reunified congregation was served by three different pastors from 1853-1857, all of whom were active in promoting revivals and open air meetings. The largest revival occurred in 1858 under the ministry of the Reverend H.B. Knight, who managed to add 118 new members to his flock. It was also during this time that most of the church records were burned by one of the congregation. It is interesting to speculate on whether the passionate religious revival then in progress had anything to do with this event. The church history also notes that antislavery feeling was particularly high at this time, and that many of the members of the Wesleyan Chapel were active in the Underground Railroad, hiding fugitive slaves and assisting them on their way to freedom in Canada. [57] It seems the congregation had lost none of its passion for social reform and political involvement. (See Illustration 5.)

Interior of Old Wesleyan Church
Illustration 5. c. 1858. "Interior of Old Wesleyan Church with Pastor, Superintendent & Teachers of Sabbath Schoo." SFHS neg. #2690.

The Chapel apparently continued along in this vein under various pastors until 1869 when a major split occurred in the congregation. Under the Reverend William W. Lyle, the issue of church hierarchy and authority once again became a bone of contention. The church membership split down the middle on the question of whether the individual congregation or the Conference of Elders should have the final say in matters pertaining to the members. Unable to reach a compromise, Lyle and 63 followers left the Chapel and formed the First Congregational Church of Seneca Falls. This left the Wesleyan Chapel with only 60 members and no pastor, roughly the same situation they had started from 21 years earlier. [58] Things were also complicated by the fact that the departing members laid claim to the Chapel as their property. The issue was eventually settled by the payment of $2,500 to the Congregationalists, with the Wesleyans retaining the Chapel. [59]

The 60 remaining Wesleyans must have been a very determined lot, for only a year later, they had developed both the ambition and the wherewithal to build a new church. Comments concerning plans to sell the old chapel begin appearing in the Trustees' Record Books on November of 1870 and by March 1, 1871, they had "Accepted [the] Deed of [a] lot on [the] corner of Fall and Clinton Street, from Bro. C.G. Corwin. Also completed article of agreement for sale of old church to C.G. Corwin." [60] Work on the new building was begun that summer.

Progress was very slow though, as the congregation had difficulty meeting the construction costs. They moved into the new building in the spring of 1872, even though only one meeting room was finished. It required three more years before the Wesleyans could raise enough money to complete the structure. They finally managed to do so, and dedicated the new church in August 1875. [61] As a tribute to the old brick Chapel, they placed its original cornerstone over the doorway of the new church.

The original Wesleyan Chapel, once the scene of so much impassioned rhetoric, was remodeled into a concert hall and several stores (see "Architectural Survey" by Barbara Pearson for subsequent history of Chapel). Its days of hosting fervent abolitionist orators and determined feminists was over, but it had served a vital function during its first 29 years by providing a sympathetic home for reformers of all creeds and causes. Throughout its short ecclesiastical history, it had proved to be a shining haven of liberality in a generally doctrinaire world.

Important Sources of Information and Suggestions for Further Research

1. First Wesleyan Methodist Church of Seneca Falls—Records 1843-1911 1 reel of microfilm (#13) and original material at the Seneca Falls Historical Society.

Contains numerous pieces of information on the physical changes made to the Chapel, i.e., the introduction of gas in 1858 and the lowering of the pulpit in 1860, etc. Discusses the several splits in the congregation which occurred in 1852 and 1869, eventually resulting in the formation of the First Congregational Church of Seneca Falls. Contains information on the sale of the Chapel in 1872 and the plans for building the new church.

2. One Hundred Years of Service for Christ in the Wesleyan Methodist Church, 1844-1944 (New York) copy at Seneca Falls Historical Society.

Contains good examples of the various reform resolutions passed by the Rochester Conference of Churches, of which the Wesleyan Chapel was a member.

3. "The Signers of Seneca Falls: Who Were They?" Judith Wellman. Paper prepared for the Social Science History Association, copy at the Seneca Falls Historical Society. A detailed, statistical study identifying the signers of the Declaration by age, sex, occupation, religion, etc.

4. History of the Wesleyan Methodist Church, Ira Ford McLeister.

No copy of this book was found during the research for this paper, but it may contain additional information on the chapel and its members.

5. Local Church Records

The local Methodist, Congregational, and Presbyterian Churches may still have some records in their possession which were not given to the Historical Society, and should be contacted.

<<< Previous <<< Contents >>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 10-Dec-2005