Tuesday, August 19, 2008

American Exodus and Providentialism: A Different Perspective

Absalom Jones and the
Thanksgiving Sermon of 1808
by Brad Hart

As fellow contributor, Ray Soller has effectively pointed out in his most recent post, a large number of American colonists, thanks in part to the sermons of their various preachers, began to think of their subjugation to British rule as equal to that of the ancient children of Israel during their enslavement in Egypt. For the pious Puritans, the "American Exodus" to the "New World" essentially brought with it a "deliverance" that equaled that of Moses in biblical times. John Winthrop's proclamation of Massachusetts Bay as a "shining city on a hill" was certainly reminiscent of America as a second Jerusalem of sorts. With the arrival of the American Revolution, this doctrine was taken to the next level, as American providentialism began to emerge as God's one and only true beacon of hope in the eyes of many American colonists.

While there is no debating the profound impact that these statements made on the American populace, it is important for us to remember that American providentialism was seen in a very different light by the countless numbers of African slaves, who gained neither freedom nor deliverance as a result of the American Revolution. Instead, African slaves were forced to continue in their existence as chattel labor, with little more than a faint hope for a future "exodus" from bondage.

Such an exodus of sorts was met in 1808 when the Constitution, after its twenty-year sanctioning of the slave trade expired, making the importation of slaves to the United States illegal. In particular, one former slave-turned-preacher was able to capture the exhilaration of the occasion in his January 1808 sermon he entitled, A Thanksgiving Sermon. Absalom Jones, a former Philadelphia slave who was eventually able to purchase freedom for both himself and his wife, had emerged in the latter part of the eighteenth-century as one of Philadelphia's finest Black preachers. Following the segregation of Black churches in Philadelphia in 1786, Jones founded St. Thomas African Episcopal Church, which emerged as the most powerful Black congregation in the state.

In this particular sermon, Jones points to a particular brand of providentialism, which was completely unique from the rest of the American citizenry. In this brand of providentialism, Jones proclaims the exodus of his African brothers and sisters from the chains of slavery as equal to that of the children of Israel during the time of Moses:

The history of the world shows us, that the deliverance of the children of Israel from their bondage, is not the only instance, in which it has pleased God to appear in behalf of oppressed and distressed nations, as the deliverer of the innocent, and of those who call upon his name. He is as unchangeable in his nature and character, as he is in his wisdom and power...And the Lord said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their task-masters; for I know their sorrows; and I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians.
As opposed to America's providential destiny, which placed Great Britain in the role of evil oppressor and the colonists as subjugated slaves, Jones' sermon appropriately casts the American and British citizenry in the role of the oppressive Egyptians of biblical times:

Our God has seen masters and mistresses, educated in fashionable life, sometimes take the instruments of torture into their own hands, and, deaf to the cries and shrieks of their agonizing slaves, exceed even their overseers in cruelty. Inhuman wretches! though You have been deaf to their cries and shrieks, they have been heard in Heaven. The ears of Jehovah have been constantly open to them: He has heard the prayers that have ascended from the hearts of his people; and he has, as in the case of his ancient and chosen people the Jews, come down to deliver our suffering country-men from the hands of their oppressors. He came down into the United States, when they declared, in the constitution which they framed in 1788, that the trade in our African fellow-men, should cease in the year 1808: He came down into the British Parliament, when they passed a law to put an end to the same iniquitous trade in May, 1807...

Dear land of our ancestors! thou shalt no more be stained with the blood of thy children, shed by British and American hands: the ocean shall no more afford a refuge to their bodies, from impending slavery: nor shall the shores of the British West India islands, and of the United States, any more witness the anguish of families, parted for ever by a publick sale
After successfully expounding upon the plight of his fellow brethren, Reverend Jones goes on to plead to God for further emancipation and to exhort his congregation to humbly submit to the laws of God, as was done in the days of the Jews:

The Jews, after they entered the promised land, were commanded, when they offered sacrifices to the Lord, never to forget their humble origin; and hence, part of the worship that accompanied their sacrifices consisted in acknowledging, that a Syrian, ready to perish, was their father: in like manner, it becomes us, publickly and privately, to acknowledge, that an African slave, ready to perish, was our father or our grandfather. Let our conduct be regulated by the precepts of the gospel; let us be sober minded, humble, peaceable, temperate in our meats and drinks, frugal in our apparel and in the furniture of our houses, industrious in our occupations, just in all our dealings, and ever ready to honour all men. Let us teach our children the rudiments of the English language, in order to enable them to ac-quire a knowledge of useful trades; and, above all things, let us instruct them in the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ, whereby they may become wise unto salvation.
Interestingly enough, Jones then concludes his sermon by petitioning God in prayer for the further blessings of the very nation that has enslaved his African kindred. Certainly this serves as evidence of the fact that a number of Africans, despite their terribly oppressive circumstances, were beginning to embrace an American providential destiny, which was inclusive of much more that European Whites:

We pray, O God, for all our friends and benefactors, in Great Britain, as well as in the United States: reward them, we beseech thee, with blessings upon earth...We implore thy blessing, O God, upon the President, and all who are in authority in the United States. Direct them by thy wisdom, in all their deliberations.
With the fires of revolution still burring hot in the memories of most, former slaves like Absalom Jones and others seized the opportunity to ensure that their voices were heard as well. Though slavery would continue for several more decades, the African American view of American providentialism would continue to evolve and grow. And while many particular components of this providentialism differed from the mainstream beliefs regarding America's Godly destiny, the "American Exodus" of African slaves became an invaluable component that would continue to influence the abolitionist movements into the nineteenth-century.


Phil Johnson said...

Check out William Lloyd Garrison.

Anonymous said...

Certainly this serves as evidence of the fact that a number of Africans, despite their terribly oppressive circumstances, were beginning to embrace an American providential destiny...

Or at least the God behind it.

Great story, Brad...thanks for posting it.

Brad Hart said...

Thanks, Matt. This is one in a number of sermons from Black preachers that I really enjoy. i will try to do a few more in the future.