Saturday, March 28, 2015

“God’s Tender Mercies”: A Guest Post, Jessica Parr

            As readers of this blog know, True Yankees explores themes of global travel, the construction of identity (both personal and public), and the place of these within early American print culture.  While my own work focuses on American voyagers who sailed “eastward of Good Hope” (geographically, into the seas beyond the Cape of Good Hope, and psychologically,  sailing beyond all that was familiar, known, and comfortable), I hope to include, from time to time, the ideas of colleagues who explore these themes in other sites.  Today’s guest post, from my colleague Jessica Parr, offers us a fresh perspective, then, from the perspectives of a marginalized people .  Examining the construction of the African diaspora in the poetry of slaves in colonial America, she finds a Biblical foundation made the ordeal of slavery both understandable and bearable.

“God’s Tender Mercies:”
Redemptive Language, Print Culture, and Universal Salvation
in Early Black Consciousness

A Guest Post
Jessica Parr
University of New Hampshire

            By the second half of the eighteenth century, Christianity had taken on a dual meaning for African-Americans.  On the one hand, evangelical Christianity promised universal salvation, which held some appeal for marginalized and dehumanized people.  Religion also served as a bond of sorts, across an African diaspora, as free and enslaved Africans envisioned what a black society, free of the debasement of slavery, might look like.  On the other hand, white pro-slavery Christians tended to emphasize religion as a means of social control, designed to compel obedience among African slaves.  It was a bit of religious pro-slavery rhetoric unleashed by Anglican missionary Morgan Godwyn in his two treatises in 1680 and 1681.[1]  These treatises were designed to persuade planters who were reluctant to allow religious instruction to their slaves, where the question of whether it was legal to hold Christians in perpetual slavery was still unsettled law.[2]

            Many early Black intellectuals and writers, including Phillis Wheatley, John Marrant, and Jupiter Hammond focused on themes of faith, redemption, and hope in their writings.  Jupiter Hammon was arguably the earliest published African American writer.  Hammon was born into slavery in Huntingdon, New York in 1711.  He remained a slave throughout his life, serving four generations of the Lloyd family. Like Wheatley, the deeply religious Hammon was literate, having been sent to school alongside the Lloyd children.  The Lloyds were a devoutly religious family, and may, like Phillis Wheatley’s masters, have seen educating their child slaves as a gesture of Christian charity.

            In 1761, Jupiter Hammon become the first African American to publish, with the publication of the first of his poems, “An Evening Thought. Salvation by Christ with Penitential Crienes: Composed by Jupiter Hammon, a Negro belonging to Mr. Lloyd of Queen's Village, on Long Island.”  “An Evening Thought” stresses the idea of universal salvation, opening with the verse: “Salvation comes by Jesus Christ alone…Redemption now to every one.” Early scriptural arguments that were used to support slavery came from the idea of original sin.  One common bit of scripture invoked by pro-slavery Christians, was the Curse of Ham, which comes from the Book of Genesis.  In this biblical story, God cursed Ham for mocking his drunken father, Noah.  His skin, and that of his descendants, were scorched black.  Proponents of slavery argued that Africans were the descendants of Ham, cursed for his sins. Hence the idea of “universal salvation” the “hereditary heathenism” that developed in early Black print culture serves a rejection of the theological validity of these scriptural interpretations.[3]  Hammon’s emphasis on salvation can be read in dual context to indicate both a salvation from sin, but also salvation from slavery. 

            His writings that followed all stressed a common theme, which encouraged slaves to focus on salvation, and avoid vice and sin.  It was a theme that carried into other writings by early Black writers.  Hammon’s 1778 poem, “An Address to Miss Phillis Wheatley,” addresses Wheatley’s turn to religious life, saying

            Thous has left the heathen shore; Through mercy of the Lord, Among the
            heathen live no more, Com magnify thy God.” Wheatley had expressed
            similar sentiments in her own poem, “On Being Brought From Africa to

Phillis Wheatley, as illustrated by Scipio Moorhead 
in the Frontispiece to her book Poems on Various Subjects (1773).

She observed:

            Twas Mercy brought me from my Pagan land
            Taught my benighted soul to understand
            That there's a God, that there's a Saviour too:
            Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
            Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
            "Their colour is a diabolic die."
            Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
            May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.

Wheatley’s writings shared Hammon’s redemptive language, also referencing the story of Cain slaying his brother, Abel, condemned by God to wander the Earth indefinitely, for his sin.  Universal salvation is a shared language in early Black consciousness, as well as a refutation of the association with blackness with sin.

            At one level, Hammon’s writings appear to confirm some of the early pro-slavery rhetoric that encouraged obedience of slaves to their masters.  On the surface, his poem, “A Dialogue, Intitled, The Kind Master and the Dutiful Servant” seems to confirm pro-slavery Christian arguments that religion could serve as a form of social control for slaves.  The poem features a dialogue between a master and his slave concerning faith as a source of strength for getting through tough times (in this case, war).  But shared expressions of piety also suggest a faith that mankind, black and white, have equal access to, even if their social standings are not currently equal. The idea of “perfect strength,” as Wheatley wrote to her friend and correspondent, Obour Tanner, “was made in perfect weakness.”[4]

            In his 1787 Address to Negroes of New York, Hammon wrote:

 Now whether it is right, and lawful, in the sight of God, for them to make   
slaves of us or not, I am certain that while we are slaves, it is our duty to             
obey our masters, in all their lawful commands, and mind them unless we   
are bid to do that which we know to be sin, or forbidden in God’s word.”[5]

Hammon continues: “With good will doing service to the Lord, and not to men.”[6] Unlike white Christians, Hammon does not necessarily encourage obedience for its own sake.  Rather, he encourages his audience to put their faith in God.  Engaging in unlawful or disorderly acts would only degrade slaves further.

            In the tradition of these Black religious writings, struggle is a common theme, and religion is the balm to get Black Christians through the trials they will endure until slavery comes to an end. It is the start of a Messaniac language, which provided Black Christian intellectuals from the middle of the eighteenth century onward with way to connect across the African Diaspora, but also served as a guidebook for envisioning a Black existence beyond the degradations of slavery.


[1] See especially Morgan Godwyn, Proposals for the Carrying on the Negro’s Christianity (1681).

[2] Travis Glasson, “‘Baptism Doth Not Bestow Freedom:’ Missionary Slavery and the Yorke-Talbot Decision, 1701-1730,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 67, No. 2 (April 2010): 279-318.

[3] Rebecca Anne Goetz, The Baptism of Early Virginia: How Christianity Created Race (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012): 3, 172.

[4] Letter from Phillis Wheatley to Obour Tanner, 19 July 1772. Upham Hugh Clark Collection. Massachusetts Historical Society.

[5] Jupiter Hammon, An Address to Negroes in the State of New-York (1787): 7.

[6] Hammon, Address, 7.


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