A Narrative of the Lord’s Wonderful Dealings with John Marrant, a Black, 1785
A Journal of the Rev. John Marrant, from August the 18th, 1785, to the 16th of March, 1790, 1790
John Marrant was born a freeman on June 15, 1755, in the colony of New York; however, his youth was spent in Florida and Georgia, where he received his early schooling. He was noted for playing the violin and the French horn at festive occasions, and by his own later admission he was also known for drinking and having a good time. However, at the age of thirteen and living in Charleston, South Carolina, Marrant’s waywardness came to an abrupt end during a mischievous attempt to disrupt a church service, when he accidentally heard a sermon preached by the Reverend George Whitefield, the great English Evangelical minister. The sermon visibly affected the youth, and he became physically and spiritually ill. Subsequently restored to health by Whitefield himself, who visited him at home and prayed with him until he recovered from his state of despair, Marrant repented and began reading the Scriptures.
Everyone around him, notably most of the members of his family, thought he was crazy, so he decided to leave civilization and wander in the southern wilderness. There Marrant was captured by Cherokee Indians, who threatened his life, but he succeeded in saving both himself and his newly acquired Christian faith. In fact, he found that his trust in God increased and his commitment to a religious life deepened during his captivity. Subsequently, the Cherokees allowed Marrant to travel at will with them.
Living with the Cherokees, Marrant served as a missionary to the various tribal nations in the forest. He adopted Indian styles of dress and became fluent in their languages. He met with little success in his efforts to convert American Indians, however, and thus he decided to return to colonial society. When he arrived back in Charleston, he was unrecognized by everyone except his eleven-year-old sister. Taking up residence with his family, Marrant continued to devote himself to religious activities until the outbreak of the American Revolution.
During the Revolutionary War Marrant was captured by the British, who forced him to serve as a musician aboard their ships. His impressment in the British naval service lasted for nearly seven years, during which time he faced many dangers. At one time he almost drowned, being washed overboard three times during a storm at sea; in 1781 Marrant was wounded in a fierce North Sea battle between the British and Dutch fleets off the Dogger Bank. He was then released from the navy and sent to Plymouth, England, to recover from his wounds.
Marrant spent the next three years working for a cotton merchant in England. He went to visit his family in America, but his decision finally was to seek his religious ministry in England. Thus, in 1785, Marrant began his missionary training at the countess of Huntingdon’s Methodist circle, known as the Connexion. The countess was a well-known patron of many black persons. Her band of adherents followed the teachings of the Reverend George Whitefield, whom Marrant credited with his conversion.
While in England, Marrant was encouraged to relate his life story to the Reverend Mr. William Aldridge, who edited and published the autobiography in London in 1785. Although it immediately received an unfavorable review, Marrant’s work went through six editions in a brief period of time. It was published in the United States in 1789, where it became a celebrated American Indian captivity narrative. Marrant’s popular account was translated into several European languages, including a Welsh version printed in 1818. Editions of the narrative continued to appear well into the nineteenth century. Marrant’s account emphasized the spiritual element in the young black man’s life. He depicted himself as following Christ’s example to the extent that at times Marrant cast himself in the role of a Christ figure. However, the narrative contained many exciting and detailed adventures and encounters, and it was later recognized as a forerunner of the slave-narrative genre in American literature.
After Marrant was ordained a missionary in England, he was sent to Canada to preach to both black and white Methodist congregations. For four years he traveled extensively throughout Nova Scotia, preaching to large numbers of former American slaves who had escaped during the Revolution. Marrant faced many hardships in the Canadian province, where his chief adversaries were warring religious factions and the brutal climate of the northern landscape. Several times his life was threatened, as he underwent physical attacks by unbelievers, near-drownings during sudden storms at sea, bouts of serious illness, and frightening experiences of being lost in the wilderness.
One of his major achievements was the building of a chapel in Birchtown, Nova Scotia, which Marrant helped construct before departing for New England in 1789. In Boston, he became associated with Prince Hall, the founder of the African Masonic Lodge. For about a year, Marrant preached successfully to large crowds of people before returning to England in 1790.
During his five years in America, Marrant kept a detailed record of his missionary efforts by writing a “transaction” of his experiences whenever he had a free moment to jot down his thoughts. This record of his missionary labors was published in London in 1790. Marrant’s journal gave a remarkable personal description of concrete and vivid details of frontier life in the rough country of Nova Scotia. It presented readers with a sense of the stark realities of the frozen wilderness. Marrant depicted himself as journeying over the land, bringing the warm light of God’s truth to the inhabitants. Marrant’s journal did not have the impact on the reading public of its day that his earlier book had. It was rarely read after its 1790 publication. Marrant died the following year and was buried on Church Street in Islington, a borough of London.