Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: slavery

But they are different from us

When I was a boy I read historical novels by Canadian and English writers. The hero was always English, honest, brave, generous and kind. Other people were shifty-eyed, dishonest, traitorous scoundrels. As I was an English Canadian, I accepted this as self-evident truth.

Later I learned to read French and found historical novels in that language were exactly like the English novels – except the kind, generous, honest and brave hero was French and the dishonourable scoundrels were English. I have learned that there is at least as much, if not more, evidence to support this latter point of view as for the first. We absorb the attitudes of the time and place we live in, and it is good to examine the attitudes we take for granted.  

Plantation owners in the southern states needed workers skilled in growing cotton, or rice in coastal areas. They found the people they needed in Africa and brought them over as slaves.

Plantation owners were Christians; to own another human being didn’t seem right. But they already had beliefs about class distinctions and it was just a short step for apologists to explain that below the lowest classes of humanity there were these animals that looked almost human, but had no soul.

Even though the Africans had skills in the cultivation of cotton and rice that their white owners lacked, the owners seized on the idea that the Africans were domestic livestock and treated them accordingly. Still, they did their best to ensure that slaves would never see poor white people or free black people. The tragic effects of these false ideas linger on in the lives of both white and black people.

Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory taught that there are different races of humanity and the white race is more highly evolved than the others. He taught that the white race was destined to supplant all the other (inferior) races. Modern science agrees with the Bible that there is only one human race, yet ideas of white superiority still linger.

The people of the area that is now Rwanda and Burundi are Bantu who all speak the same language. The Tutsi were the governing aristocracy, the common people were Hutu. There was intermarriage and social mobility between the two groups. When Europeans, first Germans then Belgians, became colonial masters of this region, they saw the Tutsi as more European in appearance, therefore superior, and governed the colonies through them.

The Tutsi found this agreeable, the Hutu not so much. The upshot was a Hutu uprising in Burundi in 1972 which ended in the killing of 80,000 to 200,000 Hutu by the Tutsi army. Then came the Rwanda genocide of 1994 where the Hutu set about to eliminate the Tutsi from their country, killing 800,000 to 1,000,000. 

Both countries have made strides towards reconciliation. From the first, the distinction between the Tutsi and Hutu existed only in people’s minds, not in physical, linguistic or religious difference.

Before the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, there was little friction between Jews and other German citizens. Hitler was an evangelist, inspiring German people to believe in a revival of their nobility. From 1933 to 1939 the Nazis flooded the country with propaganda about the danger the Jews were to the welfare of the nation. Research institutes published glossy books with pseudoscientific information about the degradation of the Jewish race. Popular movies, novels, comic books reinforced those stereotypes in the conscience of the German people.

Hitler said next to nothing about the Jews during those six years. Then in 1939 he spoke forcefully about the need to eliminate the Jewish danger. By then the propaganda had taken effect on the conscience of the German people. After the war many Germans, although they deplored Nazi atrocities, believed the Jews had brought them upon themselves by being so different from other Germans. The Nazi propaganda machine created that perceived difference.

The Roman Catholic Church dominated Quebec for generations, telling people it was their protection against the hordes of Anglos around them and if anyone left the mother church, they would also abandon the French language. That was a self-fulfilling prophecy; the church ran the schools, hospitals and pretty much everything else. If someone joined a different church, the priests would ensure they became pariahs to their catholic neighbours.

That era ended with the Quiet Revolution of 1960. Church attendance in Quebec is now the lowest of any province or state in North America. Yet a suspicion of other denominations remains.

We English Canadians have no such problem, do we? Or are we just ignorant of our own prejudices and their roots?

The Orange Order dominated politics in English Canada for generations; they believed that only WASP’s (White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestants) were worthy of being citizens. Other people were second-class citizens, and should have no influence on government, nor any consideration from government.

After the union of Upper and Lower Canada (Ontario and Quebec today) in 1841, Orangemen fomented a series of riots in Toronto to cement their influence. They were the inspiration behind the 1847 riot in Montreal that culminated in burning the parliament building.

When the prairies opened for settlement 100 years ago, Clifford Sifton, an Orangeman, was minister of immigration. He scoured Eastern Europe for settlers who would assimilate to the English language and submerge the French already settled in the west. Orangemen in government were behind the decision a few years later to close all non-English schools. French schools were the target, other schools were collateral damage.

I attended public schools at a time when the curriculum taught the Orange Order’s perception of Canadian reality. The influence of the Orange Order waned over the years and French schools were once more allowed to operate. But when a concept of the superiority of one group of people guides government policy for so many years, prejudice does not soon wither away. We are going to be suspicious of people whom we think different from us until we get to know them. We will have to step outside of our comfortable, familiar, bubble to do that, but we are apt to find that other people are pretty much like ourselves. Can we call ourselves Christians and still try to maintain ethnic and linguistic divisions?

The value of history

Some folks dream of the coming of a golden age, when the gospel will have created a state of peace and benevolence on earth almost approaching that of heaven. Most of us dismiss such ideas as folly, the pride of man.

What about the good old days? Many folks believe things were better in the past. Such an idyllic view of the past is evidence of a selective memory which chooses to ignore the wars, oppression, violence, immorality and cruelty that have marked the history of mankind. There are sincere Christians who think that is how history should be taught; future generation will be better off if they learn nothing about wars and conflicts of the past. I believe there is a fatal flaw in that line of thought.

Most people consider their own country to be the greatest example of human civilization. China, for example, has called itself the Middle Kingdom since 1,000 BC, the centre of the world around which everything else revolves. There is a similar tendency in the USA. I am a Canadian, but my roots in the USA go deep. When my grandparents came to Canada with their sons in 1908, the Goodnough family had been in the USA for 270 years, going back to before there was a USA.

When we reminisce about a golden era in US history, let us not forget that there has never yet been a golden era for black people, or native people. We put people of the past on pedestals, telling ourselves that they were the very models of Christian public figures. Take the Puritans of New England, for instance. (This includes my ancestors who landed in Massachusetts 18 years after the Mayflower.) They were such kindly, peace-loving people; didn’t they have the wonderful Thanksgiving meal with the native people? That was nice, to be sure; but it didn’t last.

The Puritan settlers believed that they were God’s elect and therefore could take any land they wanted for their growing settlements with no consideration for the original residents. Their attitude eroded the trust of the Indian peoples and finally led to what is called King Philip’s War in which thousands of Indians were killed.

Neither did they tolerate any variation in Christian doctrine. When Roger Williams, one of the Bay Colony (Boston) preachers, advocated believer’s baptism he was forced to flee for his life in the dead of winter, with only the clothes on his back. The few Quakers in the colony talked about non-resistance. They were expelled from the colony, but some came back. Two of them were burned at the stake.

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Roger Williams (right) being sheltered by Native Americans after fleeing Massachusetts Colony to avoid arrest, 1636. Image from Shutterstock 

“I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know,” Thomas Jefferson, 1819. Jefferson considered Jesus to be the greatest moral teacher of all time, but rejected anything that smacked of the supernatural, or the divinity, the miracles or the resurrection of Jesus. He was the main author of the Declaration of Independence, which begins by saying:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Jefferson most definitely did not believe that black people were created equal, nor had they any unalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Lafayette urged Jefferson on several occasions to free his slaves. His response always was that black people were not fit for freedom. That did not prevent him from fathering six children by one of his slaves. Four of those children lived to adulthood and were the only slaves that Jefferson ever freed.

Those children were only one eighth black ancestry. Their great-grandmother was an African woman who was made pregnant by a British ship captain. The daughter who resulted grew up as a slave on a Virginia plantation and was in her turn made pregnant by the plantation owner and gave birth to Sally Hemings. When her master’s daughter married Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings went to Monticello. When Jefferson’s wife died, he turned to Sally Hemings to satisfy his carnal lust. She was only 14 at the time, a half-sister to Jefferson’s wife and three quarters white ancestry. As a slave, she had no choice in the matter; this cannot be termed a romantic relationship.

For years people have argued passionately that someone else was the father of Sally Hemings’ children. A few may still hold to that argument, but the evidence seems conclusive that Jefferson was the father.

Slavery was brutal, people were forced to work long and hard, with poor food and whipped savagely if they faltered or dared to ask questions. From the time slavery ended until well into the 20th century, at least 3,000 black people were lynched in the US South. These were not clandestine events, carried out in the dark of night. They were publicised, postcards with photos of lynchings were sold in the stores, in one case an excursion train was arranged for people wanting to witness a lynching. Law enforcement officers looked the other way.

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Anti-slavery poster of 1780

In the “Red Summer” of 1919 there were anti-black riots in more than three dozen cities across the USA. In 1943, with auto plants converted to war production, the Packard plant in Detroit promoted two black workers to supervisory positions. The white workers walked out and a riot ensued as the news spread. In the evening, unemployed white youth traveled to black residential areas, looting and vandalizing homes. The police ignored the white vandals and arrested black men trying to protect their homes and families.

It is good for us to read history, especially those parts of history that jar our illusions of the sweetness and light of our forefathers. We are not better than the people of past generations. The most important lesson of history is that the heart of man is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. My heart is no different than the heart of any of the villains of the past. It is when I ignore the true nature of my heart that I become a villain, while believing that I am doing some great and noble good. As Blaise Pascal wrote: “Man is neither angel nor beast; and the misfortune is that he who would act the angel acts the beast.”

Solomon said: “Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? for thou dost not enquire wisely concerning this.” (Ecclesiastes 7:10).

Desperately wicked

Try to put yourself in the position of a slave owner in the antebellum south. a slave owner whose livelihood and position in society hinged on your ability to get the maximum amount of work out of your slaves at a minimum cost. You considered yourself to be a Christian, but, like everyone around you, you believed that these black-skinned creatures who worked in your fields were more like domestic livestock than human beings. Some even said that they had no souls. Therefore you were justified in driving them to work harder, whipping them if they could not or would not work, killing them if they rebelled or tried to escape. Could you be that person?

Or could you be a guard in a Nazi death camp? For years you have been bombarded with information in the media, in movies, in schools, books and pamphlets that revealed how Jews were the cause of all that had ever gone wrong in Germany. The future of Germany depended on ridding itself of such degraded people. Could you order them to do meaningless, repetitive tasks, beat them when they stumbled under the load, herd them into the gas ovens?

Maybe you could have been a member of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. The future of Cambodia depended on it becoming an egalitarian agricultural society. Could you have herded people out of the cities, young and old, men and women, healthy or sick, and forced them to march for days into the jungle, caring nothing for those who perished along the way?

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? (Jeremiah 17:9). Do we know the depravity of our heart? The people I have described were no different than you and me. Under the same circumstances we would have been capable of doing the same things, with never a twinge of conscience.

We would like to think otherwise, to think that we are better than that. We are not. Those were intelligent, civilized people, capable of showing much kindness in other areas of their life. But their hearts deceived them into believing that some people were not worthy of kindness, respect or compassion.

We are all good people until we are put to the test. The only thing that will make the outcome different when we are tested is to listen to the gentle prompts of the Holy Spirit of God.

The Epistles of the Apostle Paul

There is no serious doubt that Paul was the author of these epistles. It appears from the comment of the Apostle Peter (1 Peter 3:16) that they were considered Scripture from a very early period and collections of these letters would have been distributed to all the churches.

From time to time we should read each of these letters at one sitting, ignoring the chapter and verse divisions. These were added much later to help us find a particular portion more easily, but they also break up the letters in an artificial way. If we allow ourselves to be too much governed by these division we may not catch the full message the Apostle intended for us to hear.

He dictated each letter to a scribe, who is sometimes named in the letter, but added a portion in his own handwriting at the end of each. Galatians 6:11 “Ye see how large a letter I have written unto you with mine own hand” should probably be taken to refer to the size of the letters he wrote as compared to the uniform and tidy writing of his scribe. Many reasons have been proposed for this: he was not as skilled in writing as a professional scribe; he wanted to emphasize that this was his own writing; or perhaps he had a vision problem that hindered his writing ability.

Several themes appear frequently in these letters:
– the united status of the church of God, depicted either as a temple with Christ as the foundation, or a body, with Christ as the head.
– it was God’s purpose from the beginning that salvation would be offered to all mankind on the same basis, but is only now fully revealed as a result of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
– the reality of spiritual warfare; Christians are in enemy territory, we can only be victorious through the power of Jesus.

Romans: probably written while Paul was at Corinth. The believers at Rome were of both Jewish and Gentile backgrounds and Paul emphasized that in the gospel era these differences no longer had any meaning. This had been God’s plan from the beginning and was now fully revealed and all believers were to live by the leading of the Holy Spirit.

1 Corinthians: Corinth was a large and wealthy city where what we would call sexual immorality was commonplace and considered normal. There was also a hereditary class structure. These social divisions did not immediately disappear when they became Christians. One can readily imagine that the wealthier and better educated members would have preferred a gifted orator such as Apollos whereas the poorer would have identified more with Paul the tent maker.

2 Corinthians: This letter was probably written a year after the first. The first part gives commendation for the corrections made and instructions on the way to help one who has repented. There are hints that Paul is still looked down upon by the upper class church leaders. The fact that he has never taken money from them for himself is an affront to them as they feel it their duty to pay their teachers.

Galatians: The Galatians were Celts living in Asia Minor, now Turkey. Paul had introduced these people to the gospel, but now Christian Jewish missionaries had been teaching them that they needed to be circumcised to become Christians. Paul tells them we are all one in Christ and to go back to trusting in Jewish observances will separate them from Christ.

Ephesians: Written during Paul’s first imprisonment in Rome. Most people of that day believed their lives were ruled by Fate, as revealed in the stars, and they had no hope of escaping from that Fate. Paul tells them that God has a better plan for them, that He had planned from the beginning of time to offer salvation to all people through Jesus Christ.

Philippians: Written from prison, probably a year after the letter to the Ephesians. This was the first church established in Europe by Paul and they were devoted to him. There appears to have been some rivalry or difference of o-pinion between leaders of two house churches and Paul exhorts them to unity.

Colossians: Colossae is a city in Asia Minor, or Turkey. There appears to have been some drift into mysticism which Paul addresses in the second chapter.

1 Thessalonians: Thessalonika is in Macedonia, the letter may date from as early as AD 50. It is largely a letter of thanksgiving and praise.

2 Thessalonians: probably written shortly after the first to correct a mistaken belief that the resurrection had already come.

1 Timothy: Probable date is AD 62-64, towards the end of Paul’s life. He instructs Timothy to see to ordaining ministers and deacons in every place to provide leadership and stability in the face of false teachings.

2 Timothy: Written during Paul’s second imprisonment in Rome. It is generally assumed that his martyrdom took place AD 64-66, this was probably written not long before that and constitutes a fond farewell and final instructions to Timothy.

Titus: Titus was a Christian of Gentile origin. Paul had left him in Crete, the largest island in the Mediterranean, to establish leadership in the churches there. This epistle is thus very similar to 1 Timothy and was probably written at much the same time.

Philemon: Philemon was a prominent citizen of Colossae who was converted by Paul. Onesimus, a slave, had run away and then sought out Paul in Rome where he became a Christian. Paul sends him back to Philemon with this tender exhortation. No doubt Philemon received the exhortation willingly, as history records that Onesimus was later bishop of Ephesus. If Philemon had not received the letter graciously, it is highly unlikely that he would have kept it and then allowed it to be circulated among the churches.

Let the oppressed go free

 How can any nation pretend to fast or worship God at all, or dare to profess that they believe in the existence of such a Being, while they carry on the slave trade, and traffic in the souls, blood, and bodies, of men! O ye most flagitious of knaves, and worst of hypocrites, cast off at once the mask of religion; and deepen not your endless perdition by professing the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, while ye continue in this traffic!

–Adam Clarke’s commentary on Isaiah 58:6

Will Harriet Tubman appear on the Canadian $100 bill?

Earlier this year, the Bank of Canada asked the public for suggestions for a woman to appear on the $100 bill. The woman selected must nor be fictional, must have died at least 25 years ago and must have played a significant role in Canadian history. Harriet Tubman was one of the names proposed.

You see, Harriet Tubman’s main claim to fame was as a conductor on the Underground Railway, leading black people from slavery in the U.S south to freedom in Canada. She once said  “I wouldn’t trust Uncle Sam with my people no longer, but I brought ’em all clear off to Canada.” St. Catherines, Ontario was her home from 1851 to 1861, the height of her activity as a conductor on the Underground Railway. This covers most of the time between the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, which made life risky for black people anywhere in the USA, and the Emancipation Proclamation.

Bethel Chapel BME church

This church, the Bethel Chapel British Methodist Episcopal Church, was Harriet Tubman’s home church in St. Catherines. It is considered to be the oldest black church in Canada and is still home to an active congregation. It has been designated a National Historic Site, due to its connection to Harriet Tubman.

York University in Toronto is home to the Harriet Tubman Institute for Research on Africa and its Diaspora.

It’s unlikely that Harriet Tubman will be selected for the $100 dollar bill. For one thing, I don’t believe she ever became a Canadian citizen. Yet she is well known in Canada and played a prominent role in our history. I suspect it is more likely that she will turn up on a Canadian postage stamp. I’m a little surprised that it hasn’t happened already.

Josiah Henson learns to read

It so haJosiah_Henson_bwppened that one of my Maryland friends arrived in this neighbourhood, and hearing of my being here, inquired if I ever preached now. I had said nothing myself, and had not intended to say any thing, of my having ever officiated in that way. I went to meeting with others, when I had an opportunity, and enjoyed the quiet of the Sabbath when there was no assembly. I would not refuse to labour in this field, however, when desired to do so; and I was frequently called upon, not by blacks alone, but by all classes in my vicinity, the comparatively educated, as well as the lamentably ignorant, to speak to them on their duty, responsibility, and immortality, on their obligations to their Maker, their Saviour, and themselves.

It must seem strange to many that a man so ignorant as myself, unable to read, should be able to preach acceptably to persons who had enjoyed greater advantages than myself. I can explain it only by reference to our Saviour’s comparison of the kingdom of heaven to a plant which may spring from a seed no bigger than a mustard-seed, and may yet reach such a size, that the birds of the air may take shelter therein. Religion is not so much knowledge, as wisdom; — and observation upon what passes without, and reflection upon what passes within a man’s heart, will give him a larger growth in grace than is imagined by the devoted adherents of creeds, or the confident followers of Christ, who call him Lord, Lord, but do not the things which he says.

Mr. Hibbard was good enough to give my eldest boy, Tom, two quarters’ schooling, to which the schoolmaster added more of his own kindness, so that my boy learned to read fluently and well. It was a great advantage, not only to him, but to me; for I used to get him to read to me in the Bible, especially on Sunday mornings when I was going to preach; and I could easily commit to memory a few verses, or a chapter, from hearing him read it over.

One beautiful summer Sabbath I rose early, and called him to come and read to me. “Where shall I read, father?” “Anywhere, my son,” I answered, for I knew not how to direct him. He opened upon Psalm 103. “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless his holy name;” and as he read this beautiful outpouring of gratitude which I now first heard, my heart melted within me. I recalled the whole current of my life; and as I remembered the dangers and afflictions from which the Lord had delivered me, and compared my present condition with what it had been, not only my heart but my eyes overflowed, and I could neither check nor conceal the emotion which overpowered me. The words “Bless the Lord, O my soul,” with which the Psalm begins and ends, were all I needed, or could use, to express the fullness of my thankful heart.

When he had finished, Tom turned to me and asked, “Father, who was David?” He had observed my excitement, and added, “He writes pretty, don’t he?” and then repeated his question. It was a question I was utterly unable to answer. I had never heard of David, but could not bear to acknowledge my ignorance to my own child. So I answered evasively, “He was a man of God, my son.” “I suppose so,” said he; “but I want to know something more about him. Where did he live? What did he do?” As he went on questioning me, I saw it was in vain to attempt to escape, and so I told him frankly I did not know. “Why, father,” said he, “can’t you read?”

This was a worse question than the other, and if I had any pride in me at the moment, it took it all out of me pretty quick. It was a direct question, and must have a direct answer; so I told him at once I could not. “Why not,” said he. “Because I never had an opportunity to learn, nor anybody to teach me.” “Well, you can learn now, father.” “No, my son, I am too old, and have not time enough. I must work all day, or you would not have enough to eat.” “Then you might do it at night.” “But still there is nobody to teach me. I can’t afford to pay anybody for it, and of course no one can do it for nothing.” “Why, father, I’ll teach you. I can do it, I know. And then you’ll know so much more, that you can talk better, and preach better.”

The little fellow was so earnest, there was no resisting him; but it is hard to describe the conflicting feelings within me at such a proposition from such a quarter. I was delighted with the conviction that my children would have advantages I had never enjoyed; but it was no slight mortification to think of being instructed by a child of twelve years old. Yet ambition, and a true desire to learn, for the good it would do my own mind, conquered the shame, and I agreed to try.

But I did not reach this state of mind instantly. I was greatly moved by the conversation I had had with Tom — so much so that I could not undertake to preach that day. I passed the Sunday in solitary reflection in the woods. I was too much engrossed with the multitude of my thoughts within me to return home to dinner, and spent the whole day in secret meditation and prayer, trying to compose myself, and ascertain my true position. It was not difficult to see that my predicament was one of profound ignorance, and that I ought to use every opportunity of enlightening it.

I began to take lessons of Tom, therefore, immediately, and followed it up, every evening, by the light of a pine knot, or some hickory bark, which was the only light I could afford. Weeks passed, and my progress was so slow, that poor Tom was almost discouraged, and used to drop asleep sometimes, and whine a little over my dullness, and talk to me very much as a schoolmaster talks to a stupid boy, till I began to be afraid that my age, my want of practice in looking at such little scratches, the daily fatigue, and the dim light, would be effectual preventives of my ever acquiring the art of reading.

But Tom’s perseverance and mine conquered at last, and in the course of the winter I did really learn to read a little. It was, and has been ever since, a great comfort to me to have made this acquisition; though it has made me comprehend better the terrible abyss of ignorance in which I had been plunged all my previous life. It made me also feel more deeply and bitterly the oppression under which I had toiled and groaned; but the crushing and cruel nature of which I had not appreciated, till I found out, in some slight degree, from what I had been debarred. At the same time it made me more anxious than before to do something for the rescue and the elevation of those who were suffering the same evils I had endured, and who did not know how degraded and ignorant they really were.

The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself, first published in 1849

I’m on my way to the freedom land

As a slave, Josiah Henson received no formal education and did not learn to read and write. As is typical of people from oral cultures, he had a prodigious memory and could remember every Bible verse he ever heard. He was ordained to the ministry in the Methodist Church while still a slave, serving mostly his fellow slaves.

Twice he was able to raise the money to purchase his freedom, but due to Josiah’s illiteracy, his master found a way each time to cheat him of his freedom. After the incident mentioned in a previous post where he had been tempted to murder his young master, his master fell deathly ill and Josiah nursed him back to health. This bought him a little time, but before long he learned that his master had plans to sell him, his wife and their children separately. Up to this time, Josiah had considered himself honour bound to remain with his master, but now he finally became willing to take his family and attempt to escape to Canada.

It was on a Saturday night in September of 1830 that Josiah, his wife and their four children set out to walk to Canada. Josiah knew that it would be several days before they were missed and determined to get as far away as they could in that time. They travelled at night and hid by day, eventually making it to Ohio where they encountered people who helped them make the rest of the journey.

There never was a plantation system in Canada such as the one in the U.S. south, but slavery was not officially abolished in Canada until 1833. Still, Canada was the land of hope to those bound in the oppressive slavery of the south. Some of the songs they sang had a double meaning, such as “I’m on my way to the freedom land.” Canada was a safer place for black people, not because Canadians were better people, but because the laws were better. An escaped slave was not safe anywhere in the USA. If found, he could be captured and returned to his master. There were even cases of free blacks being captured and sold into slavery. Few white judges and juries would take the word of a black man against the word of a white. Slave hunters did venture into Canada, but were arrested, hustled back across the border and warned not to return.

The underground railway was just beginning in 1830 and the Henson family avoided human contact as much as possible until they neared the lake that stood between them and Canada. Here they encountered some sympathetic Indians who fed them, gave shelter for the night and directed them on their way the next morning. Then Josiah met a ship’s captain at Sandusky, Ohio who sent a boat for the family after dark, took them to Buffalo and paid the ferry to take them across the river into Canada.

” When I got on the Canada side, on the morning of the 28th of October, 1830, my first impulse was to throw myself on the ground, and giving way to the riotous exultation of my feelings, to execute sundry antics which excited the astonishment of those who were looking on. A gentleman of the neighbourhood, Colonel Warren, who happened to be present, thought I was in a fit, and as he inquired what was the matter with the poor fellow, I jumped up and told him I was free. “O,” said he, with a hearty laugh, “is that it? I never knew freedom make a man roll in the sand before.” It is not much to be wondered at, that my certainty of being free was not quite a sober one at the first moment; and I hugged and kissed my wife and children all round, with a vivacity which made them laugh as well as myself. There was not much time to be lost, though, in frolic, even at this extraordinary moment. I was a stranger, in a strange land, and had to look about me at once, for refuge and resource. I found a lodging for the night; and the next morning set about exploring the interior for the means of support.”

Human cargo for sale

As time went by, Josiah Henson married, began a family and was made overseer of the plantation. He was able in small ways to make life better for his fellow slaves and produced much better crops than the former white overseer. The owner, however, wasted all the profits of the plantation and decided to send Josiah to New Orleans and sell him there.

My wife and children accompanied me to the landing, where I bade them an adieu, which might be for life, and then stepped into the boat, which I found manned by three white men, who had been hired for the trip. Mr. Amos and myself were the only other persons on board. The load consisted of beef-cattle, pigs, poultry, corn, whisky, and other articles from the farm, and from some of the neighbouring estates, which were to be sold as we dropped down the river, wherever they could be disposed of to the greatest advantage. It was a common trading voyage to New Orleans, the interest of which consisted not in the incidents that occurred, not in storms, or shipwreck, or external disaster of any sort; but in the storm of passions contending within me, and the imminent risk of the shipwreck of my soul.

As I paced backwards and forwards on the deck, during my watch, it may well be believed I revolved many a painful and passionate thought. After all that I had done for Isaac and Amos R., after all the regard they professed for me, and the value they could not but put upon me and the intense selfishness with which they were ready to sacrifice me, at any moment, to their supposed interest, turned my blood to gall and wormwood, and changed me into a savage, morose, dangerous slave. I was going not at all as a lamb to the slaughter, but I felt myself becoming more ferocious every day; and as we approached the place where this iniquity was to be consummated, I became more and more agitated with an almost uncontrollable fury.

I had met, on the passage, with some of my Maryland acquaintance who had been sold off to this region; and their haggard and wasted appearance told a piteous story of excessive labour and insufficient food. I said to myself, “If this is to be my lot, I cannot survive it long. I am not so young as these men, and if it has brought them to such a condition, it will soon kill me. I am to be taken by my masters and owners, who ought to be my grateful friends, to a place and a condition where my life is to be shortened, as well as made more wretched. Why should I not prevent this wrong, if I can, by shortening their lives, or those of their agents in accomplishing such detestable injustice? They have no suspicion of me, and they are at this moment in my power.”

These were not thoughts which just flitted across my mind’s eye, and then disappeared. They fashioned themselves into shapes which grew larger, and seemed firmer, every time they presented themselves; and at length my mind was made up to convert the phantom shadow into a positive reality. I resolved to kill my four companions, take what money there was in the boat, then to scuttle the craft, and escape to the north. It was a poor plan, and would very likely have failed; but it was as well contrived, under the circumstances, as the plans of murderers usually are; and blinded by passion, and stung to madness as I was, I could not see any difficulty about it.

One dark, rainy night, within a few days of New Orleans, my hour seemed to have come. I was alone on the deck; Mr. Amos and the hands were all asleep below. I crept down noiselessly, got hold of an axe and entered the cabin. My hand slid along the axe-handle, I raised it to strike the fatal blow, — when suddenly the thought came to me, “What! commit murder! and you a Christian?”

I had not called it murder before. It was self-defence, — it was preventing others from murdering me, — it was justifiable, it was even praiseworthy. But now, all at once, the truth burst upon me that it was a crime. I was going to kill a young man, who had done nothing to injure me, but obey commands which he could not resist; I was about to lose the fruit of all my efforts at self-improvement, the character I had acquired, and the peace of mind which had never deserted me. All this came upon me instantly, and with a distinctness which made me almost think I heard it whispered in my ear; and I believe I even turned my head to listen. I shrunk back, laid down the axe, crept up on deck again, and thanked God, as I have done every day since, that I had not committed murder.

– from The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada,as Narrated by Himself

The conversion of Josiah Henson

I was born, June 15, 1789, in Charles County, Maryland, on a farm belonging to Mr. Francis N., about a mile from Port Tobacco. My mother was the property of Dr. Josiah McP., but was hired by Mr. N., to whom my father belonged. The only incident I can remember, which occurred while my mother continued on N.’s farm, was the appearance of my father one day, with his head bloody and his back lacerated.  Though it was all a mystery to me at the age of three or four years, it was explained at a later period that he had been suffering the cruel penalty of the Maryland law for beating a white man. His right ear had been cut off close to his head, and he had received a hundred lashes on his back. He had beaten the overseer for a brutal assault on my mother, and this was his punishment.

When I was 18 an incident occurred that deserves especial notice. There was at Georgetown, a few miles from R’s plantation, a baker who was an upright, benevolent, Christian man. He was noted for his detestation of slavery, and his avoidance of the employment of slave labour in his business.  His reputation was high, not only for this almost singular abstinence from what no one about him thought wrong, but for his general probity and excellence.

This man occasionally served as a minister of the Gospel. One Sunday when he was to officiate at a place three or four miles distant, my mother persuaded me to ask master’s leave to go and hear him; and although such permission was not given freely or often, yet his favour to me was shown for this once by allowing me to go, without much scolding, but not without a pretty distinct intimation of what would befall me, if I did not return immediately after the close of the service.

I hurried off, pleased with the opportunity, but without any definite expectations of benefit; for up to this period of my life I had never heard a sermon, nor any conversation whatever, upon religious topics, except what had been impressed upon me by my mother, of the responsibility of all to a Supreme Being. When I arrived at the place of meeting, the speaker was just beginning his discourse, from the text, Hebrews 2:9; “That he, by the grace of God, should taste of death for every man.” This was the first text of the Bible to which I had ever listened, knowing it to be such. I have never forgotten it, and scarce a day has passed since, in which I have not recalled it, and the sermon that was preached from it. The divine character of Jesus Christ, his life and teachings, his sacrifice of himself for others, his death and resurrection were all alluded to, and some of the points were dwelt upon with great power,–great, at least, to me, who heard of these things for the first time in my life.

I was wonderfully impressed, too, with the use which the preacher made of the last words of the text, “for every man.” He said the death of Christ was not designed for the benefit of a select few only, but for the salvation of the world, for the bond as well as the free; and he dwelt on the glad tidings of the Gospel to the poor, the persecuted, and the distressed, its deliverance to the captive, and the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free, till my heart burned within me, and I was in a state of the greatest excitement at the thought that such a being as Jesus Christ had been described should have died for me–for me among the rest, a poor, despised, abused slave, who was thought by his fellow creatures fit for nothing but unrequited toil and ignorance, for mental and bodily degradation.

I immediately determined to find out something more about “Christ and him crucified;” and revolving the things which I had heard in my mind as I went home, I became so excited that I turned aside from the road into the woods, and prayed to God for light and for aid with an earnestness, which, however unenlightened, was at least sincere and heartfelt; and which the subsequent course of my life has led me to imagine might not have been unacceptable to Him who heareth prayer. At all events, I date my conversion, and my awakening to a new life from this day, so memorable to me.

I used every means and opportunity of inquiry into religious matters; and so deep was my conviction of their superior importance to every thing else, so clear my perception of my own faults, and so undoubting my observation of the darkness and sin that surrounded me, that I could not help talking much on these subjects with those about me; and it was not long before I began to pray with them, and exhort them, and to impart to the poor slaves those little glimmerings of light from another world, which had reached my own eye. In a few years I became quite an esteemed preacher among them, and I will not believe it is vanity which leads me to think I was useful to some.

-an excerpt from The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, first published in 1849.

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