Merritt Bates retired from his pulpit in 1862, during the second year of the Civil War, but the twin brother of Grand Traverse Herald founder Morgan Bates never gave up his strong anti-slavery views.
He maintained them just as stoutly, even after he moved to northern Michigan to spend his last years of life as a Whitewater Township pioneer farmer.
His editorial on the Lincoln assassination reveals more than his strong sentiments. It reflects the national furor over slavery that by the 1830s and 1840s forged abolition and pro-slavery movements into powerful political forces.
The editorial also sheds light on the paper's strong anti-Ku Klux Klan position in the latter half of the 1800s. It explains why his son, Thomas T. Bates, who owned and published the Grand Traverse Herald from 1876-1912, tracked and attacked lynchings nationwide in the early 1900s, and wrote strong editorials calling for an end to violence against blacks.
Descriptions of Merritt Bates flicker and flare throughout memoirs and biographies from that era. Friends called him ardent, dauntless, fervent.
Indeed, he was "a mild, kind, Christian minister, yet a firm and decided abolitionist," Catherine Brown observed in an 1849 biography of her husband, the Rev. Abel Brown, also a staunch abolitionist. All three had faced down an angry, rioting crowd at an anti-slavery gathering in Troy, N.Y., in the 1840s.
"Rev. Merritt Bates ... spoke about 10 minutes and commenced showing the people their political connection with slavery," Mrs. Brown wrote. "That was too much for the politicians to bear, and immediately, a dreadful howl was heard from about 20 persons who were there for that purpose.
"There was no effort made by the police officers to quell the rioting, although the mob threatened to tar and feather the speakers."
His enemies called Bates rabid. Thomas Lamont, one of his young Methodist congregation members in the mid-1800s, was a little kinder a half-century later when he remembered Bates as "what we called then an uncompromising anti-slavery 'crank.'"
Bates' younger son, Morgan, offers the greatest insight to his father and the abolitionist movement in upstate New York in a novel called "Martin Brook," published in 1901. Morgan, named for his uncle, started out in newspapers and was the editor of the Marshall Statesman in 1870. He was a Chicago author and playwright by the turn of the century.
His novel is clearly based on the experiences of both his father and his Uncle Morgan, and he probably had access to a diary that Merritt Bates started in 1826, when he would have been 20. The novel is out of print.
There are many similarities between Martin Brook and the Bates twins.
The fictional Martin Brook grew up in the abolition hotbed of New York, and knew its many Underground Railroad "stations" leading to the Canadian border. He also was orphaned at age seven.
Like the twins, Martin Brook hated slavery "in all its forms and conditions and can have no fellowship or compromise with it," as Morgan Bates wrote in his first Grand Traverse Herald editorial published on Nov. 3, 1859.
In the book, Martin, a young minister, helps escaped slaves flee to Canada via New York's Underground Railroad.
Merritt Bates may well have done the same in real life.
Author Tom Calarco, in his 2004 book, "The Underground Railroad in the Adirondack Region," lists Merritt as one of many "possible participants" in New York. And Merritt Bates' Aug. 23, 1869, obituary in the Herald alludes to it as well: "He was an ardent and uncompromising anti-slavery man and freely expressed his opinion on that subject in and out of the pulpit when it was treason to the Church to do so," it said.
"He suffered great persecution from his own people on this account for the years that the Methodist Church was under the dominion of slavery; but he lived to see the Church and the country free from that sin and that Satan."
-- Loraine Anderson