Virginia's Black Methodists

It is uncertain exactly when some of Norfolk’s enslaved fell under the sway of John Wesley’s radical ideology, but in all probability they owed 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.”1 The mayor had reason to be alarmed; early Methodist emissaries to America such as Williams were passionate opponents of slavery.

Enslaved Virginians had numerous opportunities to hear Williams preach in the weeks that followed. He was unwelcome in Norfolk, but was invited to stay with a prominent merchant in Portsmouth, where he preached openly at large interracial meetings held in a converted warehouse.  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 the 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 the meetings at New Mill Creek and at Great Bridge. 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. 2

In 1774 Williams married a local woman and settled on a smallholding on the Portsmouth to Suffolk Road. He died in the turbulent month of September 1775. John Wesley’s handpicked envoy to America,  Francis Asbury, credited Williams with having awakened more souls to Wesleyan Methodism than any man in America. His uninhibited, raw and emotional style and his strongly dissenting approach did not entirely meet the approval 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.” 3 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. Enslaved converts such as Mary Perth may have been drawn to Williams for the very reasons that white colonists felt anxiety or distaste.

When Dunmore issued his proclamation it drew hundreds of black recruits who came from Norfolk and the neighboring counties of Nansemond, Princess Anne and Isle of Wight. Among them were a number of black Methodists, included Mary Perth from Norfolk, 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 new charismatic black preacher called Moses, who had defected to the British at Great Bridge in December 1775 and later became known to his many followers as “Daddy Moses”.   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. The raucous spiritual expression of Moses's congregation found echoes in the older African practice of ecstatic soul possession.  He was completely illiterate and he 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.

In New York the most influential preacher after Daddy Moses 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 and General Matthew brought back from their destructive raid on the Virginian city of Portsmouth.  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 were working with the British. Most likely these fugitives were taken up by the privateers that accompanied Collier’s fleet. These ships belonged to John Goodridge, who came from Portsmouth and a amn who was an original member of the Methodist meeting in that town. It could not have been entirely coincidental that many, if not most, of the runaways were also Methodists.

In 1783 the Black Methodist community in New York were evacuated en masse in two ships L’Abondance and the Clinton and settled in a large community near Shelburne. This township was quickly named Birchtown after their liberator General Birch. 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.” 4 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.  Garrettson despaired that no licensed preacher was available to guide 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.  

Marrant was a black preacher who had been ordained by the Methodist breakaway group founded by the Countess of Huntingdon whose brother lived at Birchtown. 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.  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, most Virginians stayed firmly within the Wesleyan fold.5 

1. The eyewitness account is quoted in William Warren Sweet, Virginia Methodism: A History, 51

2. 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 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.

3.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 

4.Quoted in Ellen Gibson Wilson, The Loyal Blacks, (New York: Capricornia Books), 124

5.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. 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.