by Aaron Alford
Born into slavery in 1789, Josiah Henson grew up witnessing human cruelty at its worst, and the fact that he grew up to become a truly remarkable Bearded Gospel Man is a miracle in itself.
When he was still a very young boy, little Josiah had an image etched in his memory which would stay with him the rest of his life: his father coming home close to death, his back mangled, blood streaming down his face. A slave owner had sexually assaulted Josiah’s mother, and when his father came to her defence, he was severely punished for laying hands on a white man. His ear was cut off and he received one hundred lashes, all of this done to the delight of a watching crowd.
Years later his father was sold, taken from his pleading family, and Josiah never saw him again. Such transactions were commonplace, and rarely was any thought given to keeping a family together. Husbands were routinely taken from their wives, mothers from their children. The threat of your family being separated at your owner’s convenience was constant. When Josiah was still a young man, his family was torn apart for a second time when his brothers and sisters were sold at an auction, one by one, as he and his horrified mother looked on. Josiah was sold, taken from his mother’s trembling hands. It was only after his mother desperately pleaded with her new owner that he eventually purchased little Josiah some time later, reuniting mother and son.
Josiah grew to be an invaluable asset to his new owner, showing great leadership and frugality as a foreman on the plantation. As horrific as the conditions of slavery were, Josiah, at first, refused to attempt an outright escape. He was proud of his position and achievements, which to some degree blinded him to his truly desperate situation. Besides, it was all he’d ever known. Ill-treated and despised as he was, longing for true freedom, he was convinced he could purchase it for himself rather than become a fugitive slave. Adding to this was the fear of what happened to fugitive slaves who were caught.
It was during this time that Josiah heard the gospel for the first time. John McKenny was a baker and part-time preacher who was known as an “upright, benevolent Christian” who despised slavery and who refused to use slave labour in any of his business dealings. One Sunday, Josiah heard this man preach, and was overwhelmed by the message given. Josiah later wrote of this event:
The divine character of Jesus Christ, his tender love for mankind, his forgiving spirit, his compassion for the outcast and despised, his cruel crucifixion and glorious ascension, were all depicted, and some of the points were dwelt on with great power; great, at least, to me, who then heard of these things for the first time in my life. Again and again did the preacher reiterate the words “for every man.” These glad tidings, this salvation, were not for the benefit of a select few only. They were for the slave as well as the master, the poor as well as the rich, for the persecuted, the distressed, the heavy-laden, the captive; for me among the rest, a poor, despised, abused creature, deemed of others fit for nothing but unrequited toil—but mental and bodily degradation. O, the blessedness and sweetness of feeling that I was loved!
Though still a slave, Josiah’s inner life was transformed. “Swallowed up in the beauty of the divine love, I loved my enemies, and prayed for them that did despitefully use and entreat me,” he later wrote. Led by this divine love, Josiah himself, while still a slave, became an ordained Methodist minister at the age of 22.
He wed a woman named Nancy, and they began a family. Still convinced that he could obtain his freedom through “legitimate” means, Josiah eventually struck a bargain with his owner to purchase his freedom for $450 dollars. Josiah had been able to put the first $350 down, and a contract was written that he would purchase his freedom when he had paid the last $100. But when he at last raised the hundred dollars, he realized a treachery. The legal note had been changed: a zero added to the 100. His freedom would now cost him not 450 dollars, but a thousand dollars (over $24,000 in 2015 rates).
It was then Josiah realized he would not obtain his freedom by any legal means. It would be years, however, before he and his family had an opportunity for escape. At last, as Josiah was facing being sold and separated from Nancy and his four children, he arranged an escape plan. Facing a harrowing journey that threatened his family with starvation and capture, Josiah and his family traveled from the Southern U.S., up through the Northern states, and eventually Canada.
In many stories of slavery and escape, this would be the happy ending. For Josiah Henson, however, it was just the beginning. Father Henson saw that many slaves who had escaped to Canada did not know how to begin a life of true freedom for themselves, and found themselves in living situations which were subservient and economically servile. So he began to teach trades and life skills to the community in which he found himself.
He would eventually return to the United States to assist other fugitive slaves in finding their freedom. He began a trade in high quality Canadian Black Walnut lumber, hiring and training many former slaves, and finding great success in exporting it to Great Britain. Throughout this time he continued to preach the gospel and work tirelessly as an abolitionist. In 1865, at the age of 76, he lived to see slavery abolished in the United States. Seventeen years later, at the age of 93 (an age he would never have reached had he remained a slave), Father Josiah Henson passed away peacefully in Dresdon, Ontario, Canada in 1883.
Father Henson is inspiring example of what it means to not only help people find freedom, but to equip people for freedom. So often we are content with an illusion of freedom rather than freedom itself, substituting grace for law and dynamic action and risk-taking for a comfortable (if constricting) status quo. Josiah settled for none of this. He risked his life not only for his own freedom but for the freedom of others. In his freedom he sacrificed what could have been a content and relatively easy life for the service of others. He traded the oppression of slavery for the freedom of servanthood. Thank-you, Father Henson, for your living witness to this truth. It is for this kind of freedom that Christ has set us free.
For Father Henson’s full story, I highly recommend reading his autobiography. It is a truly exciting tale, and contains fascinating insights into a remarkable time of history. “Father Henson’s Story of His Own Life / Truth Stranger Than Fiction” is available as a free ebook or pdf download from many sites, including this one: www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/49129