We are all born with gifts. We all strive in our own way to nurture and share those gifts. Harry Hosier faced longer odds than any of us in this regard. He was born into slavery. He was illiterate. But he managed nonetheless to carve a path through life that saw him seize every opportunity to put his God-given gifts—a prodigious memory and a flair for public speaking—to work in changing people’s lives for the better.
How a Fledgling Faith Led to His Freedom
Hosier was born sometime around 1750. No historian has figured out where, exactly—“somewhere in North Carolina” is a popular bit of guesswork. Nor has any researcher figured out when, exactly, he was sold to an owner in Baltimore. Even the identity of that new owner is uncertain, but a plausible theory points to Harry Dorsey Gough (pronounced “Goff”), whose 2,000-acre plantation ran along the Gunpowder River northeast of the city. In those pre-Revolutionary years, Gough ranked among Maryland’s biggest holders of human “property,” with 70 slaves.
As a young man, Harry was not exactly a sensitive soul. By the time he hit his 20s, he was quite the party animal. His journey to a new path in life began with a marriage to Prudence Carnan, an 18-year-old woman who, through family connections, counted among her friends an ardent young preacher named Francis Asbury. If the name sounds familiar, that’s because Asbury was bound for historical glory in the decades that followed. In time, he would become the much-celebrated “Father of American Methodism.”
But when Gough first met him, Methodism was a strange, newfangled thing. Gough regarded it as a bunch of low-class hooey. While drunk one night in 1775, he and some rowdy friends crashed a “camp meeting” where Asbury was preaching. Their idea of fun involved laughing at the crowd of fools falling down on the forest floor and crying out to Jesus in shouts of gibberish.
But the joke was on Gough. He woke up the next morning contemplating life and its meaning in new, challenging ways. His conversion didn’t happen overnight. There were struggles, backsliding, and even thoughts of suicide ahead. Historian J. Gordon Melton describes a key moment in the transformation:
“Gough was riding around his vast holdings when he heard some noises with a familiar ring from that night with Asbury. Approaching the sounds on foot, he observed an African preacher from a neighboring plantation praying for his slaves. It was a prayer of thanksgiving for the goodness of God. Gough was most struck with the contrast between his own lack of gratitude and the attitude displayed by the poorer than poor slave preacher with barely enough to survive.”
Perhaps Harry Hosier was among the faithful Gough spied on that day. It’s certainly a possibility. One thing we know for sure, though, is that Harry and his fellow slaves soon saw changes on the Gough plantation. Days began now with communal prayers. A chapel went up next to the big house. Services there were integrated affairs—slaves, owners, men, and women all giving thanks together. Soon enough, Gough came to see (in his own words) “the injustice of detaining my fellow Creatures, in Slavery and Bondage.” He started freeing slaves—some immediately, others over time.
Harry Hosier became a free man sometime before 1780. The Revolutionary War was raging in that year, and the fledgling faith of Methodism was faltering. Still formally a part of the British Anglican church, it was regarded by many Americans as a nest of spies and traitors. Most Methodist preachers fled back to England in fear. Francis Asbury stayed put, holing up at Barratt’s Chapel south of Dover, Del. There, he set out with a small group of like-minded preachers to reinvent Methodism as an independent, all-American denomination.
Harry Hosier landed at Barratt’s Chapel, too. That turn of events was presumably linked to the friendship between Asbury and the Gough family. At first, Hosier worked as a driver for the preachers. It’s a good guess that he had other servant-like duties, too.
‘Greatest Orator in America;’ ‘Few White Preachers Could Equal Him’
Francis Asbury and the “small, very black, keen-eyed” Harry Hosier had lots of time to kill together. Asbury and his fellow preachers spent long stretches of time on the road, wandering from town to town across the Delmarva Peninsula and up and down the East Coast. Known as “circuit riders,” they were in the vanguard of a soul-saving movement that modern history books refer to as “The Second Great Awakening.”
In short order, Hosier became more of a friend and travel companion to Asbury than just a hired hand. Harry was illiterate, but he was also brilliant. Among his God-given gifts was a memory so powerful that he could hear Asbury recite a scripture passage and remember everything word for word over the course of weeks, months, and years.
As Asbury took note of that amazing gift, he discovered another: Harry Hosier was a first-rate public speaker, blessed with uncommon ability to touch and move the hearts of his listeners. Soon, Asbury was asking Hosier to preach to black audiences on their travels, while Asbury himself dealt with white congregations. Word quickly filtered over into white communities about the power of Hosier’s sermons. From the diary of Rev. Thomas Coke (with whom Hosier also traveled): “I sometimes give notice immediately after preaching, that in a little time Harry will preach to the blacks; but the whites always stay to hear him.”
In 1784, Hosier and Asbury visited Chapeltown, a small Delaware outpost 10 miles southwest of Dover. There, in the countryside near the Maryland border, Harry Hosier became the first black man to preach in a white church to a white congregation. According to modern-day historian J. Gordon Melton: “Initially, Asbury feared that his becoming a preacher to the White people might go to [Hosier’s] head. That fear proved unfounded, however.”
Countless other similar gigs would follow, and “Black Harry” was soon quite the famous character. Here is a bit of testimony from Rev. Henry Boehm: “Harry was very black, an African of the Africans. He was so illiterate he could not read a word, [but he] would quote his text with great accuracy. His voice was musical, and his tongue as the pen of a ready writer. He was unboundedly popular, and many would rather hear him than the bishops.”
Hosier and Asbury spoke in tag-team fashion during this window at an auditorium in Wilmington, Del. Because of an overflow crowd, lots of people had to listen from outside the building. One soon marveled: “If all Methodist preachers could preach like the bishop, we should like to be constant hearers,” unable to see that it wasn’t the bishop speaking—it was “Black Harry.”
Here is one bit of testimony from historian George Raybold, writing in the 1840s: Harry Hosier “was of middling stature; slim, but very strongly built, and very black; capable of great labour and much endurance. He also possessed a most musical voice, which he could modulate with the skill of a master, and use with the most complete success in the pathetic, terrible, or persuasive parts of a discourse. … Few of the white preachers could equal him.”
Here is another from Rev. Thomas Coke: “I really believe he is one of the best preachers in the world. There is such an amazing power that attends his preaching . . . and he is one of the humblest creatures I ever saw.”
Finally, there is the opinion of Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, who dubbed Hosier “the greatest orator in America.”
Why Did Harry Hosier Refuse to Learn to Read?
As Harry Hosier climbed the preaching ladder, he encountered at least one opportunity to learn how to read. That came from Delaware native Richard Allen, the one other prominent black minister who belonged to this post-Revolution “Great Awakening” crowd.
Allen never went in for circuit riding. Instead, he moved to Philadelphia, where he grew frustrated with the way white Methodist leaders treated black congregations and launched a breakaway church targeted specifically to blacks. Over time, Allen’s alternative grew into the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) denomination that remains quite popular and powerful today.
At some point in their friendship—it’s not exactly clear when—Allen offered to teach Harry to read, but Hosier declined. By way of explanation, he tried to explain to Allen that he regarded illiteracy was an important part of his God-given gifts.
“When I try to read,” he said, “I lose my gift of preaching.” He was also quoted as saying, “I sing by faith, pray by faith, and do everything by faith. Without faith in Jesus Christ, I can do nothing.”
White Quakers seem to have been especially big fans of Hosier’s preaching. If they had heard about his reluctance to learn to read, they would have nodded their heads in understanding. As noted by historian Al DeFilippo, “The Quakers who know Harry Hosier are convinced that his illiteracy is proof that he preaches from Divine inspiration.”
The Fame of ‘Black Harry’ Spreads Far and Wide
Early on, Harry Hosier’s travels were focused on the Delmarva Peninsula and points nearby. Over time, however, his circuit-riding itinerary grew much wider. In 1786, he and Asbury visited New York City, where a newspaper reported not on the bishop’s arrival, but on the black man:
“Lately came to this city a very singular black man who, it is said, is quite ignorant of letters, yet he has preached in the Methodist Church several times to the acceptance of several well-disposed, judicious people. He delivers his discourse with great zeal and pathos, and his language and connection is by no means contemptible.”
In 1790, Hosier traveled to New England with another famed minister, Freeborn Garrettson, who wrote in his diary about a day when Black Harry preached to an audience in excess of 1,000. traveled to New England. He also noted that some whites believed a trick had been played—and that it would someday be revealed that Harry Hosier wasn’t really a black man at all.
There are reports in the historical record of “Black Harry” preaching in Nova Scotia, the Caribbean, and on the Western frontier, which then extended into the Midwest. Theories abound as to how and why the people of Indiana came to be known as “Hoosiers,” but one of them is that the word came into being as a description of blacks who became Methodist believers after seeing Harry Hosier preach.
When Rev. William Colbert first saw Harry Hosier preach in 1803, he thought to himself, “This is not a man-made preacher.”
Harry Hosier at the End of His Journey
As you can tell, the historical record on Harry Hosier is full of uncertainties. One example of this concerns his later years, when “Black Harry” was traveling less frequently and living in a sort of semi-retirement in Philadelphia. In a book published 50 years after Hosier’s death, historian John Lednum reports briefly, with no quotations or other sourcing, that “Black Harry” faltered, sank into alcoholism, and spent a stretch of time languishing on the streets in a state of public disgrace.
It’s an odd passage. As far as I can tell, there is nothing about Harry turning into a drunk in the various journals kept and letters written by Hosier’s many friends and acquaintances. It might not have happened at all, as the reliability of snippets of oral history that surface a couple of generations down the line is often quite difficult to determine.
Nonetheless, this thin thread has been tied by a couple of modern-day writers to a disappointment that seems to have genuinely bothered Hosier in his older years. He was never formally ordained as a preacher—that elevated status was awarded only to white “circuit riders.” One church official, Rev. James Jenkins, described “some difficulties” with “an influential colored man who desired further promotion within the church.” Along the same lines, Rev. Henry Boehm wrote that “poor Harry was so petted and made so much of” that he became “lifted up” in his own mind.
In any case, that strange little unsourced report about Harry’s late-in-life troubles with alcohol ends with Hosier back on his feet, fully “restored” to “the joys of his salvation.” By most accounts he died in 1806. He is buried in Kensington, Pa. Supposedly, quite a large crowd turned out to say farewell at his funeral. A black preacher, Jeffrey Bewley, delivered a eulogy that day that included this apt line: “Here lies the African wonder.”
—written by Jim Duffy for Secrets of the Eastern Shore/Whimbrel Creations LLC. All rights reserved. Posted on March 23, 2020.
There are several places you can visit today if you want to explore the landscape of Harry Hosier’s life.
• Over near Baltimore, the section of Gunpowder Falls State Park near Belair Road (Maryland Route 1) is the one that runs along land near the old Gough plantation. If you are planning to visit in 2020, pay attention to the parking and access restrictions in place due to a bridge construction project near there. The park website is here.
• The Gough family house there, Perry Hall Mansion, burned in 1839. A new home went up the following year on the same foundation. That historic house is now owned by the Baltimore County government, but not fully restored or open to the public.
• Barratt’s Chapel is at 6362 Bay Road in Frederica, Del., just off of Delaware Route 1 a little way south of Dover. There is a little museum there in addition to the chapel. Historian Walter H. Williams has dubbed this “the most significant historical building, secular or religious, on the entire Delmarva Peninsula.” Here is the chapel website.
• Harry Hosier became the first black preacher to address a white congregation in Chapeltown, Del., southwest of Dover along Westville Road (Route 206), between Parkers Chapel Road and Sandy Bend Road. The Thomas Methodist Episcopal church building that stands there now dates to 1840, a few decades after Hosier’s time. The building where he preached is long gone. Here is the National Register listing for the property.• If you are curious about the story of Richard Allen and the founding of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the mother church of that denomination is at 419 S. 6th Street in Philadelphia, Penn. Here is some information about the site, which ranks as the nation’s oldest parcel of land continuously owned by African-Americans.
Thank you very much for reading. Feedback is always welcome: SecretsoftheEasternShore@gmail.com.