Abolitionist – Reverend George Thompson

Researched and written by Andrew White. The following is an except from a forthcoming book on the History of Glen Arbor Township.

Reverend George Thompson, a Congregational minister who organized the first Protestant church in Glen Arbor Township in 1864, was a remarkable figure who played an important role in the Abolitionist movement. Dr. Joseph Yannielli, whose doctoral dissertation,  “George Thompson among the Africans: Empathy, Authority, and Insanity in the Age of Abolition,” published in The Journal of American History in 2010, reviews Reverend Thompson’s life and work in Africa before the Civil War, has written that:

"He was a minor celebrity in his day, the author of six books narrating his experiences in Africa, as well. as a popular prison memoir and book of poems. His published material alone amounts to over two thousand pages, with most volumes running through multiple editions and combined sales reaching well into the tens of thousands. He was a prolific diarist and lecturer, traveling thousands of miles to spread the antislavery gospel to diverse audiences at home and abroad. And yet he has been almost completely ignored by historians."

Thompson was born in New Jersey in 1817.  He enrolled as a student at Oberlin College in Ohio, then traveled west to Quincy, Illinois (across the Mississippi River from Missouri, a slave-holding state) where he studied for the ministry at the Mission Institute. From its beginning in 1836 the Mission Institute attracted young men (and later women) who were active in the Abolitionist movement and prepared them for service as missionaries and ministers.

In 1841 Thompson was arrested while trying to aid in the escape of fugitive slaves and sentenced to twelve years in a Missouri prison. After almost five years, he was pardoned by the governor of Missouri. He then married Martha Cook (1823-1917) on August 16, 1846, while still in Illinois.

George and Martha returned to Oberlin, where he was ordained as a Congregational minister. In a letter published in the New York Times in 1879 he briefly summarized his subsequent career as follows:

"After five years he was released, published "Prison Life and Reflections," written in prison; sold it one year. Was then called to go to Africa as a missionary; for six years at the Mendi Mission; lectured on Africa four years, and has labored in Northern Michigan as a pioneer home missionary for nearly twenty years, but is now nearly worn out physically, though as strong in spirit as ever, ready for service in every place or way pointed out by the Master."

Reverend Thompson came to northern Michigan in 1860, as one of the first “colonists” at a new community, Benzonia, organized by several ministers and lay members of the Congregational Church. As a self-styled “independent missionary” for two years he traveled throughout the area, preaching in isolated backwoods settlements and lumber camps. Beginning in 1862, and continuing until 1872, each year he received a commission to serve as a “home missionary,” and financial support, from the American Home Missionary Society (the “AHMS”). He wrote that his “mission field” covered a distance of 25 to 35 miles in each direction from Benzonia.

In the winter of 1864-1865 the Thompson family moved from Benzonia to Leland, where they purchased a small farm. Reverend Thompson developed a perhaps surprising interest in farming. The Grand Traverse Herald reported in 1870 that:

"Rev. George Thompson, Pastor in charge of the Congregational Church and Society of Leeland and vicinity, has one of the most beautiful farms I have ever seen in this or any other country, with neat and tasty buildings of the most modern style and improvements; he has a thrifty young orchard started, of apples and peaches, besides several veteran Indian apple trees, which yield his family some good fruit, he also raised, I believe, some ten or fifteen bushels of large and luscious strawberries the last season, said to be the best strawberry patch in the country."

Reverend Thompson organized a Congregational church in Leland and single-handedly raised funds from people across the country for the construction of a church building which was completed in 1872. He also preached to a small Presbyterian congregation at “Concord.” Located one and one-half miles distant across Lake Leelanau. During the winters, on Sundays he often crossed Lake Leelanau traversing the frozen lake.

1881 Plat Map of Leland Township
Modern day picture of Reverend Thompson‘s home.

The Mendi Mission, where Thompson served in Africa, was under the oversight of the American Missionary Association (the “AMA”). Thompson corresponded with several of AMA’s leaders—men he had known during his service at the Mission. In his letters he often wrote that wished that he could come to the southern states and help with the AMA’s schools for the “freedmen” (formerly enslaved persons):

"Dear Brother Whipple, it is a long time since I wrote to you but it has not been from want of interest. I think, I feel, & talk, & pray for you & the suffering Freedmen, every day. Oh! How I would love to be among them, but the Master has seemed to choose another field for me & where he leads I wish to follow—where He assigns me my work, there would I labor."

Though in straightened circumstances Reverend Thompson financially supported the work of the AMA. In 1863, when sending in a $2.00 donation, he wrote “It has been some little time since I sent anything for the A.M.A. for it is not so easy to get money, here in the woods, as when I was selling books. I could give $50.00 then easier than $1.00 now—but I must give my little when I can. Also, he raised funds at Glen Arbor and Leland for the AMA’s work. In a letter dated January 3, 1868, he wrote, “after preaching in a school house 3 miles out from Glen Arbor a collection was taken for the Freedmen from a very small number of poor new settlers it being their first effort.” Later that month, he reported, “I was at Glen Arbor last Sabbath & gave a Lecture on the Freedmen in the evening—the first of the kind there, not many professers present. They live in the country. I took up a collection for the suffering Freemen. This their first contribution to any such object—but I hope it will not be their last.” Those from Glen Arbor mentioned as having contributed were Mrs. Jane Ray, Mrs. James Dailey, Newton Sheridan, William H. Cook, Andrew Hilton (“a poor, good brother”), Alexis Goffar, Mr. and Mrs. Daniel Miller, Albert Miller, C.E. Miller, Mr. and Mrs. Wells B. Miller, and Stephen Murphy.

George Thompson’s quarterly reports, which he sent from Leland to the American Home Missionary Society’s office in New York City, have been preserved at The Amistad Research Center at Tulane University in Louisiana. From these, we learn that Thompson was generous to a fault. He purchased a home in Leland for a widow and her children, who were members of his congregation. Also, he and his wife provided a home for two girls who had lost their parents. They also cared for in their home an elderly couple from New York State, Dr. Augustus and Sarah Buckingham (who had been workers in the Abolitionist movement), and Hannah More (who served with Reverend Thompson in Africa).

However, Thompson seems to have been rigid and often judgmental and censorious of others. He was particularly critical of anything to do with the Masonic order or the Catholic Church. An interesting letter in the Amistad Center’s collection, written in 1872 by Reverend Leroy Warren, reports:

"Bro Thompson's ministry gets no hold of the community. He cultivates a small farm about half a mile from the village & supplies the village with milk & vegetables & fresh meat sometimes & people feel that he is more at home in this line of ministering to them than he is as a preacher & pastor. The man who drives a ridiculous old wagon through town on a weekday selling milk & mutton & currants & green peas — has heavy odds against him when he tries to interest the people as a preacher on Sunday—especially if there are marks of the cowyard still on his boots. Mr. Thompson has no sense of the incongruity of his two callings. He is regardless of appearances & seems to take pride in being so. He is course grained—& disgusts & offends people without intending it or knowing it. I doubt whether he can be very useful as a Home Missionary anywhere."  

Reverend Warren wrote that “I hesitate to approve this application” and went on to write somewhat cynically, that “Mr. Thompson has great faith in the final success of his work in Leland and will doubtless continue his work all the same whether he is commissioned or not.” His comments were prescient; that is exactly what happened. The AHMS’s executive committee withdrew all financial support; nonetheless, Reverend Thompson continued with his pastoral work at Leland just as before.

The Thompsons moved back to Oberlin in 1879 so that their children could take advantage of better educational opportunities there. George Thompson died at Oberlin in 1893 and Martha in 1907. They are buried together in the Westwood Cemetery there. The Thompson’s daughter Flora, who died in 1872 at age nine, and Hannah More, who served with Reverend Thompson at the Mendi Mission, lies in the East Leland Cemetery in Leelanau County.

Hannah More’s headstone after being cleaned and set into a new base at the East Leland cemetery during a restoration workshop hosted by the Leelanau Historical Society in 2020.

About The Author:

Andrew White is a historian of Leelanau County and Glen Arbor Township who has worked with, among other local history-related nonprofit entities, the Leelanau Historical Society (as a board member), the Leelanau County Historic Preservation Society (as a board member), the National Park Service (as a volunteer), and actively participating in the revitalization of the Glen Arbor Cemetery. He is currently researching the early history of Glen Arbor Township for a forthcoming book. He worked as an engineer on Great Lakes freighters; he is now retired and lives in Traverse City, MI.