Harry Hoosier (1750-1806) was America's greatest preacher during the Second Great Awakening and for three decades after our nation’s founding he would help heal the racial divide while galvanizing the abolition movement by the incredible life he lead. As a Methodist circuit-riding preacher he would baptize more people in a single day than the average Methodist clergyman in England would baptize in their entire career. Booker T. Washington said Harry Hoosier excelled all Methodist preachers in popularity.
The new American Methodist Episcopal Church, lead by Harry’s close friend Bishop Francis Asbury, was founded during their Christmas Conference attended by Harry in Baltimore December 1784. In their deliberations they officially stated, "We view slavery as contrary to the golden law of God, on which hang all the law and the prophets, and the unalienable rights of mankind, as well as every principle of the Revolution."
Methodists would avidly pursue the abolition of slavery and become America’s largest Protestant Denomination by 1844. Sometime after Lincoln had freed the slaves Ulysses Grant would boast there were three parties in America: Democrats, Republicans and Methodists.
Harry was very humble and while he did not focus on the politics of abolishing slavery he did preach against it. His very life preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ and becoming more popular than any of his peers served to help energize anti-slavery efforts for decades. Two states he ministered in regularly would begin the abolition of slavery during his life time New York 1799 and New Jersey 1804.
Born a slave 1750 in Fayetteville, NC Harry never learned to read or write yet he memorized scriptures and hymns so well he would lead a thousand people at a time in anointed worship services attended by blacks and whites. After receiving his freedom on the Baltimore Plantation of Harry Gough, Harry Hoosier became the carriage driver for Methodist Bishop Francis Asbury. It didn’t take long for the bishop to recognize Harry had a great anointing to preach. Highlights of his career include:
1) As a Methodist Preacher Harry sided with George Washington and the Continental Army even though officially Methodists were to be loyal to the English Crown.
2) Became the first American black preacher to preach a sermon to whites and blacks 1781 in Fairfax Chapel, VA. When Founding Father Dr. Benjamin Rush a signer of the Declaration of Independence heard Harry’s sermon based on the “Barren Fig Tree” parable he remarked Harry was the greatest orator in the world.
3) Became the first American black preacher to preach to an all-white congregation 1784 Chapel Town, DE.
4) Was invited by George Washington to Mount Vernon for dinner May 26, 1785 with Methodist bishops who argued for the abolition of slavery. George Washington affirmed their cause and invited them to spend the evening. Washington would put in his will he wanted his slaves to be freed.
5) Became the first preacher to be written up and promoted in the New York City Newspapers and on September 11, 1786 he preached in Old St. John’s Methodist Church to over 1000 people drawing bigger crowds than the famous white Methodist bishops.
6) Became the first black preacher to travel and minister extensively throughout the South. He bravely preached there even though he was a Methodist and they were mostly Baptists. He was a freed slave and they were slave holders.
One time a wealthy land owner's wife said she would never allow a black man to preach on her property. Harry went to a secluded place in her garden and began to pray for hours. Then, full of the Holy Spirit, God lead him to go to the podium and he began to preach.
His words dripped like honey and the wealthy lady fell under such conviction she began sobbing, went forward and asked Harry to forgive her prejudices as did everyone around her.
7) In 1791 in North Castle, NY (present day Armonk, NY) a local lady named Sally Lyon became Harry's admirer and then later turned against him accusing him of improprieties. A church tribunal was held and both sides were heard. Harry's career was on the line but a unanimous decision was rendered in his favor finding him not guilty.
8) In 1793 Harry would travel with Jesse Lee throughout New England preaching revival. Harry would inspire crowds of 1000 people in meetings in Boston, MA and Providence, RI. Jesse Lee would go on to become a two term Chaplain of the US House of Representatives and a one term Chaplain of the US Senate.
9) August thru November 1793 Yellow Fever Pandemic would strike 11,000 people in Philadelphia killing 5,000 equal to 10% of the city's population. Harry worked tirelessly with Methodist leaders performing works of charity aiding families in the City of Brotherly Love.
10) 1794 Harry founded African Zoar Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia dedicated by Bishop Asbury. Philadelphia was our Nation’s Capital from 1790 to 1800 where President George Washington served 2 terms. Whites and blacks attended Harry’s church. Leading patriots in the city such as Betsy Ross and her Quaker friends admired Harry’s preaching. Harry’s church would go on to promote the Underground Railroad helping slaves to reach freedom in the North and today is United Methodism's oldest black congregation.
11) After our nation's leaders moved the capital to Washington, DC Harry fell into heavily drinking communion wine for a short period and left the ministry becoming the Philadelphia town drunk. One day in a stupor sitting underneath an oak tree he recalled Psalm 51. He prayed to the Lord to deliver him from drinking and God answered his prayer totally delivering him from his alcohol addiction allowing him to resume preaching again with as great a fervor as before.
12) On his death in 1806 Harry was buried beside the church he founded with much of the city and leading civic figures of Philadelphia attending his funeral. Harry had traveled tens of thousands of miles preaching Christ throughout our young nation baptizing and winning thousands of converts to the Lord.
His Christian outreach to all races was unparalleled and he deserves to be considered the Martin Luther King of our nation’s Founding Era.
References and Contributors:
1,4,9,10) Writers Digest award-winning author Al DeFilippo Asbury Triptych Series
5,6,7,8,11,12) Warren Thomas Smith author Harry Hosier Circuit Rider
5) Stephen Webb professor Wabash College author Introducing Black Harry Hoosier the History Behind Indiana’s Namesake
7) Report Morrell Collection Garrett Theological Seminary Northwestern University
10) General Archives and History of the United Methodist Church
William D Piersen professor Fisk University
David Barton WallBuilders
Illustrated History of Methodism printed in 1880