An African American Who Gave A Beat To Methodist Preaching c.1750-c.1806
By John G. McEllhenney
“I really believe he [Harry Hoosier] is one of the best preachers in the world,” was the opinion of Thomas Coke, who, along with Francis Asbury, was one of American Methodism’s first two bishops. “There is such an amazing power attends his preaching, though he cannot read; and he is one of the humblest creatures I ever saw.”
In spite of such accolades, even the bare facts of Hosier’s life elude historians, who must therefore sprinkle probabilities throughout their narratives. Born about 1750, perhaps as a plantation slave, maybe in North Carolina, he experienced Christian conversion at some point and became Asbury’s traveling companion. Soon he began to exhort after the sermon, urging the listeners to apply the preacher’s words to their lives. Later, he was the principal speaker at services.
He and Richard Allen were the two non-voting African American representatives at the 1784 Christmas Conference, which officially organized American Methodism. Probably wine overthrew Hosier for a time. Recovering, he died, one authority says, “happy in the Lord” about 1806. Another specifies that his funeral was May 18, 1806, with burial in Philadelphia.
What transcends the biographical probabilities is the impression “Black Harry” made on the minds and hearts of those who heard him. Henry Boehm and Freeborn Garrettson, both ordained Methodist ministers, provide ear-witness accounts.
Boehm writes: “Harry was very black, an African of the Africans. He was so illiterate he could not read a word. He would repeat the hymn as if reading it, and quote his text with great accuracy. His voice was musical, and his tongue as the pen of a ready writer. He was unboundedly popular, and many would rather hear him than the bishops.”
Garrettson’s narrative helps us place Hosier within America’s race-conscious culture. Garrettson, following his conversion, found himself dejected. Then one Sunday as he led family prayers, a thought penetrated his melancholy gloom: “It is not right for you to keep your fellow creatures in bondage.” Whereupon he told his slaves they were free. Later, Hosier, a former slave, and Garrettson, a former owner of slaves, ministered together. Garrettson, however, always called him “Harry,” never brother Hosier, as he did with white preachers.
Traveling around the Delmarva Peninsula, Garrettson reports: Sunday, March 7, 1784—”Harry met me, and preached after I ended;” the next day—”as there was a degree of persecution against Harry I thought it expedient to leave him behind.” Six years later, 1790, on his way to Boston, Garrettson records: “The people of this circuit are amazingly fond of hearing Harry.” Another entry uncovers the limits of Hosier’s acceptability: “I got into Boston and boarded Harry at the master Mason for the Africans, and I took my own lodgings with a private gentleman.” Some days later, in Providence, Rhode Island, “Harry preached in the meeting house to more than one thousand people;” on another occasion, “Harry preached after me with much applause.”
Hosier illustrates the point made by a late twentieth-century scholar, who declares that American Methodism “relied much less on the written word than on that which was spoken . . . . Methodist preachers…were remembered first of all for their preaching and for the spontaneous verbal responses of their congregations—the shouts, the groans, the sobs of persons brought together to express their most interior and private thoughts.”
This Handout is provided to you by the NC Conference Commission on Archives and History. You may adapt it for use as a bulletin insert at your Local Church.The article is used, by permission, from the General Commission on Archives and History for The United Methodist Church. More historical information is available from the archives page of the NC Conference website.