“He that despises a black man for the sake of his colour, reproacheth his Maker . . .”
Prince Hall’s speech to the African Lodge demonstrates the efforts of freed blacks throughout the early history of the United States, particularly those residing in the North, to abolish slavery and improve African American life. After the American Revolution, several northern states, including Massachusetts, implemented gradual emancipation laws. As a result, the number of free blacks in the North increased significantly. Former slaves worked to foster black communities, building benevolent institutions to help support struggling African Americans. The African Lodge, formed in 1784 by Hall, was one such institution. Calling attention to traditional Christian principles, such as God’s love and brotherhood, Hall argued that slavery ran counter to Masonic mores. Hall’s address remains significant because it articulates some of the earliest attempts by African Americans to set forth intellectual and religious arguments against slavery.
In the eighteenth century, there were dramatic changes to intellectual, social, cultural, and political currents. The works of Enlightenment thinkers such as Jean Jacques Rousseau, Montesquieu, and John Locke made transatlantic voyages, influencing Americans like Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. Increasing literacy, the proliferation of print culture, and more reliable transportation methods aided in spreading ideas. One can find variations of America’s Declaration of Independence (1776) in France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789).
Guarantees of personal liberty and freedom reached the eyes and ears of Africans and African Americans enslaved in colonial North America. During the American Revolution, some blacks assumed, or at least hoped, that whites would extend promises of freedom to slaves. Royal governor Lord Dunmore extended an offer of freedom to slaves in 1775, in exchange for joining forces with the British. Some American revolutionaries followed suit, promising to grant manumission to their slaves after the war. Several northern states did implement gradual emancipation laws. Slavery in Massachusetts, for example, died with Commonwealth v. Jennison (1783). New York passed a gradual emancipation bill in 1799. Children born to slaves after 1799 earned their freedom at different points in their twenties.
An increasing population of free blacks in the North had varying consequences for both blacks and whites. Emancipation laws in the North, for example, induced some slaves to run away from their masters in the South and seek havens in the burgeoning black communities of the North. Freedom could present a host of challenges to blacks. Most former slaves lacked education and therefore could not read or write. Those who found work often labored in menial jobs, such as seasonal dock labor. Vagrancy laws worked against unemployed blacks and threatened to expel them from the state. Late eighteenth-century images that dehumanized blacks added to whites’ perceptions of blacks as incapable of self-sufficiency.
Benevolent societies, particularly black churches, emerged in response to these crises. Hall’s Masonic Lodge also worked to undermine perceptions of black inferiority. Though believed to have a tradition dating back to the fourteenth century, Freemasonry spread to the North American colonies in the eighteenth century. Freemasonry was an exclusive fraternal organization that required acceptance from one’s peers to join. That Hall received an official charter from the Grand Lodge in London in 1787 to form an African Lodge amid a highly racialized society is unique. Hall’s speech in 1792 is particularly timely and runs concurrent with the other movements that sought to challenge traditional hierarchies. Hall’s speech draws on Enlightenment ideals in addition to traditional Masonic rhetoric of personal liberty and fraternity.
Prince Hall was born in 1735, but information about his parentage, place of birth, and early life is largely unknown. He served as a slave under Boston leather dresser William Hall from 1749 to 1770, when his manumission papers were signed by the Halls. In addition to running the African Lodge, Prince Hall supported himself as a leather dresser. At the time of the American Revolution, he resided in Boston.
Muster roles for the American Revolution identify two individuals, both named Prince Hall, as having served for the Continental Army. Hall may have served in the army during the revolution, though it is impossible to know for sure. By the time war broke out, Hall was about forty years of age, and for a brief period in 1775, the white revolutionaries permitted blacks to fight alongside them.
Hall’s relationship to Freemasonry crystallized in 1775 when the Irish Military Lodge No. 441 inducted him and other freed men into their order. Though the war strained Masonic relations between England and the colonies, Hall nevertheless wrote to the British Grand Lodge in 1784, seeking a charter to form the first African lodge in America. In 1887, Hall received his charter and formed the African Lodge No. 459. Members met at Hall’s residence once each month. In the same year, Hall signed his name to a document requesting assistance of the General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to help former slaves return to Africa. Moreover, in a letter to the state government, he decried the illegal practices of ship captains who enslaved free black men, women, and children in northern cities.
The African Lodge became a space for blacks to address concerns and search for solutions to improve their status. Immediately upon receipt of his charter, Hall wrote to the Grand Lodge in London asking for permission to grant charters for additional African lodges in America. Throughout his life, Hall maintained regular correspondence with the Grand Lodge in London, sending them copies of his charges or information on other Masonic lodges.
Hall’s level of education should be noted. Existing sources do not reveal details about how he obtained an education, but his writings and those of his contemporaries reveal that he was well versed in biblical matters and highly regarded among whites and blacks. In the late 1790s, with other black leaders, Hall worked to establish a school for black children, which, they hoped, would counter the economic challenges faced by many in the black community. On December 4, 1807, Hall died, leaving behind a vibrant Masonic lodge for subsequent black men to join and find community therein.
On June 25, 1792, Hall delivered an address to the African Lodge, a Masonic organization consisting solely of freed black men. Hall’s speech, though given to a black audience, had broader implications for late eighteenth-century Bostonian society. Printed and sold at a reasonable price, Hall’s speech reached more people than those present at the gathering. In his talk, he articulates the duties required of all Masons, finding that brothers who engaged in vice or immoral activities undermine the legitimacy of the lodge. Hall identifies belief in God and God’s love as core Masonic elements. Using divine generosity as an example, Hall urges his lodge to imitate God’s love in their interactions with others. Moreover, he traces blacks’ lineage to early Christian leaders in order to delegitimize slavery. Taken collectively, Hall’s speech calls for a dramatic revision of American society that favored equality, liberty, and brotherhood above division.
Despite receiving an official charter (dated September 1784 but not received until April 1787) from the Grand Lodge of England, the African Lodge struggled for recognition from its white brethren. In response, Hall urges black Masons not to break with Masonic mores. During the festival of St. John the Baptist in 1792, he reminds his audience that brothers who broke with Masonic values harmed the lodge’s public image. Morally ambiguous members, he explains, could weaken the entire unit and further delegitimize their existence in the eyes of skeptical whites. Exercising ethical behavior both inside and outside a Masonic setting, Hall argues, invested the African Lodge with more legitimacy.
Engaging in vice, insists Hall, undermines the legitimacy of the African Lodge and affects its integrity. Forms of licentiousness, including drinking, gambling, and gossiping, run counter to Christian values. In order for the craft to function properly, it requires all members to acquiesce to Masonic mores. The actions of one brother, he explains, reflect the collective whole. Lamenting over some of the actions of the brethren, he exclaims, “What a disgrace . . . to hear that one of our members is at a drinking house . . . or in some worse company.” According to Hall, the title of Mason does not automatically imbue an individual with all the qualities expected of a brother. Rather, the individual must vigilantly protect his moral character and attend lodge meetings regularly. Failing to adhere to Masonic values weakens the foundations of the African Lodge.
Black Masons identified self-control as a key component to a successful lodge. Hall cautions his peers to avoid the temptations of Bacchus, including excessive drinking and dancing, as these activities decreased one’s inhibitions. He insists that lodge meetings not devolve into “feast[s] of Bacchus,” but rather remain committed to traditional Masonic beliefs. Paying attention to late eighteenth-century Bostonian observers can help shed light on Hall’s apprehension over his lodge’s behavior and community perception. Though Commonwealth v. Jennison had ruled against slavery in Massachusetts, social hierarchies based on race remained ingrained for whites. White Bostonians exhibited apprehension over the idea of recognizing a Masonic lodge that was run exclusively by free blacks. Exhibiting virtuous and law-abiding behavior could eventually allow blacks easier navigation in society. Not only does Hall warn against debauchery, drinking, and gambling, but also instructs members to show deference to secular and religious authorities. These signs of respect helped strengthen the African Lodge’s position in the wider society. As a freed black man, Hall rationalizes that compliance with local and national laws marked the surest path for change. Faith in “one Supreme Being,” however, serves as the foundation for black Masons.
Belief in a singular deity is one of the tenets of Freemasonry. Hall notes in his 1792 speech that belief in God is fundamental for a successful Masonic organization. Drawing heavily on Judeo-Christian texts, Hall’s speech provides clues about how he and his brethren conceptualized the “Supreme Being.” Defined as omnipotent, the “great Architect” contributes to and influences every facet of the universe. That God could wield such power and extend his love to his creations inspires Hall and others to uphold what they see as God’s values.
The brethren of the African Lodge acknowledge God’s design in the universe and in their own actions. As the architect of the universe, Hall explains, God not only designed the earth at its inception but also “governs all things here below” and keeps a “watchful eye . . . over all.” Rejecting deist notions that God does not intervene in human affairs, Hall maintains that God “upholds all, and we are dependant upon him for all we do enjoy.” Hall likely considered his manumission as a sign of God’s intervention.
Hall and others were inspired to replicate God’s benevolent love for humankind. Hall identifies God as male, thus positioning men as closer to the Supreme Being than women. Hall locates God at the center of Masonic brotherhood, though humans inhabit inferior positions. Nevertheless, Hall articulates God’s indiscriminate love toward all men. Though humans resemble “poor worms” compared to God’s perfection, Hall concludes that the brethren should attempt to follow his example and extend love to all men.
Hall urges his fellow brethren to live a peaceful life as a way to replicate God’s love. As noted previously, Hall charges Masons to abide by the law. In other words, he wants free blacks to find a nonviolent way to address slavery. Drawing on biblical passages, Hall articulates how their religious predecessors overlooked otherness to replicate God’s compassion. With these examples in hand, Hall identifies how members of the African Lodge can aid their brethren.
Despite continued chattel bondage in the new republic, Hall cautions his group to seek peaceful alternatives as a way to help their enslaved brothers. He asks that they “be good subjects to the laws of the land” and offer no assistance to rebellions, most likely meaning, though not stated explicitly, slave uprisings. Hall and other leading freed blacks turned to alternative, peaceful measures to gain freedoms. In 1787, for example, Hall and dozens of other freed blacks petitioned the Massachusetts government to design a system whereby freed blacks could return to Africa. The late eighteenth century provided an abundance of corroboration for black claims for agency. Transatlantic Enlightenment exchanges, the successful American Revolution that built itself on those ideals, the French Revolution of 1789, and Saint-Domingue slave revolts in Haiti supported freed blacks’ assertions of equality and individual liberty. Nevertheless, Hall proposed that the African Lodge seek change by promoting universal brotherhood.
Hall draws on biblical passages in his June 1792 speech as a tool to promote universal brotherhood. Luke 10:30–37 and Jeremiah 30:7–13 demonstrate the importance of overlooking difference to aid fellow humans. In the first passage, taken from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus relates the story of a traveler from Jerusalem who was beaten and robbed en route to Jericho. Several travelers, Jesus notes, passed by the poor man without extending help or comfort, yet one passerby, a Samaritan, took the wounded man to an inn and paid for his recovery. Hall explains that despite their regional differences, the Samaritan acted more the neighbor to the hurt man than the passersby from Jerusalem.
In his second example, taken from the book of Jeremiah, Hall recalls the “compassion of a blackman” in securing Jeremiah’s safety. Ebed-Melech, a Cushite, intervened on behalf of Jeremiah with his king, despite Jeremiah’s foreignness. In doing so, Hall explains that the Cushite saved the prophet from a certain death. Relating these stories of compassion and pity underscored Hall’s larger message to his lodge—that freed blacks needed to work with whites to change the status of blacks in the new country.
Hall uses biblical images of indiscriminate love to promote universal brotherhood. Masons owed allegiance not just to the lodge. Their actions toward one another as well as their exchanges with non-Masons determined their quality as Masons. Hall asks his brothers to demonstrate “benevolence to all the whole family of mankind.” After all, he reasons, the “great Architect” created everything and everyone, and it is therefore irrational to hate any of God’s designs. In particular, Hall advises the lodge to help those in distress. Aid could come in various forms and be as simple as offering “a cup of cold water” or distributing “Good advice.” Love, he explains, brings men closer to eternal life.
Though Hall spoke directly to a free black population, he intended his message of universal brotherhood for a larger, white audience. Chattel slavery ran counter to the fundamental ideals of Masonry. Jeremy Belknap, a cleric and contemporary of Hall, remarked that white Masons abhorred the idea of a black Masonic lodge since it blurred social hierarchies. Hall challenges these racialized assumptions by recalling blacks’ lineage to North African religious leaders. Though it is unknown whether blacks sought to combine their Masonic lodge with whites, he maintains that slavery had no place in Christianity or the Masonic brotherhood. Additionally, Hall reminds his audience of blacks’ participation with whites in the American Revolution.
Hall draws extensively from examples of early Christians in North Africa to protest the division between blacks and whites in America. In doing so, he questions whether the early and medieval church was divided by race. Tertullian, a native and resident of Carthage, he affirms, defended Christians against charges of treason. Their religious ancestors, Hall remarks, also held positions of power. Cyprian of Carthage, a bishop, heroically “suffer[ed] death than betray his trust and the truth of the gospel.” Hall traces roots back to Saint Augustine, calling him one “of hundreds” among blacks’ ancestors. Referencing Augustine, Hall stresses that temporal luxuries did not compare to eternal life. More important, he highlights that wealth deriving from immoral acts will reflect heavily on one’s soul. Similarly, Hall draws on teachings of Fulgentius, a bishop from Ruspe in North Africa. Fulgentius warned against seeking “durable reward” and “rejoic[ing] ill,” according to Hall. Following Christ’s teachings, which extolled compassion for one’s brethren, Hall explains, would result in temporal and eternal happiness.
Hall stresses that acceptance of the other was key to a healthy Masonic and religious life. Speaking primarily to white Masons (not in attendance), Hall decries the fact that the Masonic lodges remained segregated. He asks those in attendance to consider whether the early Christian church had refused admittance to blacks on account of their otherness or skin color. Differences, as Hall’s example from 2 Kings 6: 22–23 demonstrates, should not create a cleavage between brothers. Violence toward or rejection of any man, Hall asserts, shames God. He underscores this point dramatically, claiming, “He that despises a black man for the sake of his colour, reproacheth his Maker, and he hath resented it.” In stating this, Hall publicly questioned the legitimacy of slavery and racism in a Christian and Masonic setting. Just as forcefully, Hall urges his audience to show “pity and compassion . . . on [the] poor distrest.”
Successful collaboration between whites and blacks, Hall reminds, continued into the eighteenth century. As early as 1707, blacks joined colonial militias, though this was later outlawed. Nevertheless, blacks and whites had a history of working together in colonial America. Historian Ira Berlin notes that some whites in the Chesapeake region in the seventeenth century aided blacks in business ventures, some even becoming partners. Only when the slave economy posed a threat to whites did these exchanges cease.
The American Revolution, moreover, witnessed unprecedented alliances formed between blacks (free and slaves) and whites. Faced with Lord Dunmore’s 1775 proclamation, which granted freedom to slaves who enlisted to fight alongside the British, and with encroaching enemy armies, white colonists begrudgingly accepted slaves and freed blacks into the Continental Army. Hall argues that just as blacks and whites “marched shoulder to shoulder, brother soldier and brother soldier, to the field of battle,” they should continue this precedent and abolish racial hierarchies.
Hall urges his audience to exhibit faith in God’s plans for changing the status of African Americans and asks that they maintain composure and patience. Fulfilling one’s obligations as a Mason would garner God’s favor. Hall recognizes the socioeconomic limitations of some of his brethren, as most were refused any form of education while enslaved. Distance and work obligations, he realizes, could keep Masons from attending meetings regularly. Nevertheless, Hall emphasizes that the foundations they laid in Boston would benefit their heirs exponentially. Indeed, his speech in 1792 germinated ideas of free education for black children in Boston and elsewhere. Most important, his overarching focus on equality through universal brotherhood helped catalyze abolition movements in the late eighteenth century and into the nineteenth century.
Hall’s charge primarily stresses racial equality. He argues that slavery could not exist in an enlightened society. France served as an ideal example of how social inequalities could foment revolution. In 1789, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was published; it, like America’s Declaration of Independence, stipulated the freedom and equality of men. By 1793, mulattoes and slaves in France’s colonies in the Caribbean were calling for political rights. Slaves throughout Saint-Domingue rose up in response to the ideas embedded in that declaration.
Building on these international pressures, blacks in the North continued to press for national emancipation. The foundation Hall laid with the Boston Masonic lodge prompted other blacks throughout free states to form their own lodges and benevolent institutions. Various antislavery societies emerged in the North, including the African Benevolent Society in Newport, Free African Society of Philadelphia, and African Society for Mutual Relief of New York City. Such organizations helped runaway slaves, such as Harriet Ann Jacobs, find employment and reconcile with family. Jacobs, a former slave from North Carolina, was advised to share her experiences with others and penned a memoir appealing to white mothers to take action against slavery.
Accounts like those from Jacobs shifted abolitionist language in the first few decades of the nineteenth century to focus on the brutality of slavery. In 1827, Samuel Cornish and John B. Russwurm published The Freedom’s Journal, the first black newspaper in the United States dedicated to abolishing slavery. Denouncing slavery as an abomination, the editors urged Americans to follow with British policy and abolish slavery. Printed works including Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and American Slavery as It Is (1839) further outlined the cruelties of slavery for its northern audiences. Northern blacks increasingly found allies in their white neighbors. The Grimké sisters, originally from the South, also spoke vehemently against slavery. Though Americans failed to emancipate slaves at the outset of the American Revolution, efforts of men such as Hall aided subsequent generations in articulating and refining arguments for freedom.
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