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“Put a Rattlesnake into Her Bosom”: Highlights from Black Authors, 1556-1922

Posted on 11/03/2015

Mary Frances McCray (1837-1898)The October release of Black Authors, 1556-1921: Imprints from the Library Company of Philadelphia includes an intriguing sermon by Lemuel Haynes (1753-1833), a former indentured servant and minuteman who became a groundbreaking African American pastor. Also included is the biography of Mary Frances McCray (1837-1898), a slave until her mid-twenties who became the first African American female preacher of the Methodist Church in the Dakota Territory, and a compelling slave narrative published in Canada by the little-known William H.H. Johnson.

Universal Salvation: A Very Ancient Doctrine (1821)

By Lemuel Haynes, A.M.

Lemuel Haynes was an influential religious leader and the first African-American pastor of a white congregation, first in Torrington, Connecticut, in 1785 and again in Rutland, Vermont where he remained for much of his life.

Prefacing this sermon on Universal Salvation, Haynes offers what could be called a universal truth.

There is no greater folly than for men to express anger and resentment because their religious sentiments are attacked. If their characters are impeached by their own creed, they only are to blame. All that the antagonists can say, cannot make falsehoods truth, nor truth falsehood.

Haynes then proceeds to argue that Original Sin was committed under the seduction of the devil who had preached, and still does, that “Ye shall not surely die.” Haynes then equates that with the promise of everlasting life, claiming:

…if [ministers] preach, ye shall not surely die, they only make use of the devil’s old notes, that he delivered almost six thousand years ago.

Life of Mary F. McCray: Born and Raised a Slave in the State of Kentucky (1898)

By S.J. McCray and Mack McCray

Mary Frances McCray became a leader in the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Lima, Ohio, and the first African American female preacher of the Methodist Church in the Dakota Territory. Her biography, written by her son and husband, not only recounts her life from her birth as a slave to her death in her own home but also a curious pro-temperance message.

In their preface, the authors describe “the dark days of slavery” as “a terrible curse on the American people.” They add:

But at the present time there is a greater curse on this nation than the enslavement of the colored race, that is, the awful curse of the liquor traffic, which touches every man, woman and child. Many volumes might be written on this terrible curse, but it would be impossible to begin to tell of the suffering it begins to the human family. We say sometimes, Oh, Lord, how long wilt thou let this go on?

Following the biography’s final chapter is the authors’ advice on childrearing and marriage. Of the latter they write:

…the temper and habits of each should be carefully studied. If a man is very quick tempered and marries a woman of similar nature they will never live happily together, especially if the man takes a drink of whiskey occasionally. If the woman finds out before their marriage that the man drinks she had better break the engagement. If she does not, she might just as well put a rattlesnake into her bosom and say that it would not bite her as to think of living happily with a man that will drink.                                  

The Life of Wm. H.H. Johnson from 1839 to 1900: And the New Race (1904)

By William H.H. Johnson

Johnson’s autobiography begins,

The history of my life, which I am about to record, is one full of romantic incidents that a great many have not experienced, and as I look back on it through the space of sixty years, I wonder sometimes that I am yet alive. My rescue from bondage, and escape to a Christian land, all now appears to me like a dream.

Johnson tells of not only his life but also of a “new race” comprised of his fellow emancipated slaves:

So the history of the new race, full of sorrow, blood and tears, is also laden with instruction for mankind. Brought from our native land into the United States, against our will; made the hewers of wood, and the drawers of water, considered in the light of law, and public opinion, as mere chattel—things to be bought and sold at the will of the owner. Driven to their unrequited toil by unfeeling men, the condition of my people was indeed a sad lot to contemplate....The name of ‘New Race’ was given to my people in San Domingo when they gained their independence in the year of 1803, and strange to say, the same name was also given to us, after the emancipation in the United States, sixty years later. So let freedom reign in all the world.

Johnson also acknowledges the role of Africans in the slave trade, writing:

My own people, it is said, also owned slaves, and I have been informed that they treated their bondsmen quite as ill as any of the whites did. I mention this thing, and other matters relating to the New Race, in these pages with sorrow; and although some people may be incredulous, the facts nevertheless remain. Let me also further remark that slavery, ever since it existed, has been upheld and sustained just as much by the African kings and their headmen as by any others; because, having fallen beneath the dignity of their high position, the came to delight in trafficking in their own people, and even their offspring, selling the unhappy victims for a mere song.

In describing his personal story as “full of romantic incidents that a great many have not experienced,” Johnson does not exaggerate.

For more information about Black Authors, 1556-1922, or to request a trial for your institution, please contact

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