The Radical Methodist Congregation of Daddy Moses

The Radical Methodist Congregation of Daddy Moses

[Extracted from Epic Journey of Freedom (2006)]

Quite a few Methodists made it to Dunmore between December 1775 and May 1776. Mary Perth and others came from Willoughby's plantation in Princess Ann County,  Nathaniel Snowball absconded from a plantation in neighboring Norfolk County, his wife Violet came with her son Nathaniel from Princess Anne County, while his brother Timothy, slipped away from another master in Norfolk. Enslaved workers also ran the town of Suffolk in Nansemond County, including a preacher, Jack Jordan who ran away his Quaker owner, Robert Jordan, a merchant in the town. A powerful and charismatic preacher prophetically named Moses, later known to his many followers as "Daddy Moses", absconded from Mills Wilkinson, another merchant in Suffolk. It is highly possible that Moses was following the precedent of his biblical namesake and leading his followers across the water to freedom.  There were very many more defections to Dunmore among the enslaved Methodists, but most must have fallen victim to smallpox and died. Moses too must have also fallen victim to smallpox, but he had survived, although he was blind and unable to walk unaided.1

The blind and crippled Daddy Moses brilliantly adapted the Wesleyan emphasis on oral communication and spontaneous religious response to create a form of religious expression that could coexist with older African infusions such as conjuring, divination and sorcery. A self appointed preacher, he positioned himself within the fold of the Wesleyan tradition , even though his form of worship was so tainted with "enthusiasm" - a pejorative term referring to extravagant emotional responses, speaking in tongues, visions, spirit possessed delusions and trances - he would not have met with John Wesley's approval. Completely illiterate, Moses appealed to visions to reveal the will of God and divine the sure road to eternal salvation, finding resonance with the African practice of ecstatic soul possession. 

During the years spent behind the British lines in New York, Moses significantly built his congregation with his spellbinding renditions of Old Testament stories in the familiar form of call and response. A white visitor to one of his meetings was so affected by the intensity of Moses's preaching that he "felt frequently distressed for him, his feelings were so exquisite and he worked himself up to such a pitch that I was fearful, something would happen to him." His ecstatic preaching had an electrifying effect on his listeners, who might at any time be seized by the spirit.2 Of all the stories he told and retold within this community of runaways the most pivotal was the story of Moses leading the Israelites out of enslavement in Egypt. 

Methodists were nominally within the fold of the established Anglican church, so Moses's congregation would have also turned to Trinity Church in New York, which had been baptizing black people since the turn of the century. Trinity's proselytizing mission continued unabated during the war; even though the church was a blackened ruin, the clergy remained an important resource for black runaways in New York wishing to be baptized, or learn to read, or, most importantly, to have partnerships legitimized by marriage.

After 1783, resettled in Nova Scotia, Daddy Moses's distinctive brand of Methodism claimed significant allegiance among the black refugees at Birchtown. A licensed Methodist preacher who visited Birchtown in 1784 was astonished to find fourteen Methodist classes meeting nightly, a wondrous circumstance , he reported, due entirely to "a poor negro who can neither see, walk nor stand." Boston King, a convert who later became a preacher, had vivid evidence of the potency of Daddy Moses's preaching when his wife Violet fell to the ground in convulsions, crying for mercy, which continued for another six days "until the Lord spoke peace to her soul." Deeply impressed with his wife's dramatic conversion, and similar conversions of many of his neighbors in subsequent weeks, King himself lingered in dark despair for many months before he finally heard the Lord call him. For King, the liberation of the spirit was essential in the perilous journey from slavery to freedom; only when freed from both physical and spiritual bondage could the regenerated self emerge from the wilderness into the land of Canaan. As he wrote of his experience of redemption, "everything appeared to me in a different light...I was now become a new creature." When the white American Methodist circuit rider, Freeborn Garrettson, visited Birchtown a year later, King found the inspiration "to visit my poor ungodly neighbours, and exhort them to fear the Lord, and seek him while he might be found."  By 1791 he was preacher for the racially mixed Methodist congregation at Darmouth, next to Preston.3

On his occasional visits to Birchtown, Freeborn Garrettson tried to contain the "enthusiasm" of the black Methodist congregation within accepted Wesleyan practice. Fearing contamination from the "pious frenzy" of the New Light sect, of which he profoundly disapproved, he despaired that no licensed preacher was available to guide to this volatile congregation along the proper path. Like the appalled Anglican missionaries who tried to minister to the black refugees, he failed to appreciate that their raucous spiritual expression owed little to the influence of New Light and reached back to a much older African past. The cultural practices that had nurtured the unregenerate self did not need to be abandoned in order for the followers of Daddy Moses to believe they were reborn in God's grace.4

John Marrant was a black sailor from Charleston who was ordained by the breakaway Methodist sect led by the Countess of Huntingdon who arrived in Nova Scotia in December 1785. Despite warnings from Garrettson that this black preacher "did not come from Mr. Wesley," Marrant was permitted to preach in the meetinghouse of Daddy Moses. The effect on his audience was electric. As Marrant described in his journal, "many were not able to contain; but cried out to God to have mercy upon them ... several sinners were carried out, pricked to the heart." Inevitably there was conflict with Daddy Moses, as the two Methodists strove to gain spiritual ascendancy in Birchtown. For all his humiliation of the "the old blind man," Marrant was not able win over more than a minority of people, although these converts remained fiercely committed, even after Marrant left for America left three years later.5

Rich spiritual experience was the only consolation for a life of appalling poverty in Nova Scotia. A white visitor to Birchtown was shocked by the black settlers  huts, "miserable to guard against the inclemency of a Nova Scotia winter". In the opinion of this witness, "the wretchedness and poverty so strongly perceptible in the garb and continence of ... these miserable outcasts" was as extreme as he had ever seen. Boston King later recalled that in the winter of 1789, when famine stalked the whole province of Nova Scotia, families at Birchtown were forced to sell everything they had to get a few pounds of flour. "When they had parted with all their clothes, even to their blankets several of them fell down dead in the streets from hunger," King wrote.6

When John Clarkson was engaged by the Sierra Leone Company to recruit black emigrants in Canada and take them to Sierra Leone,  he found a very receptive audience among the Methodists. Traveling from one black settlement to another he was much impressed with the people he met, comparing them very favorably to the laboring poor of England. Clarkson first went to Preston, where Mingo Jordan had a large Methodist congregation, and was delighted when over two hundred people indicated their willingness to emigrate. Boston King, the Methodist preacher at nearby Dartmouth, also chose to emigrate to Africa with his flock. At Birchtown, Clarkson addressed hundreds who crammed into Daddy Moses meetinghouse. Clarkson's words were quickly transmitted to the rest of the community and within three days the entire Methodist congregations of Daddy Moses and Luke Jordan had agreed to go. As well, Cato Perkins, William Ashe and all who belonged to the Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion elected to follow Clarkson to Sierra Leone. The addition of David George's Baptist congregation from nearby Shelburne brought the total of emigrants from that area to 600 people. Digby contributed another large contingent of about 180 people, nearly all of them Methodists. The families of Thomas Peters and Ralph Henry were among 200 people, of both Methodist and Baptist persuasion, who walked overland from New Brunswick to be included in the exodus.Mark Having migrated as whole congregations they came 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.Mark

Some white employees of the Sierra Leone Company thought enthusiasm of the black immigrants, with their wild shouting and ecstatic visions, smacked of impiety, but Clarkson saw no reason "to cry down these different sects, and the black preachers for their ignorance, extravagant notions, and apparently ridiculous way of expressing their thoughts." The exuberant religion the black settlers brought with them disturbed him far less as the "strange notions ... as to their civil rights" that gave him and his successors no end of grief.Mark 

While the black settlers managed to adjust to the strange, and sometimes terrible, environment of Africa, they had less inclination to adjust to the changed conditions that governed their new home. The metropolitan fantasies entertained by the directors of the Sierra Leone Company bore no relationship to the harsh reality of creating a free community on the slave coast of Africa. None of the directors had ever been to West Africa and they could not begin to imagine what it was like living in mud huts during a torrential monsoon. Nor did they understand that the rugged terrain meant that only a limited amount of land was available for farming. Once the Nova Scotia settlers began to hack into the jungle, Clarkson realized that there would not be enough arable land to provide the large grants the settlers had been promised. To make matters worse Clarkson took complete power as the governor of the colony allowing no representation from the settlers. 

A petition from Dady Moses's congregation protested Clarkson's assumption of power over them. The eccentric spelling betrayed the authors as barely literate and the tone of the letter was deeply deferential but far from submissive. The Methodist settlers told Clarkson they willingly agreed to be governed by the laws of England, but "we do not consent to gave it into your honer hands with out haven aney of our own culler in it." They reminded Clarkson that he had promised them that "whoever came to Saraleon wold be free and should have a law and ... all should be equel," so it followed that they had "a wright to chuse men that we think proper for to act for us in a reasnenble manner." In the matter of governance and the administration of justice, they were adamant: "to gave all out of our hands we cannot."MarkThat petition signaled the beginning of a long and ultimately unsuccessful campaign for the right to representative government and full civil rights. 

Clarkson's replacement as governor was Zachary Macaulay, was a young man of twenty-four who arrived in Freetown in early January 1793. 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." This was not the Christianity that Macaulay envisaged taking root in heathen Africa. From the moment that Macaulay became governor, he embarked on a calculated assault on the black churches. It was his view that the settlers were supremely arrogant in substituting their "visionary and delusionary experience" for the received wisdom of the catechism. These unlettered ex-slaves suffered "a proud conceit of their own spiritual gifts," he complained to his fiancée, which led them to scorn religious instruction, "fancying themselves wiser then their teachers." He was hard pressed to decide which of the black sects was the worse: "our mad Methodists" led by Daddy Moses, or the Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion, led by the "reprobate" Cato Perkins. The rowdy Methodists appalled him with the creed of "which shall bawl the loudest," while the "rank antinomianism" of the Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion filled him with disgust.7

Macaulay's previous experience of six years as an overseer on a slave plantation in the West Indies made him an odd choice for a colony run by abolitionists.  The settlers detested him and began a policy of insult and disobedience in the hope they could drive him away. Macaulay identified these dissidents as all being from "that firm body of malcontents," the congregation of Daddy Moses. He reported that the Methodist preacher pointedly compared the governor to Pharaoh, reminding his flock that his oppressive rule must be endured until "God in his own good time would deliver Israel."8

Macaulay was astute enough to see that the Methodists self-validating religious experience, and their refusal to defer to ordained clergy, fed resistance to company rule. "Their government is pure democracy," he noted with distaste, "without subordination to anyone." He did not grasp that it was faith itself that made the Methodist meetinghouse such a seedbed of sedition. 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. Youthful arrogance and his previous experience as overseer on a slave plantation, prevented Macaulay from comprehending that these as agents of sedition were acting out of powerful beliefs about the rights that came with liberty.9

In 1800, the black settlers grievances finally spilled over into a rebellion led by Methodists to challenge the company's right to rule in Sierra Leone. It was ruthlessly suppressed. Two members of the Methodist congregation were executed and another 40 settlers, most of them Methodists, were sent into exile at other places along the African coast. While Moses himself was not among those exiled, his brand of Methodism was never able regain its preeminent position in the fractured community in Freetown.  


1A fellow runaway from Mills Wilkinson named Cuff was captured by the Patriots in January 1776, Revolutionary Virginia, vol. 5, 423. He was subsequently sent to the West Indies for sale, see petition of Mills Wilkinson to Virginia legislature for compensation May 21, 1777, Virginia State Library. Black Methodist preachers were not unknown in Tidewater Virginia at the time.  Harry Hosier, a black man, travelled and preached with itinerant preachers in Virginia during and after the revolution.

2 For the importance of the Exodus story in African American religious experience see Albert J. Raboteau, Fire in the Bones: Reflections on African American Religious History (Boston, 1995), Chapter 1. As an interactive and  self-validating faith, enthusiastic Methodism was disparaged by the Anglican church because it undermined established hierarchy. Quote on Moses Wilkinson from John Clarkson Journal, 1792, New York Historical Society.

3 Methodist preacher William Black quoted in Wilson, The Loyal Blacks, 124. Boston King's conversion, detailed in "Memoir of Boston King", 159-161, finds echoes in the black narratives of period, all of which emphasize the essential connection between the liberation from bondage of both body and soul, Vincent Carretta,  Unchained Voices: An Anthology of Black Authors in the English-Speaking World of the Eighteenth Century, (Lexington, 1996). 

4 The term "pious frenzy" was used by a disapproving Anglican missionary, but it could easily have been applied by the Wesleyan Methodists. Adam Potaky and Sandra Burr, Black Atlantic Writers of the 18th Century: Living the Exodus in England and the Americas, (New York, 1996), observe that black converts gave evangelical religion a new resonance by revealing how "each Christian self is rooted in cultural pasts that cannot and ought not be forgotten." W.E. B. Du Bois has identified the "frenzy" as one of the three fundamantal elements of black religion, Souls of Black Folk (Chicago, 1903) 191.

5 Nathan Bangs, ed., The Life of the Rev. Freeborn Garrettson,  (New York, 1839), 144, 152. John Marrant, A Journal of the Rev. John Marrant, From August the 18th, 1785, to The 16th of March, 1790... (London, 1790), 11-12, 33-34.

6 Quotes about Birchtown from T. Watson Smith, in Wilson, The Loyal Blacks, 94 and "Memoirs of Boston King", 209. 

7 Macaulay Journal, October 13, 1793; November 23, June 26, April 23, October 6, 1796, MSS MY 418, Huntington Library. 

8 Macaulay Journal, September 13, 1793. 

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