J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, April 24, 2020

Onesimus Mather Unchristianized

In 1706 the Rev. Cotton Mather published a pamphlet titled The Negro Christianized: An Essay to Excite and Assist that Good Work, the Instruction of Negro-Servants in Christianity.

Thirteen years before, Mather had published Rules for the Society of Negroes, encouraging the small but growing population of Africans in Boston to worship as Christians. He also gave money for reading lessons. At the same time, his pamphlets assured slaveholders that their human property could be baptized and still remain human property.

Mather’s wealthy parishioners, those most likely to own slaves, evidently thought he was just the man to become a slaveholder himself. In December 1706, the minister wrote in his diary:
This Day, a surprising Thing befel me. Some Gentlemen of our Church, understanding (without any Application of mine to them for such a Thing,) that I wanted a good Servant at the expence of between forty and fifty Pounds, purchased for me, a very likely Slave; a young Man, who is a Negro of a promising Aspect and Temper, and this Day they presented him unto me. It seems to be a mighty Smile of Heaven upon my Family; and it arrives at an observable Time unto me. I putt upon him the Name of Onesimus; and I resolved with the Help of the Lord, that I would use the best Endeavours to make him a Servant of Christ, and also be more serviceable than ever to a Flock, which laies me under such Obligations.
I can’t help but think that day contained even more surprises for the young men thereafter known as Onesimus. That name, meaning “useful,” been assigned to many enslaved men in the Roman Empire. Mather knew it best from the epistle to Philemon, in which Paul sent an escaped slave named Onesimus back to his master with an admonition for them both to do better.

Onesimus had been born in Africa, and Mather later described his people as “Guramantese,” most likely Coromantee from what is modern Ghana. What the young man’s original name was, how he came to Boston, what he thought of his new home—we know none of that.

Christianizing Onesimus proved to be harder than Mather expected. For one thing, the minister—all the while exploiting the man’s labor for his own family—believed he stole things. On 2 Dec 1711 Mather wrote:
I must keep a strict Eye on my Servant Onesimus; especially with regard unto his Company. But I must particularly endeavour to bring him unto Repentance for some Actions of a thievish Aspect. Herein I must endeavour that there be no old Theft of his unrepented of, and left without Restitution.
Yet Mather was also acceding to the man’s pressure for more autonomy. In 1712 he wrote:
Having allowed unto my Servant Onesimus, the conveniences of the Married State, and great Opportunities to get money for himself, I would from hence take occasion mightily to inculcate on him, his obligations to keep the Rules of Piety, and Honesty; and Particularly Charge him, to devote Part of his gains to Pious Uses.
The big surprise to Mather seems to have been that Onesimus was, well, smart. The only way the minister found he could affect his servant’s behavior (which suggests he tried other methods) was persuasion, as he wrote on 2 Aug 1713:
My Negro Servant is one more Easily govern’d and managed, by the Principles of Reason, agreeably offered unto him, than by any other methods. I would oftener call him aside, and assay to reason him into a good Behaviour.
Mather laid out a course of education on 2 Dec 1713:
There are several Points, relating to the Instruction and Management of my Servant Onesimus, which I would now more than ever prosecute. He shall be sure to read every Day. From thence I will have him go on to Writing. He shall be frequently Catechised. I would also invent some advantageous Way, wherein he may spend his Liesure-hours.
The minister enlisted other family members in this effort as well, writing in 1712 that after catechizing his children, “I also made one of them, to hear the Negro-Servant Say his Catechism.”

Mather treated any misfortune as an opportunity for theological education—any misfortune of Onesimus’s, that is:
  • 2 Jan 1714: “My Servant burying of his Son, it gives me an Opportunity, to inculcate agreeable Admonitions of Piety upon him.”
  • 20 Mar 1716: “My Servant has newly buried his Son; (Onesimus his Onesimulus). Lett me make this an Occasion of inculcating the Admonitions of Piety upon him.”
  • 28 May 1717: “Onesimus’s Recovery from a dangerous Fitt of Sickness, must be improv’d for his Awakening to Piety.”
“Onesimulus” was a coinage meaning “Little Onesimus” in Latin. I presume Mather insisted on that name.

Despite all that effort, Onesimus never declared himself to be saved, asked to be baptized, or joined a congregation. In Mather’s eyes he remained unchristianized.

I should note that most of the times the Rev. Dr. Mather wrote of Onesimus’s faults he also chided himself for not having corrected those faults already. He was using his diary entries to prod himself into improving. And he was, after all, supposed to be an expert.

TOMORROW: Fighting the epidemic.

(For more on how the Rev. Cotton Mather wrestled with his servant Onesimus’s religious life, see Kathryn S. Koo’s “Strangers in the House of God” [P.D.F. download].)

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