Remembering Preacher and Underground Railroad Conductor Josiah Henson, the Inspiration Behind ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’

Mr. Josiah Henson, a fugitive slave & the original of Mrs. B. Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He is now in his 88th year, & his sufferings, energy, patient endurance, & his anxiety for the good of his suffering brethren, are admirable… this most remarkable old man… who was during 41 years a slave, enduring great sufferings & cruelty & endowed with wonderful courage, energy & patience. He said he had had a very suffering tried life, but had, thanks to me, been able to reach a free country & live there.” —Queen Victoria’s diary, March 1877

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a smashing success. The gripping exposé of slavery sold 3,000 copies on its first day in print, and Frederick Douglass reported that 5,000 copies—the entire first print run—were purchased within four days. Within six weeks, The Boston Morning Post declared that “everybody has read it, is reading, or is about to read it.” According to reports at the time, it took 17 printing presses running around the clock to keep up with demand. By the end of its first year in print, the book had sold over 300,000 copies in the United States alone, going on to become the best-selling book of the 19th century aside from the Bible.

The plot of Stowe’s bestseller centers around an indebted farmer and his favorite slave, a kind and humble middle-aged Christian man named Uncle Tom. The farmer is eventually forced to sell Tom south, where he is eventually killed when he refuses to disclose the whereabouts of two escapees. The backlash against the novel was immediate and fierce. Critics insisted that slavery was sanctioned in the Bible and that Stowe had fabricated an unrealistic, one-dimensional picture of slavery in the South. She was slammed as a socialist, anti-Christian, and ugly.

In response to the allegations, Stowe released The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. A giant annotated bibliography of her sources, the book pointed to hundreds of documented cases of real-life incidents that were similar or identical to those portrayed in her story. “The character of Uncle Tom has been objected to as improbable; and yet the writer has received more confirmations of that character, and from a great variety of sources, than of any other in the book,” wrote Stowe.

Who was the man who inspired Stowe’s Uncle Tom? “The venerable Josiah Henson,” wrote Stowe. “Now pastor of the missionary settlement at Dawn, in Canada.” Within days, Henson, a former enslaved laborer, now aging Methodist minister, catapulted to international fame.

Born a Slave

Josiah Henson was born near Port Tobacco, Maryland, around 1789. His first memories were witnessing his father’s punishment; he was whipped, his ear cut off, and he was sold south—all as punishment for striking a white man who had attempted to rape his wife. Henson never saw his father again.

Henson was soon separated from his mother and sold to a child trafficker but quickly fell deathly ill. The slave trader offered the boy to Henson’s mother’s owner, an alcoholic gambler named Isaac Riley, for a bargain: free of charge if the young Henson died, a barter of some horseshoeing work if he survived.

But he did recover, and Henson and his mother, Celia, became the property of Riley, who lived about 12 miles from Washington, DC. On the plantation, he endured countless beatings as a child—especially after an ill-fated attempt to learn to read.

Henson had great physical strength and leadership ability and eventually became Riley’s market man in the nation’s capital. As the person in charge of selling all his master’s farm produce, he rubbed shoulders with eminent lawyers and entrepreneurs and learned the skills of running a business.

Faith Found

John McKenny lived in Georgetown, just a few miles from Isaac Riley’s plantation. A baker by trade, McKenny detested slavery and refused to hire slave labor from any of the hundreds of renters in the state. He worked with his own hands, along with whatever hired free labor he could afford.

One day in 1807, Henson’s mother learned that McKenny was set to officiate the Sunday service at a church less than four miles from Isaac’s plantation. Celia wanted her 18-year-old son to have a relationship with God, but he’d shown little interest in faith. Undeterred, she encouraged him to see McKenny preach.

After getting permission from Isaac Riley, Henson walked the forest path to the meeting at Newport Mill. But when Henson approached the door, he was turned away for being black. He circled the building, then stood in the doorway and listened, transfixed; Henson had never heard a sermon before. McKenny preached passionately about the character of Jesus, asking the congregation to consider what kind of man dies for his enemies or sacrifices himself for others? The baker insisted that Christ died “for every man,” repeating the phrase throughout his sermon.

McKenny opened his Bible and thumbed toward the New Testament as he spoke, landing at Hebrews 2:9. He raised his hands and looked toward the ceiling. “Jesus Christ, the Son of God, tasted death for every man; for the high, for the low, for the rich, for the poor, the bond, the free, the negro in his chains, the man in gold and diamonds.” Every man. It was the first Bible verse Henson had ever heard and he later wrote that in that moment he had been “transported with delicious joy.” Indeed, Henson’s conversion to Christ would change the trajectory of his life and the course of history.

A Preacher Rises

Little is known about the immediate aftermath of his conversion but by the age 20, Henson had become a respected preacher in his local slave community. But he had chosen a path that would prove difficult and fraught with conflict. The Christianity of enslaved people was both visible and invisible, organized formally and arising spontaneously. Sunday worship in a local church building—during which slaves were often lectured about obeying authority and not stealing—was sometimes followed by informal, and sometimes illicit, prayer meetings in the slave cabins or in the woods.

While some masters allowed or even encouraged their slaves to preach, others were vehemently against it. Preaching at secret meetings could result in flogging or worse. Sometimes owners applied brine to a victim’s bleeding back, a practice known as being “pickled.”

In situations where attendance was forbidden, enslaved Christians who wanted to worship did their best to avoid getting caught. They met in forests, thickets, or ravines, which came to be called “hush harbors.” One slave preacher, Kalvin Woods, recalled how they would hang up wet quilts around them like a “little room,” “to keep the sound of their voices from penetrating the air.”

Religious services—whether permitted by owners or conducted in secret—provided slaves with a welcome respite from incessant labor. They offered companionship and some measure of hope. The slaves could, for a fleeting moment, forget their misery. Faith helped them overcome the weakness they felt as individuals, as they felt stronger and safer as a group protected under the eyes of God.

At times, Christianity undoubtedly acted as an opiate, keeping slaves content with the hope of a higher power and a better future. But it also provided slaves with a bedrock strength against the hardships of their unavoidable reality.

As Henson began to preach, he struggled with the possibility that he was perhaps complicit in perpetuating the institution of slavery. Black preachers were often trained by white pastors who actively supported slavery and were deeply suspicious of insurrection. They often were forced to preach a careful, censored gospel and omit mention of freedom or the humanity of all humankind. Under the supervision of the white ruling class, many black preachers joined their masters in urging slaves to be obedient and submissive, telling them to wait patiently for their reward in heaven.

Henson was not formally trained in theology, of course, but he was an incredibly compelling preacher. Despite the fact that he could neither read nor write, he memorized verses as quickly as he heard them shared by others. Like many other slave preachers, he relied on his natural wit and eloquence to make up for his lack of theological training. He spoke passionately of his own sinfulness and imperfection, and as he labored to improve himself, he inspired those around him to do the same.

After three years of observation, practice, prayer, and quiet mentorship by a white preacher, Henson was admitted as a minister in the Methodist Episcopal Church.

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Source: Christianity Today