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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Sunday, April 26, 2020

The Freeing of Onesimus Mather

As recounted yesterday, in July 1716 the Rev. Dr. Cotton Mather determined that he needed to “dispose of” his enslaved servant Onesimus in the same month that he wrote to London describing that man as “intelligent” and passing on his knowledge of smallpox inoculation in Africa.

“Disposing of” Onesimus didn’t mean selling him to another local slaveholder or shipping him to the Caribbean. Mather didn’t seek to maximize his profit. Instead, frustrated after years of trying to produce a religious conversion and probably faced with frequent requests, the minister agreed to set Onesimus free—but on what terms?

The American Antiquarian Society holds an undated memorandum in Mather’s handwriting detailing his decision. The document is undated but was probably written within a few months after that July 1716 diary entry. Mather stated:
My servant Onesimus, having advanced a Summ, towards the purchase of a Negro-Lad, who may serve many occasions of my Family in his Room, I do by this Instrument, Release him so far from my Service and from the claims that any under or after me might make unto him, that he may Enjoy and Employ his whole Time for his own purposes, and as he pleases. But upon these conditions.

First, that he do every Evening visit my Family, and prepare and bring in, the Fuel for the day following, so Long as the Incapacity of my present Servant, shall oblige us to Judge it necessary: As also, in great snows, appear seasonably with the help of the Shovel, as there shall be occasion.

Secondly, that when the Family shall have any Domestic Business more than the Daily affairs, he shall be ready, upon being told of it so far to Lend an helping Hand, as will give no Large nor Long Interruption to the Business, of his own, to which I have dismissed him; As particularly, to carry corn unto the mill, and help in the fetching of water for the washing, if we happen to be destitute. And in the piling of our wood, at the season of its coming in.

Whereas also, the said Onesimus has gott the money which he has advanced as above mention’d, from the Liberties he took, while in my Service, and for some other Considerations, I do expect, that he do within six months pay me the sum of Five Pounds, wherein he acknowledged himself Endebted unto me.
In her article “Strangers in the House of God” (P.D.F. download), Kathryn S. Koo points out that the manuscript of this manumission includes several more lines in which Mather acknowledged himself “obliged to provide for [Onesimus] in case of Sickness or Lameness”—but then crossed them out. New England slaveholders and slaves shared an understanding that masters shouldn’t abandon people when they could no longer work, that working as a slave came with support in old age (if one should live so long). But Mather decided that no longer applied to him.

Instead, the minister laid out the obligations that flowed the other way. For leaving the Mather household short-handed, Onesimus had to return to chop firewood, shovel snow, help at dinner parties, and do other chores when needed. Four years before, Mather had written in his diary about granting Onesimus “great Opportunities to get money for himself.” Now he wanted the man to pay him £5 “from the Liberties he took.”

Finally, the first condition for Onesimus’s freedom was that he had “advanced a Summ, towards the purchase of a Negro-Lad, who may serve…in his Room.” Again, Mather viewed Onesimus as leaving the household in the lurch and thus sharing the responsibility to fill that hole. The minister could have written the memo simply stating that Onesimus was paying a certain amount of money for his freedom. Instead, he insisted that the man was compensating for the labor he was taking away.

Onesimus, for his part, was willing to leave another person enslaved in his place—though it’s notable that the plan was to buy a “Lad.” Child-servants and apprentices regularly worked for no pay, just having their basic needs met. Perhaps Onesimus believed that the minister would grant his young replacement the same opportunities he had gained himself, including education, marriage, and eventual freedom.

It doesn’t appear that Mather and Onesimus had a particular enslaved boy in mind when the minister wrote that memo. Mather was surprised when he found Onesimus’s replacement on 1 Oct 1717, writing:
A strange Providence of GOD, has brought into my Family a new Servant; A Negro Boy of promising Circumstances. Oh! Let me use all possible Projections and Endeavours, to make him a Servant of the Lord. That this may be kept in Mind, I call him, Obadiah.
That name literally meant “servant of the Lord.”

Mather left no evidence of how often Onesimus returned to the household to fulfill the obligations laid upon him or for other reasons. We don’t know if he completed the payment of £5. The last time the minister mentioned his first slave in his diary was an entry on 2 April 1717:
I fear I have not been so frequent and fervent and particular, as I should have been, in my Prayers for the converting Influences of Heaven, on the Soul of my Servant Onesimus. Who can tell what may be done for him, and what a new Creature he may become, if more prayers were employ’d for him!
But, as I noted yesterday, seven years later Mather wrote again about what Onesimus had told him of smallpox inoculation. By then Boston had gone through an epidemic, and inoculation had proved an effective way of minimizing the spread and harm of the disease. Clearly Cotton Mather never forgot his first, frustrating, enlightening African servant.

TOMORROW: Glimpses of Onesimus as a free man in Boston.

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