May 1, 2018
George Whitfield brought many American souls to Christ during the First Great Awakening, though he had broken with Methodist co-founder John Wesley. (see ) His message of liberty and freedom, one shared with the Black Robed Regiment, resonated with the colonists. (see , , , and ) Following Whitfield’s death in 1770, Wesley called for his Methodist preachers to travel to America and continue spreading the gospel. Bishop Francis Asbury heeded that call, setting sail for the new world in 1771.
During Asbury’s time in America until his death in 1816, Methodist churches increased from 550 to 250,000, earning him the nickname the “Father of the American Methodist Church”. When a statue was erected in 1924 for Asbury, President Calvin Coolidge proclaimed Asbury was “entitled to rank as one of the builders of our nation.” (see ) He and fellow ministers are credited with ushering in the Second Great Awakening. However, as impressive as all that is, he is not the real story here.
Upon his arrive to the colonies, Asbury began his evangelizing on horseback, traveling over 250,000 miles during his ministry. Around 1780, Asbury met a young free black man he hired as a carriage driver and servant. Though not much is know about this man named Harry, Asbury considered their meeting “providentially arranged.”
Born around 1750, the former slave obtained his freedom during the American Revolution before meeting Asbury. Harry was also completely illiterate. However, he had the amazing ability to memorize verbatim long passages that were read to him. Adding that to Harry’s wonderful speaking voice, Asbury realized Harry could warm up his crowds before delivering his sermons. Therefore, as they traveled from town to town, Asbury read to Harry from the Bible. The added benefit to Harry speaking was that he would attract those of color to hear the Gospel. Asbury noted in his journal early on, “If I had Harry to go with me and meet the colored people, it would be attended with a blessing,” meaning Asbury believed God would bless their ministry. And He did.
In 1781, at Adams’s Chapel in Fairfax County, Virginia, Harry delivered his first sermon to a black Methodist congregation. Based on Luke 13:6-9, “The Barren Fig Tree” not only mesmerized his black listeners, he also captivated the white attendees. Due to his popularity, Harry began delivering his sermons in the evening, as it was easier for the black worshipers to attend. However, white worshipers remained to hear him as well. In 1784 in Delaware, Harry delivered the first sermon by a black minister to a white congregation. His sermons preached abolition and support for the common man to his white listeners, while telling his black followers to be holy and moral.
Before long, Harry’s reputation equaled and sometimes surpassed that of Asbury with Harry often drawing bigger crowds than the bishop. Reverend Henry Boehm, the oldest preacher in the Methodist Episcopal Church (ME Church) commented, “He was so illiterate he could not read a word. He would repeat the hymn as if reading it, and quote his text with great accuracy. His voice was musical, and his tongue as the pen of a ready writer. He was unboundedly popular, and many would rather hear him than the bishops.”
After some time, Harry traveled with other Methodist preachers, including Rev. Thomas Coke, a representative of Wesley from England. He stated of Harry, “I really believe he is one of the best preachers in the world. There is such an amazing power that attends his preaching…and he is one of the humblest creatures I ever saw.” Founding father, Dr. Benjamin Rush, heard Harry preach in Philadelphia and proclaimed Harry “the greatest orator in America.”
When the Methodist Episcopal Church of America was officially founded at the Christmas Conference in 1784, Harry was there. During the conference led by Asbury and others, the Methodists formally split with the Episcopal Church. Allowed to watch, he and Richard Allen were not permitted to cast any votes. Allen was a fellow black preacher and tried to teach Harry to read. However, Harry believed, “when I try to read, I lose my gift of preaching.” Due to disagreements in the Philadelphia church, Allen decided to break from the white led church in 1787, forming the black led Free African Society (FAS). Eventually, this denomination evolved into the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME Church) in 1816. Harry, feeling loyal to Asbury, stayed in the ME Church.
Harry’s ministry took him from South Carolina to Massachusetts, however southern states were not as receptive to him as Northern. One reason was Methodists followed more of the Arminian theology while the other protestant denominations, such as Baptists prevalent in the South, leaned towards Calvinism at the time. Southerners also did not like the Methodist anti-slavery message he brought. Therefore, southern non-Methodist groups derived a derogatory name for Harry’s followers using his last name Hoosier, calling them Hoosiers. It was meant to degrade his Appalachian white followers as so ignorant and uneducated they would listen to a black preacher.
Towards the turn of the century, Harry strayed from his ministry, falling to the vice of alcohol. Some speculate the pressures of racism within the Methodist Church, along with his desire to receive more recognition, weighed heavy on his humbleness. In 1799, the ME Church overlooked Harry when they ordained a group of black preachers, which included Allen, likely humiliating Harry. Thus, his internal struggle found comfort in a wine bottle, of which ministers had easy access. Due to such a temptation, many protestant denominations eventually switched to grape juice for communion precisely to avoid such predicaments.
How long he remained in this state is unknown, but through determination and the power of God, he overcame his addiction. After returning to his ministry, he later stated he remained under a tree and “wrestled with God in prayer,” screamed Psalm 51 persistently until he was healed.
Some sources record his death sometime in 1810, however Harry died in May of 1806 with his funeral on the 18th. It is stated his funeral “was borne to the grave by a great procession of both white and black admirers, who buried him as a hero, once overcome, but finally victorious.” He was laid to rest in Kensington, Pennsylvania, close to Philadelphia.
Harry Hoosier, who himself was known as “Black Harry,” as well as "The African Wonder", preached to Hoosiers across the states. However, the name followed the large migration of Appalachian Methodists who settled the Indiana area. Over the years, Harry’s attachment to the Indiana nickname has been largely forgotten. Yet, many believe this is the true origin of the state’s beloved identity. The name is so cherished, they are the only state whose residents officially refer to themselves as something other than a derivative of their state’s name.
Liberty, many today want to forget and erase our past because there are horrible elements to it. However, when you do that, you lose inspirational and amazing stories like Harry Hoosier. It also dismisses the important progress and examples of perseverance our forefathers endured to make America what it is today. Regardless, Harry Hoosier’s legacy continues in the hearts of Indiana Hoosiers, who wear the name with pride and dignity, even if they aren’t exactly sure where it came from. But now you know Hoosier Daddy.
That’s my 2 cents.