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Remembering 'Black Harry,' an American Methodist pioneer

Remembering 'Black Harry,' an American Methodist pioneer

ORLANDO -- When Dr. Richard Gray first walked into the administration building of Asbury Theological Seminary’s campus in Wilmore, Ky., he saw a distinctive bust of a black man wearing the 18th century finery of a gentleman.

"It was there for anyone to see," recalls Gray, who became the first African-American professor in the seminary's history. But beyond the name - "Black Harry" Hosier - there was little to explain who the man was.

Bust of Harry Hosier at Asbury Seminary
This bust of Harry Hosier by sculptor Kenneth Wyatt commemorates the early American Methodist preacher who traveled with Francis Asbury. Photo by Susan Green.

Gray's curiosity and Hosier's legacy have sparked a campaign to give this freed illiterate slave his rightful place as one of the founders of American Methodism.

"His life represents the very best of what service leadership is all about," Gray says.

The bust that Gray saw in Kentucky is now on display at the Florida Dunnam campus of Asbury Theological Seminary in Orlando, where Gray is professor of leadership and Christian ministries. The seminary recently established the Harry Hosier Institute, which currently is located in a small room that displays other African-American exhibits in the campus library.

The long-range goal is to secure funds for construction of a building that will provide more space for the institute, along with other programs, so that Hosier's life can be celebrated and scholarly research encouraged. Gray also hopes that the Dunnam campus can acquire documents and artifacts from Hosier's life.

Certificate and Master of Arts programs in Black Christian Studies have been proposed. In May, the school's inaugural Harry Hosier Preaching Award for Excellence in Communication will be awarded. A Harry Hosier scholarship fund has been established to aid African-American students. Efforts are underway for outreach to historically African-American neighborhoods and churches within proximity to the Dunnam campus.

And there is a pending request with The United Methodist Church Council of Bishops that Hosier be posthumously ordained to correct an omission that Gray believes is rooted in America's history in the slave trade and prejudices against African-Americans that were prevalent at the time.

A petition supporting Hosier’s ordination in 1805 – a year before his death – was never approved. The original petition, signed by nearly 20 Methodist ministers, is in the archives of St. George's United Methodist Church in Philadelphia.

Asbury Theological Seminary facade
Asbury Theological Seminary in Orlando, above, is home to the Harry Hosier Institute. Below, from left to right, Drs. Steve Gober, Richard Gray, Bill Pannell and Joy Moore open the institute with prayer. 2013 photo from Asbury Theological Seminary.
Dedication prayer for Harry Hosier Institute 2013

While church leaders are open to honoring Hosier, Gray says they are struggling with finding "the mechanism" to make that happen. In an April letter to the seminary, Bishop Rosemarie Wenner, president of the council, suggests a "collaborative celebration of Harry Hosier's life and ministry."

According to information compiled by the institute, Hosier was born into slavery in North Carolina around 1750. Details on his early years are sketchy, but he might have been sold to a Baltimore plantation owner, Harry Gough. His last name is most often spelled “Hosier” and might refer to a slave owner's name or the occupation of making and selling hosiery. His name has several spellings in various documents, including Hoosier, Hoshur and Hossier.

By 1781 he was a freedman, most likely having earned this status helping the Patriots’ cause in the American Revolutionary War. That same year at a Virginia church, he gave his most famous sermon: "The Barren Fig Tree." Based on Luke13:6-9, it was the first documented sermon by an African-American preacher.

Three years later, Hosier and Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, were the only African-American representatives at the Christmas Conference where the church officially was organized, though they were not voting members.

A famous painting at the time of the conference depicted the ordination of church founder Francis Asbury. In the upper left corner, among a crowd of white faces, a lone black man watches the ceremony from the back of the church.

The man most certainly had to have been Hosier, Gray says.

Hosier traveled for a while on the preachers' circuit with Freeborn Garrettson, a former slave owner and Methodist minister. But he met with persecution on trips through the South, and Hosier later accepted an offer from Asbury to be his carriage driver.

The pair frequently traveled through Delaware, Maryland, New York and New Jersey. Unable to read, Hosier showed a knack for memorizing extensive Bible passages read to him by Asbury on their long drives. Asbury began to rely on Hosier to warm up the crowds waiting outside churches to hear Asbury's sermons.

At times Hosier proved the more popular of the two, as people were brought to tears by the black preacher's spiritual conviction and what was described as his "musical" voice.

Peter Salinger enjoys Harry Hosier room at Asbury seminary
Peter Salinger of Tampa enjoys the Harry Hosier exhibit room as he waits for his wife, Rev. Debbie Daley Salinger, pastor at Forest Hills UMC. Photo by Susan Green

In 1784, Hosier was the first known African-American preacher to deliver a sermon to a white congregation.

He was among a select group of ministers associated with the Second Great Awakening movement that began in 1790 and spread the Methodist gospel throughout the country. His contemporaries, in addition to Asbury and Allen, included John Wesley, Thomas Coke and George Whitefield.

But his ministry likely was not confined to the then-new United States of America. There are accounts of a man known only as "Black Harry" preaching in the Caribbean and Nova Scotia.

Gray is convinced the preacher there must have been the same man who was so well known and liked among African-American and white audiences in America. But more research is needed to confirm that.

Toward the end of his life, Hosier fell on hard times and drank heavily. He was seen scavenging in rag bins on the streets of Philadelphia. He is said to have recommitted to his ministry and given up drinking after reciting over and over Psalm 51, the prayer of contrition.

"How he was treated then as an illiterate black, you begin to realize at some point he had a break down," Gray says. "He was able to rebound and continue his ministry and died not long after."

In the coming years, Gray hopes the Hosier Institute will lead to greater recognition of Hosier's contributions as a pioneer in American Methodism.

"We'd like to make it happen."

-- Kathy Steele is a freelance writer based in the Tampa area.