It is the 13th of February 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1882.
By sheer coincidence, yesterday's show featured Fanny Crosby, the first woman to speak in the United States Capitol when she read a poem in 1844. Today we remember a man who happened to die today, one calendar day after Crosby, who became the first African American man to speak in the Senate when he preached a sermon in 1865 in favor of passing the 13th Amendment.
He is Henry Highland Garnet, a Presbyterian minister whose 19th-century life intersected with some of the most influential figures in the abolitionist movement, the temperance movement, and the Back-to-Africa movement. Today we will introduce a man often left behind by the history books for his perceived radical views.
Henry Highland Garnet was born into slavery in 1815 on a plantation in Maryland. He escaped at the age of 9. His family was assisted by Quakers on the Underground Railroad. Garnet attended the African Free school and eventually the Oneida Institute in New York. He would also attend First Colored Presbyterian Church, under the leadership of Theodore Sedgewick Wright. This would lead to Garnet's studying for the ministry, eventually becoming the pastor of Liberty Street Presbyterian Church in Troy, New York.
The mid-19th century, as we have seen, across the western world was a time of radical social change and revolutions. And the leaders of these movements often wore different hats, speaking as ministers, as abolitionists, as pro-temperance activists. While modern historians might try to isolate the capacity in which various people are speaking, the truth is that their contemporaries likely made no such distinctions. Garnet has often been passed over because his assorted rolls and changing views make him easy to cherry-pick quotes from and pit them against each other.
Garnet was broadly supportive of William Lloyd Garrison's abolitionism that was very much tied into the optimistic Christian anthropology of the day. That is a high view of humanity and our ability to bring about the kingdom of heaven on earth. This was part of what was behind some of these large scale and often overlapping social movements encouraging change.
The problem of slavery, argued Garnet and others, was at its core a moral issue. In good Presbyterian form for the 19th century, morality was a communal problem, not just the actions of certain bad people. Thus, ministers would often preach against slavery as part and parcel of the coming Kingdom of God. [The question, as always, with the kingdom, is, "how fast do you think it's coming, and what do you think it will look like?"]
Garnet believed that the first step was having the slave advocate for their own freedom, a radical position at the time. Once the slave made their case for the immorality of slavery to their owner, they were to ask for their emancipation. If they did not receive it, they could either leave or effect a general strike amongst slaves. If this resistance led to violence, well, this is where Garnet was taken to school by Frederick Douglass. Both men shared similar views on many things, but in the case of possible violence, Douglass has been described as the "more palliative" of the two.
As he was deemed by some "too radical," he found an audience with the British who were quite happy to host African Americans in their country, focused on Missionary work, living in Jamaica for a time and, volunteered as a chaplain for the black troops in the Union Army. The older, possibly softer Garnet spoke in 1865 in the Senate on behalf of the ratification of the 13th Amendment, although the sermon is undoubtedly passionate. He would spend the rest of his life in various positions such as a missionary, President of Avery College, and eventually ambassador to Monrovia, where he died on the 13th of February in 1882.
Today's reading comes from Charlotte Brontë, the last lines from her longer poem entitled "The Missionary."
Protected by salvation's helm,
Shielded by faith, with truth begirt,
To smile when trials seek to whelm
And stand mid testing fires unhurt!
Hurling hell's strongest bulwarks down,
Even when the last pang thrills my breast,
When death bestows the martyr's crown,
And calls me into Jesus' rest.
Then for my ultimate reward--
Then for the world-rejoicing word--
The voice from Father--Spirit--Son:
"Servant of God, well hast thou done!"
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 13th of February 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by a man who had no idea that the San Gabriel foothills had their own ambassador, Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day, and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true. Everything is going to be ok.