Lift Every Voice: African American Oratory, 1787-1900

By Philip S. Foner; Robert James Branham | Go to book overview

2 YOU STAND ON THE LEVEL WITH THE GREATEST KINGS ON EARTH

John Marrant

The extraordinary, if brief, life of John Marrant, perhaps the first ordained black minister to preach in the United States, began in New York on June 15, 1755. Following the death of his father four years later, Marrant and his mother moved first to St. Augustine and then settled in Georgia. Marrant learned to read and write before he left school at age eleven. He also became an accomplished musician and performed locally on the violin and French horn. His musical proficiency brought him a steady income but also led him to a life of intemperance that he would later repent. He recounts in his 1785 autobiography, A Narrative of the Lord's Wonderful Dealings With John Marrant, A Black ( London: Gilbert and Plummer): "I was now in my thirteenth year, devoted to pleasure and drinking in iniquity like water, a slave to every vice suited to my nature and years" (7).

According to his autobiography, when Marrant was passing by a crowded meetinghouse where the famous British itinerant George Whitefield was preaching, he was struck "speechless and senseless" to the ground. Later, Whitefield came to him and said, "JESUS CHRIST HAS GOT THEE AT LAST." Marrant remained steadfast in his conversion, despite the disapproval of his family. He contemplated and rejected suicide, then ran away to the wilderness. After spending a few days near starvation, Marrant met and befriended an Indian hunter. When they visited a large Cherokee settlement, however, Marrant was taken prisoner and sentenced to torture and death. According to his own account, his spoken prayers, first in English and then in the Cherokee language, so moved his appointed executioner that he was brought before the king of the Cherokees, whom he subsequently converted. Marrant and the Cherokee king visited the nearby Catawar and Housaw Nations in what proved to be far less successful missionary efforts. Finally, Marrant felt the "invincible desire of returning home" (19). Dressed in animal skins and Indian headdress, he emerged from the woods into the settlements and rejoined his family, who had presumed him dead.

At the outbreak of the American Revolution, Marrant was pressed into service as a musician aboard the British sloop Scorpion. He remained in the British service for nearly seven years and participated in the Battle of Charleston. After he was seriously wounded and hospitalized, Marrant was discharged from the navy. Working for a cotton merchant in London, Marrant felt the call to preach "for the salvation of my

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