Title Reviewed:
A Friendly Mission: John Candler's Letters from America, 1853-1854

Author Reviewed:
Gayle Thornbrough

Robert R. Rea


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 47, Issue 3, pp 301-303

Article Type:
Book Review

Download Source:

A Friendly Mission: John Candler's Letters from America, 1853-1854. Edited by Gayle Thornbrough. Volume XVI, Number 1, Indiana Historical Society Publications. (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1951, pp. 134. Index. $1.00.)

"Having performed our duty … in this sad dark province, we now leave Louisiana with much relief of mind, and go on to encounter fresh trials in other quarters." With these words John Candler described the conclusion of the first phase of a remarkable abolitionist invasion of the Old South.

In September, 1853, Candler, Josiah and William Foster, and William Holmes brought to America from the London Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends, a lengthy document urging the abolition of slavery wherever it might be found. The present volume recounts the trials and tribulations of the mission as it journeyed through twenty-six states and presented its memorial to twenty-three governors and to the President of the United States. At a time when abolitionists were anathema in the South, the four English Quakers called upon the Lord to "help and preserve us," and carried their message to the executive officers of all the southern states except Texas, Arkansas, and Florida.

From beginning to end John Candler faithfully wrote to his wife—"My Beloved Maria"—the series of letters which Miss Thornbrough has edited from a notebook owned by the Indiana Historical Society and collated with the originals at Haverford College library. Candler was a widely traveled man who had previously visited the United States, Portugal, Brazil, and the West Indies on similar missions. His eye for detail, both geographic and social, was keen even if jaundiced by an ardent missionary fever. The careful minute descriptions of life and travel in the midwestern and southern sections of the United States form the most interesting portions of the collection. An estimated ten thousand miles of travel in every type of conveyance from Mississippi river boats to New England sleighs gave Candler ample opportunity to test American transportation and to pass a happily restrained judgment upon it. Braving prairie fires in Illinois and winter floods in Tennessee the travelers gained a unique purview of almost every part of the country.

The mission itself, particularly its reception by the governors of the various states, seems of secondary importance. As might well be expected, the "Friendly mission" came face to face with politicians like Governor Bigler of Pennsylvania who greeted it as disturbing to the peace, rude fellows Price of Missouri who seemed to threaten bodily harm, and "the Christian Governor" Henry W. Collier of Alabama whose sincere concern over slavery was in sharp contrast to the "sad sights" exhibited in the Cradle of the Confederacy. Although Candler constantly feared for the personal safety of the mission, he and his fellows were uniformly better received by the governors of the deep South than by any set of officials other than the occasional staunch abolitionists of the North.

These letters will also prove of interest to the student of American Quakerism for their description of backwoods meetings and careful listing of Friends in all parts of the country. Such material forms a considerable portion of the text, thanks to the widespread earlier American contacts of Candler and his companions.

As notes and explanatory material have been reduced to a minimum and Miss Thornbrough's twelve-page Introduction includes the four-page Memorial, the letters must stand upon their own merit for the general reader. Candler's style is clear and his matter interesting. The text is unmarred by typographical errors but a few peculiarities of spelling have been perhaps unnecessarily retained. The over-all value of the collection might have been enhanced by some elucidation of politics in the nation and the states, or by reference to the reception of the mission in the public press—a matter which concerned Candler himself more than once. Such ommissions detract little however, for as Candler wrote from Richmond, "We are here in the midst of … a slavery loving people, and feel the necessity of being very cautious as to what we say… ." The mission had slight political significance and the heart of the letters lies in descriptive passages like that which will appeal to every Hoosier in which Candler rejoices over a sumptuous rural breakfast topped by "a flowing jug of sweet cider unfermented—an excellent drink, and to a thirsty man, delicious."

Alabama Polytechnic Institute Robert R. Rea

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.