by Jared Brock
Almost every American has heard of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the ground-breaking anti-slavery novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe. It was the #1-selling book of the 19th century, aside from the Bible. It sparked a massive debate over slavery, and when Abraham Lincoln met the author, he supposedly quipped, “So you’re the little lady that wrote the book that started this great war.”
What few people realize is that the story was inspired by a real-life Christian preacher.
Josiah Henson has an incredible story that few know: He rescued 118 enslaved people. He won a medal at the first World’s Fair in London. Queen Victoria invited him to Windsor Castle. Lord Grey offered him a job. Rutherford B. Hayes entertained him at the White House. He raised millions for the abolitionist cause. He helped start a large freeman settlement for former slaves. But before all this, Josiah Henson was brutally enslaved for more than 40 years.
The Bible played a vital role in Josiah’s journey from slavery to freedom, and there are several Scriptures that influenced his early life and later service.
But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man. — Hebrews 2:9 (KJV)
Since slaves on his master’s plantation were forbidden from reading, Josiah only learned what little the other slaves knew. The Bible was used by some, then as now, to manipulate slaves into unthinking submission to the violence of slavery.
When Josiah was around 18, he received permission to go hear a very different kind of preacher. John McKenny lived in Georgetown, just a few miles from Isaac Riley’s plantation. A good man—a baker by trade—he detested slavery and refused to hire slave labor from any of the hundreds of renters in the state. He worked with his own hands, along with whatever hired free labor he could afford. McKenny occasionally served as a minister, preaching in a county where preachers were lacking at the time.
Josiah walked the forest path to the meeting at Newport Mill. It was held in a house along a stream that powered a handful of grain mills. When Josiah approached the door, the doorman barred his entry because of his color. Josiah circled the building, then stood in the doorway and watched the baker preach. He had never heard a sermon before. McKenny preached with passion about the character of Jesus. What kind of man dies for his enemies? What kind of man sacrifices himself for others? The baker spoke in terms that anyone could understand. He spoke of Jesus, and his love for mankind, of his death and resurrection. He read Hebrews 2:9 and insisted that Christ died “for every man.” McKenny continually repeated the phrase throughout his sermon.
He hammered on his main point: “Jesus Christ, the Son of God, tasted death for every man; for the high, for the low, for the rich, for the poor, the bond, the free, the negro in his chains, the man in gold and diamonds.”
It forever changed Josiah’s life.
You shall not murder. — Exodus 20:13 (NIV)
Josiah became an honorable man who believed that the only way to gain his freedom was to purchase it. Accordingly, he began to preach and raise funds for his freedom papers. Unfortunately, his master stole his money and tried to sell him south to New Orleans.
On the boat ride down the river, Josiah saw an ax. His master’s teenage nephew, along with the captain and the crew, were fast asleep in the hold of the boat. Josiah grabbed the ax and snuck down in to the cabin. His plan was to murder the men, sink the ship, and escape north.
He entered the cabin and approached the first sleeping man. He squinted in the lantern light. His eyes fell on the 19-year-old boy. Josiah’s hand slid along the ax handle. He raised the blade to strike the fatal blow.
The voice seemed barely audible. “Josiah Henson, are you a Christian? Will you commit murder?” Josiah had not considered it murder. It was self-defense. He was preventing others from murdering him. It was justifiable, even commendable. But now, all at once, the truth rushed in. Josiah shrunk back into the shadows. He would rather die as a slave than live as a murderer.
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. — Galatians 5:1 (NIV)
Josiah eventually traveled 600 miles and escaped to Canada with his wife and four children. Upon landing in Canada, he could have settled into a comfortable and self-serving lifestyle. Instead, he knew his freedom was a gift to be stewarded. He knew his influence and affluence were entrusted to him for the benefit of others.
He got to work. He returned to American again and again, and rescued 118 others. He started a social enterprise business which hired refugees, and later won a medal at the first World’s Fair in London. He raised the modern equivalent of millions for the abolitionist cause. He released a memoir, and used the profits to purchase his own brother’s freedom. He helped start a freeman settlement, called Dawn, which grew to 500 people and was known as one of the final stops on the Underground Railroad. In his old age, he was still raising funds to plant more churches.
Bless the Lord, O my soul: and all that is within me, bless his holy name. — Psalm 103:1 (KJV)
Despite being illiterate for most of his life, Josiah had a strong memory that allowed him to easily memorize verses that he heard. In his early 40s, his own 12-year-old son, Tom, taught him how to read. One of the most memorable passages was Psalm 103.
As Josiah listened for the first time to what he later described as “this beautiful outpouring of gratitude,” he began to weep. All his memories rushed back in a flash. All the pain, the hardship, the abuse. All the evil that his slave owners had done. Of his own father, sold south. Of his mother, long deceased. Of his harrowing journey to freedom. Bless the Lord, O my soul. It was all he needed to express the gratitude he felt.
In the years to come, Josiah would preach at C. H. Spurgeon’s Tabernacle, John Wesley’s chapel, George Whitefield’s church, and hundreds of others. He became a Methodist minister with a 300-mile territory. The Archbishop of Canterbury wept after hearing his story, and asked Josiah where he received his education. Josiah joked: “I graduated, sir, from the university of adversity.” Everywhere he went, Josiah expressed his overwhelming gratitude for God’s grace in his life. He forgave those who sinned against him, and worked to bring freedom—body and soul—to every life he touched.
We often take the Bible for granted, but Josiah never did. For him it was a hard-won gift; something he treasured for a lifetime.
Bio: Jared Brock (@jaredbrock) is the author of The Road to Dawn: Josiah Henson and the Story that Sparked the Civil War (PublicAffairs, 2018) and director of JOSIAH, a book and documentary about Josiah Henson.
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