WATERVILLE, Maine — He was born on a pioneer farm 14 miles east of here, and graduated first in his class from the tiny Baptist college planted precariously on a barren bank of the Kennebec River.
He set out west to become a river-town schoolteacher, prepared for the ministry, drifted into journalism, but always remained true to the teachings of his church and his family: His job on Earth was to cleanse the world of sin.
Fired by idealism about the divine mission of the young country and full of revulsion over its stain of slavery, he became an outspoken abolitionist.
On Nov. 7, 1837, Elijah Parish Lovejoy became America’s first martyr to freedom of the press. His story is barely known outside Alton, Ill., where he died, and Waterville, where his alma mater, now Colby College, is celebrating his legacy.
His is an American story of heroism, nobleness of character, and enduring moral grandeur. It bears repeating on today’s 175th anniversary of his death.
Mr. Lovejoy’s life was uplifting and his death brutal. His abolitionism transformed tucked-away Alton into a fiery center of the slavery debate.
His newspaper emerged as a booming voice against bondage in a town that devoutly preferred serenity to sermons. Three times, his press was destroyed by his opponents.
On Nov. 3, 1837, Mr. Lovejoy addressed the town: “While I value the good opinion of my fellow citizens as highly as anyone, I may be permitted to say that I am governed by higher considerations than either the favor or the fear of man. I am impelled to the course I have taken, because I fear God. As I shall answer it to my God in the great day, I dare not abandon my sentiments, or cease in all proper ways to propagate them.”
Four days later, Mr. Lovejoy arranged for a fourth press to be transported stealthily by riverboat to Alton. It was placed in a stone warehouse. Word leaked out. A mob appeared. Epithets and rocks were hurled. Shots rang.
The mob prepared to set the rooftop afire. Mr. Lovejoy ran out to prevent it. He was shot dead, two days short of his 35th birthday.
Today the name of the shooter and the identities of the mob members are unknown, but the words of the martyr endure, if only to a small band of scholars and journalists.
Mr. Lovejoy said: “There is no way to escape the mob but to abandon the path of duty, and that, God helping me, I will never do.”
Mr. Lovejoy did not abandon his duty, and Colby did not abandon its onetime star student. Since 1952, the college has presented the Lovejoy Award to a journalist of courage selected by a group of editors. I have served on this committee for several years.
This year’s winner is Bob Woodward, one of the principal Washington Post investigators of Watergate.
“Lovejoy’s life is a lesson right out of Reporting 101,” Mr. Woodward says. “The things we revere go back more than a century. There’s a straight line between what he did and what we are trying to do today.”
Hardly anybody listens to valedictory addresses at college commencements. Even fewer remember or quote them. But like almost everything else about Mr. Lovejoy, his stands out.
This is what he told the six other members of the Class of 1826: “Let us pursue with unwavering aim the course we may determine to pursue. Let it not be said of us that our alma mater has sent us forth into the world in vain. Let us cherish those kindred feelings which have so often been awakened over the pages of classic eloquence or under the still purer influence of the Muse — and when called to give up our account for the talent committed to our case, may it not be found that we have buried it in the dust.”
It turns out that although Mr. Lovejoy was buried in the dust of Alton, all of us in the profession he ennobled are, as he would put it, called to account.
Let us hope that, though battered and beleaguered by the crisis of the contemporary press, we have not been sent forth into the world in vain.
David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Contact him at: email@example.com