An Antislavery Message from 1776 by the Nation’s First Black Ordained Minister

By Koa Sinag

An Antislavery Message from 1776 by the Nation’s First Black Ordained Minister

The following is an excerpt from “Liberty Further Extended,” a manuscript that Lemuel Haynes penned in 1776 which attacked the slave trade and upheld the liberty that is equally precious to each and every person. The essay is included in its entirety in Selected Sermons, part of the Crossway Short Classics series.

Liberty as a Jewel

As tyranny had its origin from the infernal regions, so it is the duty and honor of every son of freedom to repel her first motions. But while we are engaged in the important struggle, it cannot be thought impertinent for us to turn one eye into our own breast for a little moment and see whether through some inadvertency or a self-contracted spirit we do not find the monster lurking in our own bosom, that now while we are inspired with so noble a spirit and becoming zeal, we may be disposed to tear her from us. If the following would produce such an effect, the author should rejoice.

It is evident, by ocular demonstration, that man by his depravity has procured many corrupt habits that are detrimental to society. And although there is a way prescribed whereby man may be reinstated into the favor of God, yet these corrupt habits are not extirpated, nor can the subject of renovation boast of perfection, till he leaps into a state of immortal existence. Yet it has pleased the majesty of heaven to exhibit his will to men and endow them with an intellect that is susceptible of speculation. Yet, as I observed before, man, in consequence of the fall, is liable to digressions. But to proceed.

Liberty and freedom are innate principles that are unmovebly placed in the human species, and to see a man aspire after them is not enigmatical, seeing he acts no ways incompatible with his own nature. Consequently, he who would infringe upon a man’s liberty may reasonably expect to meet with opposition, seeing the defendant cannot comply to nonresistance unless he counteracts the very laws of nature.

Liberty is a jewel that was handed down to man from the cabinet of heaven and is coequal with his existence. And as it proceeds from the supreme legislature of the universe, so it is he who has a sole right to take it away. Therefore, he that would take away a man’s liberty assumes a prerogative that belongs to another and acts out of his own domain.

One man may boast a superiority above another in point of natural privilege; yet if he can produce no convincing arguments in vindication of this preeminence, his hypothesis is to be suspected. To affirm that an Englishman has a right to his liberty is a truth that has been so clearly evinced, especially of late, that to spend time in illustrating this would be but superfluous tautology. But I query whether liberty is so contracted a principle as to be confined to any nation under heaven; nay, I think it not hyperbolical to affirm that even an African has equally as good a right to his liberty in common with Englishmen.

The Origin of Privilege

I know that those who are concerned in the slave trade do pretend to bring arguments in vindication of their practice; yet if we give them a candid examination, we shall find them (even those of the most cogent kind) to be essentially deficient. We live in a day wherein liberty and freedom are the subjects of many millions’ concern, and the important struggle has already caused great effusion of blood. Men seem to manifest the most sanguine resolution not to let their natural rights go without their lives go with them—a resolution, one would think, everyone that has the least love for his country or future posterity would fully confide in. Yet while we are so zealous to main tain and foster our own invaded rights, it cannot be thought impertinent for us to candidly reflect on our own conduct, and I doubt not but that we shall find that subsisting in the midst of us that may with propriety be styled oppression, nay, much greater oppression than that which Englishmen seem so much to spurn at. I mean an oppression that they themselves impose upon others.

It is not my business to inquire into every particular practice that is practiced in this land that may come under this odious character. But what I have in view is humbly to offer some free thoughts on the practice of slave keeping. Oppression is neither spoken of nor ranked in the sacred oracles among the least of those sins that are the procuring cause of those signal judgments that God is pleased to bring upon the children of men. Therefore let us attend. I mean to write with freedom, yet with the greatest submission.

And the main proposition that I intend for some brief illustration is this, namely, that an African— or, in other terms, that a Negro—may justly challenge and has an undeniable right to hisfreedom and liberty. Consequently, the practice of slave keeping that so much abounds in this land is illicit.

Every privilege that mankind enjoys has its origin from God, and whatever acts are passed in any earthly court that are derogatory to those edicts that are passed in the court of heaven, the act is void.If I have a particular privilege granted to me by God and the act is not revoked nor the power that granted the benefit vacated (as it is impossible but that God should ever remain immutable), then he who would infringe upon my benefit assumes an unreasonable and tyrannic power.

Every privilege that mankind enjoys has its origin from God . . .

It has pleased God to “ma[k]e of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth” (Acts 17:26). And as all are of one species, so there are the same laws and aspiring principles placed in all nations; and the effects that these laws will produce are similar to each other. Consequently, we may suppose that what is precious to one man is precious to another, and what is irksome or intolerable to one man is so to another, considered in a law of nature. Therefore we may reasonably conclude that liberty is equally as precious to a Black man as it is to a White one,and bondage equally as intolerable to the one as it is to the other, seeing as it affects the laws of nature equally as much in the one as it does in the other. But, as I observed before, those privileges that are granted to us by the Divine Being, no one has the least right to take from us without our consent; and there is not the least precept or practice in the sacred Scriptures that constitutes a Black man a slave any more than a White one.

Shall a man’s color be the decisive criterion whereby to judge of his natural right? Or, because a man is not of the same color with his neighbor, shall he be deprived of those things that distinguish him from the beasts of the field?

I would ask, whence is it that an Englishman is so far distinguished from an African in point of natural privilege? Did he receive it in his original constitution? Or by some subsequent grant? Or does he boast of some higher descent that gives him this preeminence? For my part I can find no such revelation. It is a lamentable consequence of the fall that mankind has an insatiable thirst after superiority one over another, so that however common or prevalent the practice may be, it does not amount, even to a circumstance, that the practice is warrantable.

God has been pleased to distinguish some men from others as to natural abilities but not as to natural right as they came out of his hands. But sometimes men by their flagitious practice forfeit their liberty into the hands of men by becoming unfit for society. But have the Africansever as a nation forfeited their liberty in this manner? Whatever individuals have done, yet, I believe, no such challenge can be made upon them as a body. As there should be some rule whereby to govern the conduct of men, so it is the duty and interest of a community to form a system of law that is calculated to promote the commercial interest of each other, and as long as it produces so blessed an effect, it should be maintained. But when, instead of contributing to the well-being of the community, it proves baneful to its subjects over whom it extends, then it is high time to call it in question. Should any ask where we shall find any system of law whereby to regulate our moral conduct, I think there is none so explicit and indefinite as that which was given by the blessed Savior of the world: “Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you: do ye even so to them” (see Matt. 7:12). One would think that the mention of the precept would strike conviction to the heart of these slave traders—unless an avaricious disposition governs the laws of humanity. If we strictly adhere to the rule, we shall not impose anything upon others but what we should be willing to have imposed upon us were we in their condition.

I shall now go on to consider the manner in which the slave trade is carried on, by which it will plainly appear that the practice is vile and atrocious as well as the most inhuman. It is undoubtedly true that those who emigrate slaves from Africado endeavor to raise mutinies among them in order to procure slaves. Here I would make use of some extracts from a pamphlet printed in Philadelphia a few years ago, the veracity of which need not be scrupled, seeing it agrees with many other accounts.

This article is adapted from Selected Sermons by Lemuel Haynes.

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