“One Militant Saint”: The Much Traveled Life of Mary Perth

In 1772, in Norfolk Virginia, when the moon provided just enough light, a young slave woman would strap her baby on her back and slip out of household of John Willoughby. Cautiously making her way out of the sleeping town, Mary would walk for about ten miles to the edge of the Great Dismal Swamp.1 Here, in the woods, she would exhort her fellow sufferers to open their hearts to salvation, so that their spirits could be freed from bondage.2 At some time in her life Mary had gained some literacy, so she knew the Book of Exodus, with its promise to deliver the enslaved from bondage, and could read St Paul’s advice to the Galatians: “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ has made as free and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.” In her arbor meetings Mary may have sung a version of the hymn of Charles Wesley:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay

Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;

Thine eyes diffused a quickening ray —

I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;

My chains fell off, my heart was free…

Mary would then make the trek back to the Willoughby house in time for the morning labor.

Mary was a Methodist exhorter. It is uncertain exactly when she fell under the sway of John Wesley’s radical ideology, but in all probability she owed her conversion to Robert Williams, a self-funded Wesleyan itinerant from Ireland who arrived at Norfolk en route to New York in the summer of 1769. Barely a soul noticed this fierce proselytiser on this brief stopover, but he made a dramatic impact on his return in February 1772.  Standing on the steps of the Norfolk County courthouse Williams loudly burst into the hymn “Come Sinners to the Gospel Feast” and then, as soon as he had drawn a crowd, launched into an impassioned discourse on sin and salvation. The curious onlookers, including many of the town’s enslaved, had never witnessed such uninhibited evocation of Satan, nor such emotional plea for God’s mercy. Most were inclined to consider him a lunatic, but the mayor detected a more sinister purpose and was overheard to observe: “If we permit such a fellow as this to come here we shall have an insurrection of the Negroes.”3 The mayor had reason to be alarmed; early Methodist emissaries to America such as Williams were passionately opponents of slavery.4

If Mary did not hear Williams preach at Norfolk on that day, she had numerous opportunities in the weeks that followed. Williams was unwelcome in Norfolk, but he was invited to stay with a prominent merchant in Portsmouth, where he preached openly at large biracial meetings held in a converted warehouse.5 For about a month Williams travelled around Norfolk County, spreading the word about God’s infinite capacity for redemption. Enslaved people proved receptive to his powerful evocation of the liberation to be found in God’s grace. Methodist conversion was an unmediated process whereby the individual freely chose salvation and was personally accountable to God. Being born anew in God’s grace implied a profound separation between the spiritual and the physical self. This promise of a spiritual autonomy hit a highly responsive cord among people defined as property: while the insignificant body might be compelled to labor for others, the untrammelled spirit could soar free.

 Williams left Portsmouth in the Spring of 1772, having created the core of a Methodist meeting at Portsmouth and formed several classes in an area between Great Bridge and New Mill Creek, about seven miles from Portsmouth and ten miles from Norfolk, on the edge of the Great Dismal Swamp, Another preacher, Joseph Pilmore, arrived three months later and was delighted to find Methodist meetings “about five miles into the woods from Portsmouth,” as well as meetings at New Mill Creek and at Great Bridge.6 Pilmore labored tirelessly for four months to consolidate these Methodist strongholds. When Williams returned in October 1772, he extended the work into an itinerant circuit from Portsmouth to the North Carolina border. The heart of his spiritual labor was the northeastern edge the Great Dismal Swamp. In 1774 he married a local woman and settled on a smallholding on the Portsmouth to Suffolk Road, squarely in the region of New Mill Creek.7

Mary had probably lived in the New Mill Creek area until she was purchased by Willoughby to work in his house in Norfolk in 1768. She was then in her early twenties and was pregnant, with one infant child. Her children carried the surname Savills, which was the name of slave-owners around New Mill Creek.8 Somewhere in the same region was the place where she held her nocturnal classes.

Robert Williams died in the turbulent month of September 1775. Francis Asbury, who was John Wesley’s  handpicked envoy to America, credited Williams  with having awakened more souls to Wesleyan Methodism than any man in America. Fellow itinerant Jesse Lee described him as “a plain, artless indefatigable preacher [who]…often proved the godliness of his doctrine by tears in public.”9 His uninhibited, raw and emotional style and his strongly dissenting approach did not entirely meet the approval of Wesley, nor that of Asbury.   In his journal, Asbury confessed to feeling relief when Williams died. “The Lord does all things well,” Asbury wrote, confiding his anxiety that “Brother Williams was in danger of being entangled in worldly business, and might therefore have injured the cause of God.”10 Certainly Williams was deeply unpopular with the white congregation in Norfolk who shouted him down whenever he tried to preach. Possibly he declaimed too passionately about the sin of holding slaves. Converts such as Mary may have been drawn to Williams for the very reasons that white colonists felt anxiety or distaste.11

Williams’s death coincided with start of the American Revolution, a cataclysmic upheaval that provided Mary the chance to liberate her body, as well as her spirit. In December 1775 Willoughby came under strong suspicion as a Loyalist. After the town of Norfolk was burned to the ground, Willoughby’s connection to the exiled royal governor Lord Dunmore excited concern and in April 1776 he was required to move at least thirty miles away from the shore. To enforce submission, the Virginia Committee of Safety ordered Willoughby’s slaves to be taken by the militia.12  Two years later, his son unsuccessfully petitioned for compensation from the Virginia legislature on the grounds that this punitive action caused his late father’s entire slave property to seek refuge with Lord Dunmore.13 Other evidence in the minutes of the Committee of Safety and the Virginia Gazette suggests that the defection of Willoughby’s slaves actually occurred in May, when a ship from Dunmore’s fleet was in the vicinity of Willoughby Point and that Willoughby had personally taken all his property to Dunmore for safekeeping.14 Soon after, the old man died at his plantation at Willoughby Point. The quixotic petition for compensation from his son and heir was probably a strategy to dispel any suggestion of the family’s collusion with the British.

Mary, with her three daughters Patience, aged 12, Hannah, aged 8 and Zilpha, aged 4, was among 87 enslaved people from Willoughby’s plantation who found freedom with Lord Dunmore. They joined the British at Mills Point, a small neck of land near Portsmouth, where Dunmore created “pretty good barracks” for the hundreds of black recruits who had joined him from Norfolk and the neighboring counties of Nansemond, Princess Anne and Isle of Wight. At the camp on Mills Point Mary found herself among a number of black Methodists, included Nathaniel Snowball, who had absconded from a plantation in Norfolk County, his wife Violet who ran with her son Nathaniel from neighboring Princess Anne County and his brother Timothy who ran from another master in Norfolk. These people were led by a charismatic preacher called Moses, who had defected to the British at Great Bridge in December 1775. 15 Moses was the property of merchant Mills Wilkinson of Suffolk, a town about three miles on the northeast side of the Dismal Swamp.16

Just at the time that Mary arrived, a smallpox epidemic broke out in the British camp, wreaking havoc on Dunmore’s military ambitions. The naval surgeons organized a mass inoculation of the black recruits and in order to isolate the sick they persuaded Dunmore to move his base to Gwynn Island. 17 The British departed in late May, leaving behind the graves of almost 300 people.18 Dunmore reported that every night they were forced to throw dead bodies into the sea. Virginians found diseased bodies drifting ashore on the tide, as many as a dozen at a time. On Gwynn Island, Dunmore continued to draw fresh black recruits at the rate of six to eight each day, most of whom succumbed to the disease as soon as they arrived. Those who recovered from the inoculation fell victim to an outbreak of typhoid fever. In this dreadfully weakened condition, Dunmore’s force was easily driven from the island in early July 1776, and they took refuge on the fleet once again. The British naval commander reported that the “distress and confusion” of the hasty evacuation was beyond his powers to describe.19 Eyewitnesses concurred that the death toll on the island from one cause or another was “near 500 souls.”20 Mary and her three children were among the dozen or so survivors from the plantation of John Willoughby. Nathaniel Snowball, his wife Violet their children and his brother Timothy also survived, as did the preacher Moses, although he must have fallen victim to smallpox, as he was blind and unable to walk unaided.

Forced to leave Virginia, Dunmore attached his small force to the British and Hessian forces that invaded New York in September 1776 and so Mary became part of a community of about 1000 runaways living behind the British lines in Lower Manhattan. She, like most of Dunmore’s surviving recruits, was employed the Royal Artillery Department and housed in barracks created out of four row-houses where they were provided with weekly rations, as well as a lamp and a pint of oil for each room. Within the black refugee community the Methodists from Virginia formed a close-knit group. As Mary was one of the few who could read and write, she probably took on the roles of both exhorter and teacher. While there were a number of Methodist preachers, all of them deferred to the blind and crippled Moses, who became known to his many followers as “Daddy Moses”. Completely illiterate, Moses appealed to visions to reveal the will of God and divine the sure road to eternal salvation. His highly emotional delivery blended personal experience with renditions of Old Testament stories, in the form of call and response. His ecstatic preaching had an electrifying effect on his listeners, who might at any time be seized by the spirit. The raucous spiritual expression of his congregation found echoes in the older African the African practice of ecstatic soul possession. For these black Methodists, the cultural practices that had nurtured the unregenerate self did not need to be abandoned to believe they were reborn in God’s grace.

Next in line to Daddy Moses as the most influential preacher was Luke Jordan, who arrived in New York in May 1779. He was part of a large interconnected group of 256 men, 135 women and 127 children that Admiral Collier Matthews brought back from his destructive raid into Portsmouth Virginia.21 Luke Jordan had been enslaved to Josiah Jordan, but his wife Rachel and son Joshua were enslaved to Willis Wilkinson, the father of Mills Wilkinson, who once owned Daddy Moses. Over thirty people in the group came from the Wilkinson plantations, while twenty or so were from various branches of the Jordan family. Indeed, almost everyone in this group could demonstrate a complex connection of kin and marriage across numerous plantations in several tidewater counties. Many were kin to people who had fled in 1776. The ships under Admiral Collier must have made a particular effort to collect these people, probably on the advice of their kinfolk who working with the British. 22 Most likely these fugitives were taken up by the privateers that accompanied Collier’s fleet. These ships belonged to John Goodridge, who was from Portsmouth and an original member of Methodist meeting in that town.  It could not have been entirely coincidental that many, if not most, of the runaways were also Methodists.

Nor was it coincidental that the man who became Mary’s husband was part of the same group. Caesar Perth was a skilled tradesman enslaved to Hardress Waller, who owned a house in Norfolk in close proximity to Willoughby’s house.  Most significantly, Caesar Perth was entailed on a plantation in the area between Great Bridge and New Mill Creek. Mary almost certain already had a prior association with him and he may have been the father of her children.23 Possibly the marriage was a legitimization of a longstanding relationship.24  

Late in 1781, the British garrison in New York was shattered by the news from Yorktown that Cornwallis had lost the campaign for the South. For the Virginian runaways sheltering behind the British lines, this was a terrible blow. Now there was no way they could be reunited with family left behind, except to return as fugitive slaves and face the awful consequences.  Worse news was to come with the terms of the provisional peace treaty signed on November 29, 1782, which prohibited the British from taking away any runaway slaves. Rumors swept New York that the British would be obliged to abandon the several thousands of black refugees living behind their lines. Having experienced years of freedom, runaways like Mary and Caesar Perth were horrified at the prospect of being turned over to vengeful masters. In this tense time John Willoughby Jr arrived in New York seeking to make good on his inheritance. As he complained to the British Commander-in-Chief, Sir Guy Carleton, he and several fellow Virginians had been “put to expense of a disagreeable journey to New York,” only to discover that their property had been offered free transport to Nova Scotia.  He insisted that Carleton abide by the terms of the treaty and to put an immediate stop the embarkation to Nova Scotia. If not, he complained, he and his neighbors would be financially ruined.25 Carleton did not even bother to reply. On his instructions all runaways who had been with the British for a year or more were issued with certificates of freedom signed by Brigadier General Samuel Birch, commandant of the New York garrison. Willoughby returned empty handed to Virginia and in July 1783 Mary and Caesar Perth, with their baby daughter Susan, were embarked on the L’Abondance bound for Nova Scotia. Traveling with them were her daughters Zilpah and Hannah Savills, as well as her eldest daughter Patience Freeman, whose husband Thomas Freeman was to follow a few months later.

 The Perth family was settled in a large community near Shelburne, which was named Birchtown after their liberator General Birch.26  Here a vibrant spiritual life was the only thing in abundance, which allowed them to persist in the face of bitter cold and unremitting hardship. A licensed Methodist preacher visited Birchtown in 1784 and was astonished to find fourteen Methodist classes meeting nightly. This wondrous circumstance, he explained to his superiors, was due entirely to “a poor negro who can neither see, walk nor stand.”27 His report drew the famous preacher, Freeborn Garrettson, who made several visits to Birchtown, where he tried to contain the enthusiasm of Daddy Moses’ congregation within accepted Wesleyan practice, fearing they were being contaminated by “pious frenzy” of the New Light Congregationalists. 28 Garrettson despaired that no licensed preacher was available to guide to this volatile congregation along the proper path. He was very alarmed when John Marrant, a black sailor from Charleston arrived at Birchtown in December 1785.29  Marrant was a black preacher who had been ordained by the Methodist breakaway group founded by the Countess of Huntingdon. His brother lived at Birchtown and he was known to a number of the refugees. As Marrant explained in his autobiographical account, he was warmly welcomed at Birchtown, and permitted to preach in the meetinghouse of Daddy Moses, despite Garrettson’s warnings that he “did not come from Mr. Wesley.” The basis of his first sermon was the biblical text: “For Moses truly said unto the fathers, a prophet shall the Lord your God raise up unto you of your brethren, like unto me; him shall ye hear in all things whatsoever he may say unto you”. Having thus cast himself in the role of a prophet, it was inevitable that Marrant would come into conflict with Daddy Moses.30 In Marrant’s triumphal account of the struggle to determine which Methodist doctrine would have ascendancy, he gleefully recorded  how he commandeered Moses’s congregation before his rival’s unseeing eyes. Yet for all his humiliation of the “the old blind man,” Marrant was never able to wrest the majority of people from Daddy Moses. After he left Nova Scotia, only about forty people, mostly from South Carolina, remained loyal to the Countess of Huntingdon. Mary and Caesar Perth stayed firmly within the Wesleyan fold. 31

It was Daddy Moses who hosted the first big community meeting in Birchtown, when John Clarkson arrived in Nova Scotia in 1791 hoping to recruit settlers for the Sierra Leone Company’s colony in West Africa. Addressing hundreds of people who crammed into the Methodist meetinghouse, Clarkson outlined the company’s offer of the free land grants and explained that, unlike Nova Scotia, there would be no discrimination between white and black settlers in Sierra Leone. Within three days the entire congregation of Daddy Moses had elected to follow Clarkson to Sierra Leone. The very first names on the list of emigrants “that call themselves Methodists” were those of Caesar Perth and his wife Mary. Patience and her husband Thomas Freeman, were also on the list, as was Hannah.32 Of the 700 or so names on the list of the Methodists emigrants, eight were identified as preachers. All of the Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion agreed to leave Nova Scotia, as did the entire Baptist congregation from nearby Shelburne. Another 200 people of both Methodist and Baptist persuasion walked overland from New Brunswick to be included in the exodus. 33 The final tally of émigrés was nearly 1200 people.

On reaching Sierra Leone early in 1792, the new settlers waded ashore singing the old Wesleyan hymn:

Wake! Every heart and every tongue

To praise the Savior’s name.

The day of Jubilee is come!

Return ye, ransomed sinners, home.34

 They then had to hack a path through the tangle of thorny bush, sharp-edged elephant grass, and jungle that proved “extremely difficult to penetrate” in order clear a site for the settlement they called Freetown.35 Huts were constructed from green saplings woven together and plastered with mud to support a thatch of grass, which provided some protection from the heat, but were vulnerable to invasion from wildlife. Caesar and Mary would have been in constant fear for their daughter, Susan.  Soon after arrival, a startled father had to wrestle his small daughter from the clutches of a gorilla, while another only just managed to scare a leopard away from his sleeping wife and child.36

About 3 o’clock in morning of April 2, Clarkson recorded there was “a great deal of lightening, torrents of rain came down with heavy squalls of wind and several loud claps of thunder repeated by the deep roaring echoes of the mountains.”37 The monsoon had arrived. The flimsy huts were badly damaged in the first downpour and the next day a tornado ripped through the tattered dwellings. With inadequate shelter from the constant rain, nearly everyone came down with malarial fever. Anna Maria Falconbridge, who was the wife of the company agent, described a desperate situation with about 700 people “under the affliction of burning fevers,” while the rest were “scarce able to crawl about.” Every day handfuls of people were “buried with as little ceremony as so many dogs and cats,” she wrote.38 The provisions brought from England by the company ships were completely spoiled and the steaming monsoonal air carried the nauseating stench of rotting food. Mary and her daughter Susan survived, as did Patience and Thomas Freeman, but Caesar Perth was among the very first who died.  

Throughout the ordeal, Mary was sustained by her intense commitment to the otherworldly life of the spirit. An enthusiastic celebration of faith was the lifeblood of this black community. “I never met with, heard, or read of, any set of people observing the same appearance of godliness,” Anna Maria Falconbridge wrote. Whatever time woke in the night, she could hear “preachings from some quarter or another.” 39  Where the Methodist meetinghouse could sustain Mary’s spirit, to sustain her body she ran a kind of boarding house and chophouse by the wharves, catering to company employees and visiting sailors from slave ships. In 1794 she was awarded license to sell retail goods. The long serving governor of Sierra Leone, Zachary Macaulay, took a particular interest in Mary, engaged her as his housekeeper and entrusting her with the care and education of a group of African children who lived at his house.

Macaulay was one of the Evangelical Clapham Sect, whose members dominated the Sierra Leone Company. He was a stern moralist who took to heart the admonition of company chairman, Henry Thornton,  “that the point to be laboured is to make the colony a religious colony.”40 On his arrival in 1793, Macaulay had been appalled at the raw fervor of the Methodists preachers and he thought their wild shouting and ecstatic visions smacked of gross impiety. He was hard pressed to decide which sect of black dissenters was worst: the “mad Methodists” with their creed of “which shall bawl the loudest,” or the Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion, whose “rank antinomianism” filled him with disgust.41 Even the small minority of Baptists was morality lax and ignorant of doctrinal matters, he thought. This was not the Christianity that the Clapham Sect envisaged taking root in heathen Africa.

From the moment Macaulay became governor he embarked on a calculated assault on the black churches. Mandatory Anglican church services were held twice a day in the hope it would instill a sense of proper deference in the volatile settlers and undermine the influence of their self-taught black preachers. Of particular concern to Macaulay was “the reigning folly of Methodists of this place in accounting dreams, visions and the most ridiculous bodily sensations as incontestable proof of their acceptance with God and their being filled with the Holy Ghost.” Macaulay could see that the Methodists self-validating religious experience, and their refusal to defer to ordained clergy, fed resistance to his rule. “Their government is pure democracy,” he noted with distaste, “without subordination to anyone.” 42 When Daddy Moses preached about the delivery out of oppression and over the mighty waters into the land of Canaan, his congregation had a very firm idea of what that meant in their own lives. Macaulay reported in his journal that he had overheard that one of the Methodist preachers refer to the governor as Pharaoh, and remind his flock “God in his own good time would deliver Israel.”43

Mary Perth was a staunch adherent of the “mad Methodists” yet Macaulay held her in high esteem. Her piety set her apart from the rest of that despised sect and she endeared herself with exemplary behavior in September 1794, when Freetown was subjected to a devastating attack by a French gunship. In the midst of the pandemonium Mary found a refuge for Macaulay’s family of African children at the village of a local chief, much to the governor’s great relief.  44

After the French attack Freetown was substantially rebuilt and by 1796 was the largest town on the west coast of Africa. About 400 timber and shingle houses were neatly laid out along nine streets, and an assortment of livestock cropped the grass-covered streets. Mary Perth ran her boarding house and shop near the waterfront, which was always a site of frenetic activity. At any given time there might be one or two visiting slave ships, the trading vessels of the Sierra Leone Company, plus the canoes of hundreds of Africans who brought produce to trade each day. Mary employed others to help her, but even so she was kept very busy as shopkeeper and landlady in addition to her being housekeeper and teacher. Such was the exacting workload of this indefatigable widow that the company chaplain thought she was about seventy when she was only fifty-five.

Revered John Clarke was a Scottish Presbyterian who shared Macaulay’s horror at the raucous, undisciplined religious observance of the settlers. He openly expressed his dismayed at “the unwillingness of the preachers to receive information” and their ignorance of the true principles of Christianity. Macaulay observed with approval how Clark “levels the whole weight of his ability to counter the ruinous actions by which the people are misled.” His zeal was indefatigable, instituting a weekly lecture to combat their “gross ignorance of the first principles of religion”. To each of various congregations he gave sermons about their shortcomings as Christians.45 At first the black preachers were delighted to have a vigorous and educated minister to preach in their meetinghouses, but within a few weeks Macaulay faced a deputation of Methodists preachers, led by Nathaniel Snowball and Luke Jordan, complaining of being humiliated by Clarke. All the better for that, was Macaulay’s opinion. He was fully expectant that Clarke could teach the settlers “self-denying duty and subjugation of temper.”  It was not to be. Within weeks Clarke’s welcome was angrily withdrawn and few settlers bothered to attend either his sermons or his lectures. When Clarke made personal visits to invite settlers to come to Christ, he was curtly informed: “We don’t want you … we are in Christ already and have been for these last 22 years.” 46 Mary Perth remained Clarke’s only true adherent among the black community. He was delighted with her steadfast devotion, while the rest were dangerously deluded, stubbornly deaf to his earnest proselytising.

Clarke was so pleased with Mary that he wrote a sketch of her that was published in the Evangelical Magazine. This old woman was “more like one come down out of heaven to earth than like one who is only preparing for glory,” he wrote. He told about how she had been a slave preacher in America and had walked twenty miles a night to instruct other slaves. “I need not tell you she is black,” he explained. “This I can assure you is no hindrance to our Christian fellowship. I am as happy in her company as I ever was in that of any Christian of my own colour.” This “one militant saint” was the next best thing to the bible in Sierra Leone. But the joy Clarke felt in his fellowship Mary was severely tempered by the antagonism he felt from of the rest of the settlers. A confrontation between Clarke and fourteen black preachers almost ended in blows after he suggested that they were blasphemers.

The governor was dismayed at the failure of his zealous chaplain to make his charges properly respectful Christians. Every day the Methodists settlers appeared to him to be more disrespectful and seditious. They even went so far as to send him a letter protesting that first and foremost their loyalty was to “the governor of the universe” and they expected the temporal governor to understand “we consider ourselves a perfect church, having no need of the assistance of any worldly power to appoint or perform religious ceremonies for us.”47 The Methodist meetinghouse, he decided had become “a kind of Jacobin club.”48  He derided these dissent settlers as ignorant and perverse, fast sliding into ‘the wretched state of barbarism in which their African forefathers were sunk and from which we had fondly hoped they had now been rescued.”49 Mary Perth was the exception. He had nothing but praise for this particular Methodist. Letters to his fiancée Selena Mills spoke of “the good old woman” and he encouraged Selena to send Mary the uplifting tracts written by her companion and mentor, Hannah More. Mary, he opined,  “had judgement  enough to relish them.”50 For her part, Mary sent gifts of her own to these two pious English ladies and laid plans to go to England to visit them. Mary sent the company chairman and banker Henry Thornton the large sum of 155 pounds to be invested in order to pay for the trip.

Yet in May 1798 Macaulay’s view of Mary Perth had soured. He felt that she had got above her station and become “vain, worldly, and arrogant, harsh and violent in her tempers, little careful of the means of finally swelling the store and little attentive to discharge the duties to the children under her care.” The flattery that Clarke had published in Evangelical Magazine had turned her head, Macaulay believed, and “made an open door for almost every evil.” In addition, her increasing material wealth had served to “to unhinge her mind, to fill her with pride and with all those bad tempers which it engenders.” Mary had been accused of over-changing customers at her shop, even though she was not directly responsible for the operation of the shop. Macaulay allowed that “things laid to her charge might have arisen from inadvertencies in other causes,” but he could not forgive “most unchristian and unchallenged temples of rage, revenge, impatience, and pride.” Nor would he accept that she was penitent, regarding her statements of contrition as no more that “the common Methodist cant respecting the wickedness of the heart.” In his eyes, Mary had finally shown her true nature as “one who has been a professor of Methodism for near forty years.” 51 She was barred from his house and stripped of her role as superintendent and tutor of his African charges.

In April 1799 Macaulay prepared to depart Sierra Leone for good. Even as he packed to leave he was still railing against the Methodists. Mary Perth, however, was once more restored in his confidence. She was also leaving Sierra Leone as the supervisor for the twenty-four African children Macaulay was taking back to Clapham to be educated as Christian missionaries. Mary welcomed the job since it gave her the opportunity to get medical treatment for her ailing daughter Susan. In May 1799, she and Susan disembarked at Portsmouth and traveled overland to London where she they were given lodgings in Clapham. Because of a smallpox scare, the African children were taken to St Pancreas Hospital to undergo inoculation. Macaulay’s letters were full of concern, writing to Selena “God will be graciously pleased to restore them all to us and make their future lives speak his praise”.52 He made no of Mary Perth. Presumably she stayed at Clapham, as she had already been exposed to smallpox in Virginia and Susan would have been inoculated in Nova Scotia.

By the time the children were discharged in early July, Macaulay found accommodation for them in the house near Battersea belonging to Joseph Hughes, a Baptist minister he knew in the abolition movement. Mary moved there to be housekeeper for the African children, while Hughes’s younger colleague, John Foster, was employed as their teacher. Foster observed in letters to colleagues that that the “well travelled” black housekeeper  was a pious and happy soul. 53 He was unaware of Mary’s anxiety about the illness of her daughter, whose health did not improve in England. Three months later Macaulay had finalized arrangements for the children to be educated at Clapham. The twenty boys were sent to live in a house opposite the common, with a schoolteacher working under the direction of the Evangelical rector of Clapham church, Reverend John Venn.54 The four girls went to Henry Thornton’s house to be taught manners by his wife Marianne. Mary probably stayed at Battersea to nurse her daughter Susan, who died sometime the following year.

Mary returned to Sierra Leone in December 1801. Have missed completely an abortive rebellion by dissent settlers. By the time she arrived home arrived home two members of the Methodist congregation had been executed, while another 40 settlers, most of them Methodists, were in exile at other places on the African coast. For the next five years she continued to run a store and boardinghouse in Freetown, cooking meals for company employees and members of Church Missionary Society. The last record of her was on February 13, 1806 when she was married to an unnamed settler. By 1813 she was dead.55

Mary Perth left almost no trace on the historical record of the Atlantic world during the tumultuous era of the American and French revolutions. For the half century between 1768 and 1813 she is one name among many on a series of lists, an occasional aside in the letters of self-important white men and a condescending homily in an obscure magazine. Yet her story matters, and not just because it alerts us to the central role of religion in the lives of the black refugees of the American Revolution, important though that is. We need to see Mary Perth as a complex historical actor impelled by her own volition, and not simply part a faceless, undifferentiated mass called “Black Loyalists”. Recovering her historical experience from the recesses of the archive provides a unique insight into the process of forming social solidarities, making personal choices and negotiating the tortuous transition from enslavement into self-determination and dignity. In the bare bones of her remarkable life we can glimpse a dynamic combination of spirituality, resourcefulness, resilience and mobility that allows us a richer understanding of historical experience than we can extract from the abstract concept of “agency”.


1 The account of Mary’s proselytizing comes from a letter from Rev. Clarke, the chaplain in Sierra Leone, July 29, 1796 published in Evangelical Magazine, 4, (1796), 464. The date is an estimate based on the presence of Methodist itinerants in Norfolk in 1772 and the age of her youngest child who was born in 1772.

2 The class she was leading the woods may not have been exclusively black, given that the itinerants who carried Methodism into the tidewater preached a biracial brotherhood.


3 The eyewitness account is quoted in William Warren Sweet, Virginia Methodism: A History, (Richmond: Whittet and Sheppeson, DATE), 51

4 Cynthia Lynn Lyerly, Methodism in the Southern Mind 1770-1810 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) provides an excellent discussion of the potency of early Methodism.

5 It is clear that early Methodists classes were biracial, although as the number of convert grew they could be separated along lines of race and gender. See Lyerly, Methodism in the Southern Mind, 51


6 Frederick Maser and Howard Maag, ed. The Journal of Joseph Pilmore, Methodist Itinerant For the years August 1 1769 to January 2 1774, (Philadelphia: Message Publishing Co, 1969) 148-154

7 Information from William Wallace Bennett, Memorials of Methodism in Virginia, (Richmond: WW Bennett, 1871).

8 Information from Norfolk Tithable lists

9 For Wesley’s attitude see Sweet, Virginia Methodism, 48 note 8; Jesse Lee quoted in Bennett, Memorials of Methodism in Virginia, 69-70

10 See Elmer T Clark, J Manning Potts and Jacob S Paton ed. The Journals and Letters of Francis Asbury, vol 1, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1958), 164

11 Pilmore Journal,  164

12 For Willoughby’s arrest and forced removal, Revolutionary Virginia, vol. V, 141, 142, 207, 369-71

13 The Willoughby petition can be found in Journal of the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia (Richmond: Thomas White, 1827), 55.

14 Committee of Safety Court of Inquiry, May 6, 1776 reprinted in Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 15, (1907-8),411-2 and Purdie’s Virginia Gazette May 10, 1776

15 Prominent among the Methodist congregation in Nova Scotia and later Sierra Leone were people from Norfolk. Princess Anne, Nansemond and Isle of Wight counties.

16 Another runaway from Mills Wilkinson was captured at Great Bridge in December 1775.

17 Purdie’s Virginia Gazette, March 8, 1776. Narrative of Andrew Snape Hamond, in William Bell Clark, William James Morgan and Michael J Crawford, ed. Naval Documents of the American Revolution, (Washington DC: Naval History Division, 1970)  vol. 5, 321-2 and Dunmore to Germain, March 30, 1776, CO 5/1373, National Archives of the United Kingdom (hereafter NAUK).

18 For evidenced of the 300 graves, see Elizabeth Fenn, Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82 (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001), 58.

19 Naval Documents of the American Revolution, vol. 5, 669, 839-41, 1079.

20 Dixon and Hunter Virginia Gazette, July 20, and Purdie’s Virginia Gazette, July 19, 1776.

21 Return of Persons that came off from Virginia with General Mathew, August 24, 1779, CO 5/52/63, NAUK.

22 My analysis of nearly 300 runaways from the Portsmouth area in 1779 identified in the Book of Negroes. PRO 30/55/100, NAUK

23 See Norfolk Tithable lists for 1773, 1774 and 1778

24 The fact that her daughters kept Hannah and Zilpa kept the surname Savills rather than Perth suggests this was not the case.

25 Petition of inhabitants of Norfolk and Princess Ann County, April 28 1783, PRO 30/55/92, NUAK.

26 Muster Book for Free Black Settlement of Birchtown 1783-4. MG9/B9-14 National Archives of Canada.

27 Quoted in Ellen Gibson Wilson, The Loyal Blacks, (new York: Capricornia Books, 124

28 A disapproving Anglican missionary used the term “pious frenzy”, but it could easily have been applied by the Wesleyan Methodists, see Wilson, The Loyal Blacks, 120. W.E. B. Du Bois has identified the “frenzy” as one of the three fundamental elements of black religion, Souls of Black Folk (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1903) 191.

29 Nathan Bangs, ed., The Life of the Rev. Freeborn Garrettson,  (New York: Mason and Lane, 1839), 144, 152.

30 John Marrant, A Journal of the Rev. John Marrant, From August the 18th, 1785, to The 16th of March 1790… (London: printed for the author, 1790), 11-12, 33-34.

31 Because Marrant has provided his own self aggrandizing account of these events, John Saillant and Joanna Brooks have overemphasized the importance of Marrant to the black refugee community and have mistakenly attributed the rebellious spirit among the Sierra Leone settlers to his influence, rather than Methodist preachers like Daddy Moses and Luke Jordan.

32 The list included Hannah Freeman included either as Patience Freeman’s sister or because she married Thomas Freeman’s brother, Robert.

33 John Clarkson’s Journal of his Mission to America, and parts of his Sierra Leone Journal are held by the New York Historical Society (NYHS).

34 The account of this hymn singing is described in J. B Elliott, Lady Huntingdon’s Connextion in Sierra Leone (London: no publisher, 1851), 15. The words given differ from the original by Charles Wesley. John Clarkson’s Journal, March 11, 1792 also refers to the hymn being sung and he describes it again a letter to William Wilberforce n.d, Clarkson Papers, Add MSS 41263, British Library.

35 Clarkson, Journal, March 19, 1792, NYHS

36 Stories recounted by Anna Maria Falconbridge, Two Voyages to Sierra Leone in Deirdre Coleman, ed Maiden Voyages and Infant Colonies (London: Leicester University Press, 1999).

37 Clarkson, Journal, April 2, 1792. NYHS

38 Falconbridge, Two Voyages,102.

39 Falconbridge quote, Two Voyages, 122.

40 Thornton to Clarkson, November 20, 1792, Clarkson Papers,

41 Macaulay Journal November  23, June 26, April 23, 1796, MSS MY 418, Huntington Library

42 Macaulay Journal, November 26, 1794, September 13, 1793,.

43 Falconbridge, Two Voyages, 123, 131. Macaulay Journal, September 13, 1793.

44 See Viscountess Knutsford, The Life and Letters of Zachary Macaulay, (London: Edward Arnold, 1900),  73

45 Macaulay, Journal, October 5, May 22, 1796.

46 Macaulay, Journal, April 23, 17 June, 1796

47 Methodist petition reprinted in Knutsford, The Life and Letters of Zachary Macaulay, 145.


48 Macaulay, Journal, July14, July21, 1796.

49 Macaulay Journal, 8 June 1797.

50 Macaulay to Mills, 4 Feb 1797

51 Like the Reverend Clark Macaulay had judged Mary to be over seventy and thus a Methodist for forty rather than twenty five years.

52 Macaulay to Mills,13 June 1799

53 From J E Rykland ed., The Life and Correspondence of John Foster quoted in Madge Dresser, Slavery Obscured: The Social History of the Slave Trade in an English Provincial Port (London: Continuum Books, 2001) 173.

54 See Bruce Mouser, “ The African Academy — Clapham 1799-1806, History of Education, 33:1, 2004, 87-103.

55 Information from Wilson, The Loyal Blacks, p 356.