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Reverend James Gilliland


Born in Lincoln County, North Carolina, Gilliland went north to Carlisle, Pennsylvania 

to attend Dickinson College. Dickinson was the first college chartered in the United States of America and it is here that Gilliland became involved in the antislavery cause.


He graduated in 1792. The following year,

he married his cousin Frances Baird. While often not mentioned, his wife was equally committed to the cause, as illustrated by the fact that she was one of the first signatures on an 1830s antislavery petition.


By 1794, James was licensed to preach by the Presbytery of South Carolina,

then ordained and installed as pastor in Bradaway (sometimes called Broadway) Church, within Second Presbytery in South Carolina in 1796. Gilliland preached that

slavery opposed the will of God, which induced a dozen church members to protest his ordination.

The issue was taken before the church courts. And the very he same year he was installed,

the Synod forbade him to mention slavery from the pulpit. 

For years, Gilliland abided by the court’s decision.

While “both his character and ministrations were highly appreciated,” he yearned for a place where he could preach as his conscience directed, so he resigned from his pastorate in 1804.


The following year, aware of the strong antislavery convictions of Red Oak area residents,

Reverend Gilliland came north. He was followed by members of his South Carolina congregation

and his extended family from North Carolina.


Gilliland was not the only Presbyterian minister from South Carolina 

who attended Dickinson College to relocate to Ohio: Reverends William Williamson

and Robert G. Wilson, who had their own frustrations as proponents 

of the antislavery cause in a slave state, also made the move —  

as did the Reverend Robert Wilson, who was Gilliland's brother-in-law.

Williamson’s wife had also gotten into legal trouble for insisting enslaved persons

be taught to read and write.


On August 28, 1805 Gilliland, Williamson, and Wilson were received into the Washington Presbytery.  

It had been formed in 1799 from the Transylvania Presbytery. 

In 1794, the Transylvania Presbytery resolved that enslaved persons should be taught “to read the Scriptures and should be prepared for freedom.”

 Beginning in 1814, the three ministers worked together "on anti-slavery resolutions

at the presbytery and synod levels.” In 1821, the three ministers were received into the newly constituted Chillicothe Presbytery, and they would help make it “One of the most active and tireless religious bodies in the American struggle against slavery.” 

However, out of these three names it is only Gilliland’s that is mentioned in a list of Presbyterian ministers whose churches “became centres [sic] of opposition to slavery, and fugitives finding their way into the vicinity of any of of them were likely to receive the needed help.”

Information on this page is based on the research of Déanda Johnson, National Parks Service Historian, as part of the Church application for Network to Freedom Site status. For a copy of the research, including citations, contact us at

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