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Jul 21

Nathan Hunt: Pioneer Minister of Springfield - Contributed by Joshua Brown

Posted on July 21, 2021 at 11:24 AM by Tamara Vaughan

It’s High Point’s 162nd Anniversary! High Point began its corporate life on May 26, 1859, with the granting of its charter by the North Carolina General Assembly. At the time, the community had more than 200 buildings and was an important stop on the newly-opened railroad. 

The Museum’s blogs throughout the summer of 2020 looked back on these early days when Larry Cates explored a number of topics, ranging from our petition for the municipal charter to the female academy. This summer, many of our posts will return to those days of yesteryear with some new blogs about old subjects. We start off with a notable Quaker born in Guilford County before the Revolutionary War. His son was elected the first mayor of High Point – an interesting town founder who will appear in a future blog.

Nathan Hunt was one of the best-known Quakers in North Carolina in the early 1800s. A pioneer, a traveling minister, and an educator, he was an early member of Springfield Friends Meeting.

Portait of Nathan Hunt in the Museum of Old Domestic Life

Portrait of Nathan Hunt, Sr. (1758-1853) at the Museum of Old Domestic Life at Springfield Friends Meeting in High Point. 

Nathan Hunt's family emigrated to what were then the colonies of New Jersey and Pennsylvania between 1670 and 1719. His father, William Hunt, was born in New Jersey and moved to North Carolina about 1752 and was a charter member of New Garden Monthly Meeting in present-day Greensboro when it was organized in 1754. 

Nathan was born in 1758 at the family farm about two miles from New Garden Friends Meeting, the third child of Sarah Mills and William Hunt. Nathan said that he "never went to school for more than 6 months in his life." 

His father died during a missionary trip to England when Nathan was 14, and the family was left almost destitute. Some kindly neighbors arranged for Nathan to apprentice as a blacksmith. Another neighbor, Presbyterian minister Dr. David Caldwell, allowed him to borrow books from his library one at a time, which Nathan read at night after the day's work was done. He had to read by the light of pine knots as candles were scarce and expensive. He later said, "I observed the language of the books and cultivated the habit of using it in my common conversation. The consequence was that I was often taken for a learned man. I spent much of my time in reading the Bible."

Nathan Hunt married Mary Ruckman in 1777 when he was 20 years old. She died 11 years later, a week after bearing their sixth child. 

The land in the Piedmont was still heavily forested, and every community had to provide all of its own goods and services – making clothes, grinding corn, building houses and furniture. Nathan Hunt grew up in this pioneer atmosphere, where every man could handle an axe, and every woman could make butter. There were very few roads, and mail service hardly existed. Cash was scarce, and most stores accepted home-made goods as barter. Clothes were made of flax and wool, both home-grown.

The Revolutionary War began when Nathan was 18 years old. Many Quakers were strongly tempted to join the Patriot army, but Quakers believe in peace, so their leaders strongly advised their young men not to do so. 

The British captured Savannah near the end of 1778 and soon controlled all of Georgia. Six months later, Charleston fell. After the Battle of Camden in August 1780 where almost the entire American army was captured, the British planned to move up through North Carolina and into Virginia. By March 1781, both armies were in Guilford County: the British were based around Deep River Friends Meeting, while the Americans under General Nathanael Greene were based near New Garden Friends Meeting a few miles away. 

Nathan wrote, "We often had to hide our horses and cattle from scouting parties of both armies, and yet with all our care at one time both my horses were taken by the British soldiers, and at another time my only cow was taken away."

The Battle of Guilford Courthouse took place on March 15, 1781, near New Garden and very close to the Hunt family farm. Afterwards, the British and Patriot armies left their dead and seriously wounded behind. The Quakers at New Garden Friends buried the dead from both armies side by side in their graveyard and gathered the wounded into their meetinghouse. Smallpox broke out among the wounded, and Nathan felt that it was his duty to help care for them. He caught smallpox himself but only had a light case. 

Nathan Hunt residence near Springfield

Nathan Hunt’s residence near Springfield

After two years as a widower, Nathan married Prudence Thornburgh, with whom he had four more children. In 1811, the family moved to a farm adjacent to Springfield Friends on what is now Model Farm Road, which became home for the next 37 years. 

He first felt called to the ministry at age 17. He was encouraged by the elders at New Garden Meeting and became a recorded minister in 1792. His first extended traveling ministry was in 1796 to visit Friends in Georgia, followed by visits to Tennessee in 1797 and to Northern and Eastern states in 1798. Over the next 40 years Nathan Hunt visited most of the Quaker meetings in the United States and Canada and also many Native American tribes. Like his father, he also went to Great Britain and visited Friends meetings there. 

Like all the Friends of his generation, Nathan Hunt was deeply concerned about the evil of slavery. In 1776, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting banned its members from holding slaves. All of the other yearly meetings around the world quickly followed.

Banning slavery from their own ranks helped to clear the decks for Quakers to face the problem of slavery in society. The struggle occupied the next 100 years and is too long to describe here. Quakers were forbidden to buy, sell, or own slave-made products. Quakers who inherited enslaved people had to free them as quickly as possible and teach them to read and write, train them for independent jobs, and provide them with the basics for everyday living. Nathan Hunt was a leader in the "Free Produce" movement, which encouraged a boycott of all slave-made products and set up stores where people could buy goods made only by free labor.

There is no record that Nathan Hunt was ever directly involved in the Underground Railroad, a network of people helping enslaved individuals escape the South. It was highly illegal, with drastic fines for anyone caught helping those escaping to freedom. The Underground Railroad was very active in the area, and New Garden Friends was a major "station." 

On the other hand, both in private and in his ministry, Nathan Hunt was openly critical of slavery. He said at one gathering, that he “would as soon as hear an ass bray as to hear a slave-owner preach the Gospel." When criticized for speaking so strongly he said, "That was what came up and had to come out". 

A future post about this remarkable local Quaker, Nathan Hunt, Sr., will describe his involvement in the founding of Guilford College. 

N Hunt Sr gravestone

Gravestone of Nathan Hunt, Sr., in the historic Springfield Friends Cemetery. Photograph contributed by Linda Willard. 

Learn more about Springfield and New Garden Friends Meetings:

Learn more about Dr. David Caldwell:

Joshua Brown has served since 2015 as pastor at Springfield Friends Meeting, one of the oldest Quaker congregations in High Point. Springfield Friends is also home to the Museum of Old Domestic Life, a collection of materials and historical artifacts from the Springfield area. The author of numerous books and articles, he edited the 2010 anniversary edition of the Autobiography of Allen Jay.


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