For centuries now, there has been much debate about the first manifestations of Christian devotion among blacks in America. The teachings of Christ encountered many obstacles to permeating into black communities, mainly because of restrictions imposed upon slaves during the precolonial era. However, and as usual, the Gospel proved to be more powerful than any schemes of men, giving way to the immensely blessed black churches of today.
The first attempts to propagate the Gospel among African slaves began in 1701. A missionary organization that was part of the Church of England called The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (or SPG), arrived in America with the mission to expand its religious dominance in British colonies. They continued their work for thirty years and even brought Reverend John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement to aid them in their efforts. He was a powerful advocate against the slave trade as he saw it as “the sum of all villanies”, and even encouraged women to lead classes and preach. However, the SPG didn´t have any substantive success, either among Native Americans or African slaves.
It was in 1738 when George Whitefield, another founding father of Methodism along with Wesley, came to America for a preaching tour that would be part of the Great Awakening movement. Whitefield´s words would rekindle the need for individual piety and religious devotion in the Colonies and would change Protestantism forever.
Whitefield´s speeches were famed for gathering tens of thousands of people. We must remember that this was prior to the invention of microphones and modern amplification systems, so it was considered quite a feat. Even Benjamin Franklin put this tale to the test. While Whitefield delivered one of his compelling speeches at the Philadelphia courthouse, Franklin walked away and across the street until he could barely hear Whitefield preaching, and calculated that he could be heard in an area that would easily hold 30,000 souls.
John Marrant, the first ordained black preacher to wear a preaching suit
The history of John Marrant is an interesting tale as it serves to illustrate the power of The Word, and how it can change history forever.
Born in 1755 as a free black in New York, John Marrant didn't have an easy life. His father died when he was four, and his family moved to the southern colonies. They stayed in Florida for a season, then moved to Georgia during the Seven Years' War as it was still British Territory. When Marrant was eleven, his family moved again to South Carolina. Young Marrant continued his education, although it was not particularly religious focusing on learning the carpentry trade. He did enjoy music and became proficient in playing the French Horn and the violin, which allowed him to play at many of the social gatherings of the time.
According to many sources, Marrant and a friend were on their way to a party armed with his French Horn when they saw a large gathering inside a church. His friend dared Marrant to enter the church and interrupt the sermon by way of his wind instrument, and Marrant gladly obliged. This shows a hitherto careless spirit and disregard for the sacred, which makes many believe the following scene was remarkably awe-inspiring.
John Marrant entered the venue and that's when he heard one of George Whitefield´s powerful sermons for the first time. It is said that the powerful voice of Reverend Whitefield uttering the words “Prepare to meet thy GOD, O Israel,” caused such an impact on Marrant that he was said to be struck to the ground and passed out.
The narrative recounts how Marrant would not taste food and would survive with only water for the following three days. He would then talk with Whitefield, and pray with him to be relieved of his guilt. Many have drawn resemblances between this episode and the conversion of Paul during his journey to Damascus where he was struck by a light from heaven that led to his conversion to Christianity. But the truth is that it was such a profound experience to Marrant that it made him dedicate his life to the study of the Bible and the propagation of the Gospel.
As often happens in history, Marrant´s conversion and passionate beliefs were not well received among his family and acquaintances. He soon became unwelcomed at home and was forced to flee to Indian territory where he was rescued by a Cherokee hunter who took him to a nearby village. The elders sentenced him to death, but he won forgiveness through prayer. Some recounts state that Marrant converted his captors to his faith, and won a place among them for two years, creating lasting bonds between Native Americans and black communities.
When the American Revolutionary War started, John Marrant was kidnapped and enlisted by the Royal Navy. His musical abilities allowed him to serve as company musician for six years among what was then called the Black Loyalists. He was in London when he was discharged, so decided to visit Reverend Whitehead and tell him of his conversion and experiences.
He was soon convinced to join the ministry of the Huntingdon's Connexion, and start his path to becoming a priest, while he worked for a clothing merchant in London. That´s a tradition we proudly follow here at Divinity Clergy Wear where we offer the best preaching suits for anglican denominations.
John Marrant was ordained in 1795, becoming the first black pastor in history. He came back to America wearing his preaching suit and settled in Nova Scotia to serve the largest new black community where he founded a Huntingdonian church where he led countless souls towards genuine conversions. He also published his account in A narrative of the Lord’s wonderful dealings with John Marrant, a black, a book that would become one of the most influential writings of contemporary black literature.
The black church has not stopped growing since the days of Marrant, and today it is stronger than ever. Pentecostal denominations like the Church Of God In Christ, founded at the beginning of the twentieth century, now carry the torch once lit by those like John Marrant.