Remembering America's First Published African American Writer

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October 17 is the 300th birthday of America's first published African American writer, Jupiter Hammon. Hammon is little known today, his reputation far exceeded by later African American antislavery writers such as Frederick Douglass. But Hammon deserves to be remembered as a pioneer for generations of African Americans who used Christian principles to assert the dignity of slaves.

Hammon was born into slavery on Long Island, New York, in 1711. We don't know much about Hammon's early life as he toiled for a wealthy Anglican family. As a young man, however, he became a lay preacher for the local African American community. Long Island was one of the epicenters of evangelical growth during the Great Awakening, which began when Hammon was in his thirties. Unlike many of the established pastors of the colonies, the new evangelical itinerants made a concerted effort to reach enslaved and free African Americans with the gospel of salvation. Some African American converts became lay "exhorters," speaking extemporaneously in revival meetings. Some like Hammon worked as preachers themselves. Critics found these developments disconcerting. Boston pastor Charles Chauncy, the greatest opponent of the revivals, wrote dismissively in 1743 that "Women and Girls; yea, Negroes, have taken upon them[selves] to do the Business of Preachers."

In preachers such as Hammon, we find the origins of the most important cultural institution in African American history: the black church. From Hammon to Martin Luther King—indeed, to Barack Obama—the church is where many of the greatest black leaders in American history have found their voice. The church gave them a prophetic testimony of dignity, persistence, and hope. Strangely, however, even for great pastors and civil rights leaders such as Fred Shuttlesworth (who passed away on October 5), the dynamic of faith is often overlooked.

Perhaps this is why Hammon is relatively neglected: he was, at his core, a pastor rather than a social reformer. An Evening Thought (1760), his first published poem,expresses this focus well, opening with the verses,

Salvation comes by Jesus Christ alone,
The only Son of God;

Redemption now to every one,
That love his holy Word.

The poem includes almost no hint of the plight of slaves, save perhaps for the fleeting note that Christ offered salvation to all, both "high and low."

Reading Hammon today, one wishes that he had taken a more vociferous stance against slavery—or, perhaps, that he had been allowed to do so. To Hammon, slavery was regrettable, and the source of much suffering for Africans, but he never quite got around to condemning it. His most famous piece, An Address to the Negroes in the State of New York (1787), was written the same year as the Constitutional Convention. Hammon had witnessed the turmoil and promise of the American Revolution, yet as a seventy-six year old man he expressed little personal interest in freedom. "Though for my own part I do not wish to be free," he said, "yet I should be glad if others, especially the young Negroes, were to be free." This was an acceptable position for a slave to take publicly in New York at that time, and in 1799 New York joined other northern states by passing an emancipation program to gradually phase out slavery.

To Hammon, earthly freedom paled in comparison to the value of spiritual freedom. "Getting our liberty in this world is nothing to our having the liberty of the children of God," he wrote. Here Hammon was following the lead of many white evangelical leaders—Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield included—who believed that you could separate social and spiritual equality. Hammon looked forward to the true liberty of heaven, where "we shall find nobody to reproach us for being black, or for being slaves."

To modern eyes, this is a dissatisfying compromise. Spiritual realities have social consequences, a fact that later African American Christians such as Fred Shuttlesworth helped Americans understand. But we should not expect Jupiter Hammon to have been Fred Shuttlesworth; Hammon was a writer bound by his time and opportunities, just like all mere mortals. His greatest contribution was fostering the growth of the black church and its prophetic voice. Hammon's God was no respecter of persons, and in God's Kingdom there was (according to Galatians 3:28) "neither bond nor free." In America, this idea set the stage for the destruction of slavery.