Academic journal article African American Review

John Marrant and the Narrative Construction of an Early Black Methodist Evangelical

Academic journal article African American Review

John Marrant and the Narrative Construction of an Early Black Methodist Evangelical

Article excerpt

On the cold winter morning of January 27, 1788, John Marrant boarded a ship headed for Boston and departed from the Halifax, Nova Scotia, port for the final time. For almost three years he had preached to a dedicated and growing congregation of Loyalist Blacks who had emigrated there to escape British-American slavery. His goal, as assigned by the Huntingdon Connection of Calvinist Methodists, was to bring a more rigorous Calvinist predestination doctrine to a region that had previously been led by the more moderate Wesleyan Methodists, who also vied for control of the region. Marrant brought a New Covenant. He used his works and sermons to proclaim himself a prophet, and supported efforts to migrate with his congregation to Sierra Leone where they would set up a liberated and independent Black society, a new Zion. But he would not live to see his congregation depart to settle in Sierra Leone in 1791. Marrant returned to London in March of 1790 to defend himself against charges of squandering his benefactor's contributions to his ministry. Once there, his failing health made him decide to stay in London and preach at a small church in Islington. Aged beyond his years by war wounds, by the hard life of an itinerant minister, and by smallpox, Marrant would occupy his final resting spot in a grave adjacent to his church in the London suburb of Islington on Friday, April 15, 1791, dead at the age of 35.

Marrant's autobiographical writings would document a life seemingly twice that length in experience, a life throughout which he vigorously sought to build a new society worthy of salvation in the Nova Scotia wilderness around the Black Loyalists who fled there after the Revolutionary War. "Marrant did not see Zion built upon his lifetime," observed one commentator. "No prophet, save Enoch, ever has. But he succeeded in constructing a people, a Zion discourse, and a common sense of expectation" (Brooks 1). On at least two major occasions Marrant had to reconstruct his identity in sermon and print, first at his ordination ceremony, when his sermon was chronicled for publication by William Aldridge and Samuel Whitchurch, and again upon the publication of his exploits as a missionary evangelical to the people of Nova Scotia in his 1790 Journal of the Reverend John Marrant.

Marrant engaged in the spread of Christianity tailored to the specific social and political needs of Africans and African Americans living throughout the Atlantic world. Calvinism was at the foundation of his theology, but the tradition as it was being articulated and practiced at the time was not adequate to the circumstances he wanted to address in his ministry. Therefore, the doctrines he developed and espoused were interpretations of Calvinism that addressed the specific social and spiritual needs of English-speaking Black people living throughout the Atlantic world. Principles of equality and social justice grew out of the revolutionary discourse of his time and were foundational in the thinking and practice of Black Revolutionaries and Black Loyalists alike (Root & Branch 156-58). (1) Marrant combined an emphasis on political equality and social justice with a reworked tradition of the covenanted community. The theology that resulted illustrates the roots of Black religion in America, a religion both of tradition and progressive social change.

Like many of his Calvinist predecessors, Marrant elaborated on and developed American Calvinism to address better the issues of the time. However, his subscription to orthodoxy on a number of issues put him in line with many of his English and British American contemporaries. One major challenge to orthodox Calvinism during the first Great Awakening of 1734-1740 was "Arminianism," or the general belief that humans had the capacity to initiate the process of salvation through their own will. Jonathan Edwards believed his revival work to be a corrective to Arminianism, which he regarded as doctrinal error. …

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