Joseph Bates closed his little travel bag with an air of finality and turned to gaze pensively around the room. It was the spring of 1844 and there was a certain excitement in the air that could not be denied. William Miller had predicted that Christ would appear sometime between the spring of 1843 and the spring of 1844. They were standing on the very cusp of seeing that timeline meeting its fulfillment.
Joseph picked up his bag and made his way out of the room to say goodbye to his wife Prudence.
“Joseph” Prudy looked up at him as he stood in the doorway her brows creased in a frown “Oh Joseph are you sure this is a good idea?” Deep down she knew that remonstrance would have no effect on him but she felt she needed to at least try.
Joseph’s mouth broke into a wry smile “Do you want me to stay Prudy?” he asked
“Yes,” she said softly “But I know that you won’t listen” she added.
At this, he grinned. “There is nothing to worry about my dear. Brother Gurney and I will be careful”
“Oh, I know you will but…” Prudence hesitated “What you’re about to do is dangerous and you know it” her eyes turned pleading.
Joseph sighed “I know it’s dangerous Prudy” he agreed “But I don’t see any other way around it”
“But must you go?” she interjected “Do you really need to go down and preach the Second Advent message among the slaves in the south? Is there no other way of getting the message to them? Tracts perhaps or papers?
“Prudy be reasonable, many of them can’t read and if they could gain access to someone who could read for them what are the chances that such literature would make it into their hands unless it was placed there directly?” Joseph shook his head “No, I must go”
“But what about what happened to those other Millerite preachers?” Prudence reminded him
“Brethren Storrs and Brown?” Joseph asked
“Yes. Didn’t I hear somewhere that they were ordered to leave Norfolk, Virginia when they went down there to preach?”
“They were ordered to leave” Joseph agreed “but that is not a deterrent for me” He put down his bag and walked over to where his wife was seated and sat down beside her. “Listen, Prudy,” he said “I have been burdened by this for quite a while now. I understand the risks. I know that not making it out of there alive is a very real possibility but when I think of those poor slaves, when I think of how this message could encourage and bless them I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it is my duty before God to go” he gazed earnestly into her face “I must go my dear, I see no way around it”
Prudence’s face twisted into a sad smile “I know Joseph, I know you must go and I will not stand in your way. If you feel that God is calling you then I know enough about you to know that nothing will stop you.” she paused “I just wish there was another way that’s all”
“Well at least I’m not going alone,” Joseph said trying to add a positive note to the conversation
“But Brother Gurney is only going as far as Philadelphia” Prudence reminded him “You’ll be going down to Maryland alone”
“No not alone” Joseph corrected her “God will go with me”
“This is the worst time to be making this crossing across the Chesapeake Bay” Herman Gurney grumbled as the fishing trawler gingerly navigated its way through the sheets of ice that littered the water.
Joseph laughed “I’m surprised you’re with me to witness it” he teased “weren’t you going to stop at Philadelphia”.
Gurney let out a short laugh. “That’s right” he agreed “but after attending those meetings and hearing Father Miller preach, well I couldn’t very well turn tail and go back home to Michigan after that. We will soon see our Lord a-coming and everyone must have a chance to prepare” Gurney’s face sobered for a moment “But in all seriousness Joseph, you do realize they could mob us and beat us to death for trying to preach the Second Advent to the slaves?”
“I know” Joseph agreed, his experienced seafaring eyes taking in the waters around them “But we need to try”.
Gurney nodded “Yes” he agreed “We need to try”
They reached Kent Island and made their way to one of the small towns in the central part of the Island. Joseph had been cast away on the island 27 years before and remembered it somewhat. They soon found themselves at the local Tavern in search of rooms and also a public hall they could hold their meetings in. The tavern was packed to capacity with townsfolk who had assembled there for a town meeting and Bates and Gurney were able to meet the trustees of the only two churches in town.
When they made inquiries about using the Church halls as meeting places they were met with cold disapproval. No one wanted them putting any strange ideas about the Second Coming of Jesus into the heads of their slaves.
But as providence would have it the tavern keeper recognized Joseph. Bates had visited his parent’s home when he was a young boy and his mother, who was in another room, recognized the sea Captain as he came into the tavern. The man offered them lodgings and arranged for them to have meetings the next day in the tavern.
News of the Yankee preachers who had come armed with the new Second Advent message soon spread through the town like wildfire. People flocked to the tavern to listen to what they had to say, some out of curiosity and others out of a genuine desire to hear the messages. They held meetings over five days and on the fifth day as Joseph was bringing the meeting to a close a man stood up in the middle of the congregation.
As it turned out he was a Methodist small group leader and one of the trustees who had refused to let them use the church. He began to heckle and argue with Bates who graciously allowed him to say his piece unhindered.
Finally, in exasperation, the man’s tone turned threatening “Why if you don’t stop this here preaching” he snarled “a couple of us folks here are gonna ride you outta town on a rail”
Joseph eyed him calmly, slowly assessing the situation before replying “We are all ready for that sir. Why if you will put a saddle on the rail we would rather ride than walk”
A burst of laughter and excited chatter rippled across the crowded room and the man, Kent by name, stood there dumbfounded. Sensing an opportunity to continue speaking Bates continued “You must not think” he said, “that we have come six hundred miles through ice and snow at our own expense to give you the Midnight Cry without first sitting down and counting the cost.”
The excited chatter dulled into a low hum and Joseph continued “If the Lord had no more for us to do, we might as well lie at the bottom of Chesapeake Bay as anywhere else until the Lord comes but if he has any more work for us to do you can’t touch us”
Bates’ words brought a sudden hush over the crowd. They sat there eyeing him for a moment, unsure of how to respond when Kent himself quietly walked down the aisle and offered Bates his hand. The meeting ended on a positive note and Bates and Gurney decided to walk the 30 miles to the nearby town of Centerville and hold some meetings there.
In Centerville, they became acquainted with Judge Hopper who insisted that they spend the night with him. He organized a place for them to preach and they held meetings in Centerville over a period of three days. From Centerville, they traveled to the town of Chester where the meetings they held were packed to capacity, with many slaves standing on the edges of the congregation behind their white masters.
During the meetings, Herman Gurney sang the hymn “I’m a Pilgrim and I’m a Stranger”. The words touched the hearts of many of the slaves and one of them came to their lodgings right after the meetings and begged Gurney to give him a copy of the song.
“But I have only one copy my self,” Gurney said ruefully looking down at the precious manuscript.
“Please Master” the slave begged, “I’ll give you a quarter of a dollar for it”. Gurney’s heart broke when he heard those words because he realized that the man was most likely offering him all the money he had.
“I’ll tell you what” he finally said looking down at the manuscript “I’ll copy it out for you right now, what to do you say to that”
“Yes Master” the slave nodded, his eyes shining “I would be so pleased with that”. The man left Gurney and Bates not long after with a copy of the precious hymn tucked against this chest.
And so it was that Herman Gurney and Joseph Bates mission to the south was a success. Their preaching touched the hearts of many slaves and slave owners and they were able to see many of them converted by the messages.