Race, Gender, and Gentility in the Early Methodist Church

Harry Hosier
Harry Hosier

The tone of the Christmas Conference in the formative stages of the Methodist Episcopal Church was definitely antislavery. The preaching of the movement’s leadership— Thomas Coke, Freeborn Garrettson, Francis Asbury, and many others— as well as their success in bringing African Americans into Methodist fellowship, took place primarily in slaveholding areas. Two years later, in 1786, when Methodism began to report membership by race, it claimed 18,791 whites and 1,890 blacks. The latter numbers (and its proportion) grew dramatically in the first decade to 45,384 and 11,280 in 1796.

Methodism’s willingness to confront the slave owner directly and to embrace African Americans in “society meetings” gave its witness a decided edge over the Quakers who preached antislavery but showed little eagerness to include African Americans in their own fellowship. No small part of Methodism’s appeal to slaves and freed persons derived from this double witness to liberty— freedom from slavery to cosmic powers of sin and death, attested by inclusion within the membership, and freedom from its collusive force, human enslavement of fellow human beings, attested by antislavery legislation and preaching.

Such advocacy, not unexpectedly, proved very unpopular among Southern whites. So discovered Coke on his 1785 tour south, where his antislavery statements and reputation earned him the threat of flogging by a mob. Thus began the unfortunate long saga of ambiguity, compromise, and retreat in Methodist race relations — inclusion but segregation, recognition but constraint, empowering but delimiting it. Methodist class meetings were segregated, separate Black chapels were created, and separate cemeteries established.

Still, important African American leaders emerged, such as Harry Hosier (c. 1750–May 1806), better known during his life as “Black Harry.” He was a black Methodist preacher during the Second Great Awakening in the early United States. Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, said that, “making allowances for his illiteracy, he was the greatest orator in America”. His style was widely influential but he was never formally ordained by the Methodist Episcopal Church or the Rev. Richard Allen’s separate African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia (more on that story later).

Harry met Bishop Francis Asbury around 1780, a meeting Asbury considered “providentially arranged”. Hosier worked as Asbury’s carriage driver and servant. Finding that his illiterate guide could memorize long passages verbatim and warm up the crowds for his sermons, Asbury began to read the Bible aloud during their travel from county to county and to train Hosier as a preacher in his own right. The first reference to Hosier in Asbury’s journals observes, “If I had Harry to go with me and meet the colored people, it would be attended with a blessing”.=

Speaking after Asbury, Hosier delivered his first sermon – “The Barren Fig Tree”, concerning Luke 13:6–9 – to the black Methodist congregation at Adams’s Chapel in Fairfax County, Virginia, in 1781. “The white people looked on with attention” even at the first performance;  subsequently, they would often be moved to tears. Dr. Rush declared it to be the greatest sermon he’d ever heard. Although Asbury had originally intended to use Hosier to minister among blacks and they “came a great distance to hear him”, his delivery was so effective and affecting that his primary audience seems to have been white. His sermon at Thomas Chapel in Chapeltown, Delaware, in 1784 was the first to be delivered by a black man to a white congregation. His sermons called on Methodists to reject slavery and champion the common working man. At the same time, he told his black audiences “that they must be holy”, which criticism displeased no small number of them.

As with most early Methodist preachers, Harry Hosier was a circuit-rider and traveled from Cainhoy, South Carolina, to Boston, Massachusetts, usually in attendance with Asbury. Having grown used to the relative freedom of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he was at first unwilling to return south to Virginia and the Carolinas. Asbury was generally anxious to have him come, though, as Hosier’s reputation preceded him and news of his coming would draw larger crowds than the bishop alone.

While Thomas Coke and Harry Hosier toured Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia to call preachers to the Christmas Conference, Coke wrote in his journal that Hosier was “one of the best preachers in the world” and yet “one of the humblest creatures I ever saw”. Hosier was present at the Christmas Conference at Lovely Lane Chapel. Along with Richard Allen, he was permitted to observe but not vote on any of the items before the conference.

An erroneous charge against him in 1791 led to Hosier’s exclusion within the church. The Rev. Henry Boehm credited his “fall” to Hosier’s pride in his work: “poor Harry was so petted and made so much of that he became lifted up”. The Carolinian elder Rev. Jenkins was less circumspect: he described “some difficulties” with “an influential colored man, who desired further promotion within the church”. Jenkins proclaimed he “generally found that these people cannot bear promotion: like too many white people, they become proud”. Hosier was not included in the group of black Methodist preachers who were ordained in 1799. At the end of his life, Hosier was found drunk and scavenging garbage looking for cloth to sell as rags. He subsequently preached that he wrestled with God and screamed Psalm 51 repeatedly before recovering and carrying on his ministry.

Next time, we’ll look at some of Asbury’s journal entries as he worked to expand the newly formed Methodist Episcopal Church.

(Source: “American Methodism: A Compact History,” by Russell E. Richey, Kenneth E. Rowe, and Jean Miller Schmidt; Wikipedia entry for Harry Hosier

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