The African Servant
An Authentic Narrative
By Legh Richmond, 1815
Not long ago, an officer in the navy called upon me, and stated that he had just taken a lodging in the town for his wife and children; and that he had an African, whom he had kept three years in his service. "The lad is a handy fellow," said the officer, "and he has a great desire to be baptized; I have promised him to ask you to do it for him, if you have no objections."
"Does he know anything," I replied, "of the principles of the Christian religion?"
"O yes, I am sure he does," answered the captain; "for he talks a great deal about it in the kitchen, and often gets laughed at for his pains; but he takes it all very patiently."
"Does he behave well as your servant?"
"Yes, that he does—he is as honest and civil a fellow as ever came aboard a ship, or lived in a house."
"Was he always so well behaved?"
"No!" said the officer; "when I first employed him, he was often very unruly and deceitful; but for the last two years he has been quite like another creature."
"Well, sir, I shall be very glad to see him, and think it probable I shall wish to go through a course of instruction and examination, during which I shall be able to form a judgment how far it will be right to admit him to the ordinance of baptism. Can he read?"
"Yes," replied his master; "he has been taking great pains to learn to read for some time past, and can make out a chapter in the Bible pretty well, as my maidservant informs me. He speaks English better than many of his countrymen, but you will find it a little broken. When will it be convenient that I should send him over to you?"
"Tomorrow afternoon, sir, if you please."
"He shall come to you about four o'clock, and you shall see what you can make of him."
With this promise he took his leave. I felt glad of an opportunity of instructing a native of that land, whose wrongs and injuries had often caused me to sigh and mourn.
At the appointed hour my African disciple arrived. He was a very young-looking man, with a sensible, lively, and pleasing turn of countenance.
I asked him to sit down, and said, "Your master informs me that you wish to have some conversation with me respecting Christian baptism?"
"Yes, sir—I very much wish to be a Christian."
"Why do you wish so?"
"Because I know that a Christian goes to heaven when he dies."
"How long have you had that wish?" I said.
"Ever since I heard a good minister preach in America, two years ago."
"Where were you born?"
"In Africa. I was very little boy when me was made a slave by the white men."
"How was that?"
"I left father and mother one day at home, to go to get shells by the seashore; and, as I was stooping down to gather them up, some white sailors came out of a boat and took me away. I never saw father nor mother again."
"And what became of you then?"
"I was put into ship and brought to Jamaica, and sold to a master who kept me in his house to serve him some years; when, about three years ago, captain W___, bought me to be his servant on board his ship. And he is good master, and I live with him ever since."
"And what thoughts had you about your soul all that time before you went to America?" I asked him.
"I had no care for my soul at all, before then. No man taught me a word about my soul."
"Well, now tell me farther about what happened to you in America. How did you get there?"
"My master took me there in a ship, and he stopped there one month, and then I heard the good minister."
"And what did that minister say?"
"He said that I was a great sinner."
"What—did he speak to you in particular?"
"Yes; I think so—for there was a great many to hear him—but he said things that were true about me."
"What did he say?"
"He told about all the things that were in my heart."
"My sin, my ignorance, my unbelief. The good minister made me see that I can neither think anything good, nor do anything good."
"And what else did he tell you?"
"He sometime looked me in the face and said that Jesus Christ came to die for sinners, poor black sinners as well as white sinners. I thought this was very good, very good indeed—that Jesus died for wicked sinners."
"And what made you think this was all spoken to you in particular?"
"Because I sure that there was no such wicked sinner as me, in all the place. The good minister must have been talking about me."
"And what did you think about yourself while he preached about Jesus Christ?"
"Sir, I was very much afraid when he said that the wicked must be turned into hell fire. For I felt, that I was very wicked sinner, and that made me cry. And he talked much about the love of Christ to sinners, and that made me cry more. And I thought I must love Jesus Christ; but I not know how, and that made me cry again."
"Did you hear more sermons than one during that month?"
"Yes, sir; master gave me permission to go three times, and all the times I wanted to love Jesus more, and do what Jesus said; but my heart seemed as hard as a stone."
"Have you ever heard any preaching since that time?"
"Never, until I heard a sermon at this church last Sunday, and then I long to be baptized in Jesus' name."
"And what have been your thoughts all the time since you first heard those sermons in America; did you tell anybody then what you felt?"
"No; I spoke to nobody but to God then. The good minister said that God heard the cry of the poor; so I cried to God—and he heard me. And I often think about Jesus Christ, and wish to be like him."
"Can you read?"
"Who taught you to read?"
"God taught me to read."
"What do you mean by that?"
"God gave me the desire to read, and that makes reading easy. Master gave me Bible, and one sailor showed me the letters; and so I learned to read by myself, with God's good help."
"And what do you read in the Bible?"
"O I read all about Jesus Christ, and how he loved sinners; and wicked men killed him, and he died and came back from the grave, and all for this poor negro. And it sometime makes me cry—to think that Christ loves so poor a negro as me."
"And what do the people say about your reading and praying, and attention to the things of God?"
"Some wicked people, that do not love Jesus Christ, call me a great fool, and negro dog, and black hypocrite. And that makes me sometime feel angry—but then I remember that a Christian must not be angry for that. Jesus Christ was called ugly black names, and he was quiet as a lamb; and so then I remember Jesus Christ, and I said nothing back to them."
I was much delighted with the simplicity and apparent sincerity of this poor African, and wished to ascertain what measure of light and feeling he possessed on a few leading points. I said, "Tell me what is faith? What is your own faith? What do you believe about Jesus Christ, and your own soul?"
"I believe," said he, "that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners; and though I am the chief of sinners, Jesus will save me, though I am only poor black negro."
"What is your hope? What do you hope for—both as to this life and that which is to come?"
"I hope Christ Jesus will take good care of me, and keep me from sin and harm, while I live here—and I hope, when I come to die, to go and live with him always."
"What are your thoughts about Christian love or charity? I mean, whom and what do you most love?"
"I love God the Father, because he was so good to send his Son. I love Jesus Christ, because he loved me. I love all men, black men and white men too; for God made them all. I love godly Christian people, because Jesus love them, and they love Jesus."
Such was my first conversation with this young disciple; I rejoiced in the prospect of receiving him into the church, agreeably to his wishes. I wished, however, to converse somewhat further, and inquire more minutely into his conduct; and promised to ride over and see him in a few days at his master's lodgings.
When he was gone, I thought within myself, God has indeed redeemed souls, by the blood of his Son, "out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation." It is a happy thought, that "Ethiopia shall soon stretch forth her hands unto God. Sing unto God, O kingdoms of the earth, O sing praises unto the Lord!"
Not many days after the first interview with my African disciple, I went from home on horseback with the design of visiting and conversing with him again at his master's house, which was situated in a part of the parish nearly four miles away from my own. The road which I took, lay over a lofty down or hill, which commands a prospect of scenery seldom equaled for beauty and magnificence. It gave birth to silent but instructive meditation.
I cast my eye downwards a little to the left, towards a small cove, the shore of which consists of fine sand. It is surrounded by fragments of rock, white cliff's, and steep banks of broken earth. Shut out from human dwelling—it seems formed for retirement and contemplation. On one of these rocks I unexpectedly observed a man sitting with a book, which he was reading. The place was nearly two hundred yards from me; but I soon discovered, by his dress, and by the black color of his features, contrasted with the white rocks beside him, that it was no other than my African disciple; with, as I doubted not, a Bible in his hand. I rejoiced at this unlooked for opportunity of meeting him in so solitary and interesting a situation. I descended a steep bank, winding by a kind of crude staircase, formed by fishermen and shepherd's boys, in the side of the cliff down to the shore.
He was intent on his book, and did not perceive me until I approached very near to him.
"William, is that you?"
"Ah! master, I very glad to see you! How did you come to this place? I thought nobody was here—but only God and me."
"I was coming to your master's house to see you, and rode around by this way for the sake of the prospect. I often come here in fine weather, to look at the scenery. Is that your Bible?"
"Yes, sir, this is my dear, good Bible."
"I am glad," said I, "to see you so well employed. It is a good sign, William."
"Yes, master, a sign that God is good to me—but I am never good to God."
"I never thank him enough—I never pray to him enough—I never remember enough who gave me all these good things. Master, I am afraid my heart is very bad. I wish I was like you."
"Like me, William? Why, you are like me—a poor helpless sinner, that must, like yourself, perish in his sins—unless God of his infinite mercy and grace—plucks him as a brand from the burning, and makes him an instance of sovereign love and favor. There is no difference; we have both come short of the glory of God—all have sinned."
"No, I am not like you, master; I think nobody is like me, nobody feels such a wicked heart as mine."
"Yes, William, your feelings, I am persuaded, are like those of every truly convinced soul, who sees the exceeding sinfulness of sin, and the greatness of the price which Christ Jesus paid for the sinner's ransom. You can say in the words of the hymn,
I the chief of sinners am,
But Jesus died for me."
"O yes, sir, I believe that Jesus died for this poor negro. What would become of this poor wicked negro—if Christ did not die for him? But he died for the chief of sinners—and that sometimes makes my heart quite glad."
"What part of the Bible were you reading, William?"
"I am reading how the man on the cross spoke to Christ—and Christ spoke to him. Now that man's prayer will just do for me. 'Lord, remember me!' Lord, remember this poor negro sinner! This is my prayer every morning, and sometime at night too—when I cannot think of many words, then I say the same again, Lord, remember this poor negro sinner!"
"And be assured, William, the Lord hears that prayer. He pardoned and accepted the thief upon the cross—and he will not reject you; he will never cast out any who come to him."
"I believe it sir; but there is so much sin in my heart—that it makes me afraid and sorry. Master, do you see these limpets—how fast they stick to the rocks here? Just so, does my sin stick fast to my heart."
"It may be so, William; but take another comparison—if you cleave to Jesus Christ by faith in his death and righteousness, as those limpets cleave to the rock—neither seas nor storms shall separate you from his love."
"That is just what I want!"
"Tell me, William, is not that very sin which you speak of, a burden to you? You do not love it—you would be glad to obtain strength against it, and to be freed from it, would you not?"
"O yes! I give all this world, if I had it, to be without sin!"
"Come, then, and welcome, to Jesus Christ, my brother; his blood cleanses from all sin. He gave himself as a purchase for sinners. He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. He was wounded for our transgressions; he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and with his stripes we are healed. The Lord has laid on him—the iniquity of us all. Come, freely come to Jesus, the Savior of sinners!"
"Yes, master," said the poor fellow weeping, "I will come—but I come very slow, very slow, master; I want to run, I want to fly. Jesus is very good to this poor negro—to send you to tell him this."
"But this is not the first time you have heard these truths."
"No, sir, they have been comfort to my soul many times, since I heard the good minister preach in America, as I told you last week at your house."
"Well, now I hope, William, that since God has been so graciously pleased to open your eyes and affect your mind with such a great sense of his goodness in giving his Son to die for your sake, I hope, that you endeavor to keep his commandments; I hope you strive to behave well to your master and mistress, and fellow-servants. He who is a Christian inwardly—will be a Christian outwardly; he who truly and savingly believes in Christ—will show his faith by his works, as the apostle says. Is it not so, William?"
"Yes, sir, I want to do so. I want to be faithful. I am sorry to think how bad servant I was before the good things of Jesus Christ came to my heart. I wish to do well to my master, when he sees me, and when he does not see me—for I know God always see me. I know that if I sin against my master, I sin against God, and God would be very angry with me. Besides, can I truly love Christ—if I do not do what Christ tells me? I love my fellow-servants, though, as I told you before, they do not much love me—and I pray to God to bless them. And when they say bad things, and try to make me angry—then I think—if Jesus Christ were in this poor negro's place, he would not revile and answer back with bad words and angry temper—but he would say little, and pray much. And so then, I say nothing at all—but pray God to forgive them."
The more I conversed with this African convert, the more satisfactory were the evidences of his mind being spiritually enlightened, and his heart effectually wrought upon by the grace of God.
I continued for a considerable time in conversation with the African, finding that his master was gone from home for the day, and had given him liberty for some hours. I spoke to him on the nature, duty, and privilege of Christian baptism; pointed out to him the principles of the Scriptures upon that head, and found that he was very desirous of conforming to them. He appeared to me to be well qualified for receiving that pledge of his Redeemer's love; and I rejoiced in the prospect of beholding him no longer a "stranger and foreigner—but a fellow-citizen with the saints and household of God."
I was much pleased with the affectionate manner in which he spoke of his parents, from whom he had been stolen in his childhood; and his wishes that God might direct them by some means to the knowledge of the Savior.
"Who knows," I said, "but some of these ships may be carrying a missionary to the country where they live, to declare the good news of salvation to your countrymen, and to your own dear parents in particular, if they are yet alive."
"O! my dear father and mother—my dear, gracious Savior," he exclaimed, leaping from the ground as he spoke, "if God would but save their souls, and tell them what he has done for sinners; but . . ."
He stopped, and seemed much affected.
"My friend," said I, "I will now pray with you for your own soul, and those of your parents also."
"Do, master, that is very good and kind; do pray for poor negro souls here and everywhere."
This was a new and solemn "house of prayer." The sea-sand was our floor, the heavens were our roof, the cliffs, the rocks, the hills, and the waves, formed the walls of our chamber. It was not indeed a "place where prayer was accustomed to be made," but for this once—it became a hallowed spot—and will by me ever be remembered as such. The presence of God was there. I prayed. The African wept. His heart was full. I felt with him, and wept likewise.
The last day will show whether our tears were the tears of sincerity and Christian love.
It was time for my return; I leaned upon his arm, as we ascended the steep cliff in my way back to my horse, which I had left at the top of the hill. Humility and thankfulness were marked in his countenance. I leaned upon his arm with the feelings of a brother. It was a relationship I was happy to own. I took him by the hand at parting, appointed one more interview previous to the day of baptizing him, and bade him farewell for the present.
"God bless you, my dear master."
"And you, my fellow-Christian, forever and ever. Amen."
The interesting and affecting conversation which I had with the African servant produced a sensation not easy to be expressed. As I returned home I was led into meditation on the singular clearness and beauty of those evidences of faith and conversion to God, which I had just seen and heard. How plainly, I thought, it appears, that salvation is freely by grace, through faith; and that not of ourselves; it is the gift of God; not of works, lest any man should boast. Who but the Holy Spirit—the author and giver of the life of saving grace—could have wrought such a change—from the once dark, perverse, and ignorant heathen—to this now convinced, enlightened, humble, and believing Christian? How manifestly is the uncontrolled sovereignty of the divine will exercised in the calling and translating of sinners from darkness to light? What a lesson may the nominal Christian of a civilized country sometimes learn from the simple, sincere religion of a converted heathen!
I afterwards made particular inquiry into this young man's domestic and general deportment. Everything I heard was satisfactory; nor could I entertain a doubt respecting the consistency of his conduct and character. I had some further conversations with him, in the course of which, I pursued such a plan of scriptural instruction and examination, as I conceived to be the most suitable to his progressive state of mind. He improved much in reading, carried his Bible constantly in his pocket, and took every opportunity which his duty to his master's service, would allow for perusing it. I have frequently had occasion to observe, that among the truly pious poor, who have not had the advantage of learning to read in early youth, a concern about the soul, and desire to know the word of God, have proved effectual motives for their learning to read with great ease and advantage to themselves and others. It was strikingly so in the present case.
I had for a considerable time, been accustomed to meet some serious people once each week, in a cottage at no great distance from the house where he lived, for the purpose of pious conversation, instruction, and prayer. Having found these occasions remarkably useful to myself and others, I thought it would be very desirable to take the African there, in order that there might be many witnesses to the simplicity and sincerity of real Christianity, as exhibited in the character of this promising young convert. I hoped it might prove an eminent means of grace to excite and quicken a spirit of prayer and praise among some, over whose spiritual progress I was anxiously watching.
I accordingly obtained his master's permission that he should attend me to one of my cottage assemblies. His master, although he did not himself appear to live under the influence of real religion, or to manifest any serious concern respecting his own spiritual state, yet was pleased with my attention to his servant, and always spoke well of his behavior.
I set out on the day appointed for the interview. The cottage in which we were to meet, was situated at the corner of an oak forest, which screened it both from the burning heat of summer suns, and the heavy blasts of winter winter storms. As I approached it, I saw my friend, the African, sitting under a tree and waiting my arrival.
He held in his hand a little Tract which I had given him; his Bible lay on the ground. He rose with much cheerfulness, saying: "Ah! master, I very glad to see you!"
"William, I hope you are well. I am going to take you with me—to a few of my friends, who, I hope, are also the friends of the Lord. We meet every Wednesday evening for conversation about the things that belong to our everlasting peace, and I am sure you will be a welcome visitor."
"Master, I am not good enough to be with such godly people. I am a great sinner. They are good Christians."
"If you were to ask them, William, they would each tell you they were worse than anybody. Many of them were once, and that not very long ago—living in a very openly sinful manner, ignorant of God, and the enemies of Jesus Christ by thought and deed. But divine grace stopped them in their wicked course, and subdued their hearts to the love and obedience of Christ and his Gospel. You will only meet a company of poor fellow-sinners, who love to speak and sing the praises of redeeming love—and I am sure that is a song you will be willing to join them in."
"O! yes, sir, that song will just do for poor William."
By this time we had arrived at the cottage garden-gate. Several well-known faces appeared in and near the house, and the smile of affection welcomed us as we entered. It was known that the African was to visit the little society this evening, and satisfaction beamed in every countenance as I took him by the hand and introduced him among them, saying, "I have brought a brother from Africa to see you, my friends. Bid him welcome in the name of the Lord."
"Sir," said a humble and pious laborer, whose heart and tongue always overflowed with Christian kindness, "we are at all times glad to see our dear minister—but especially so today, in such company as you have brought with you. We have heard how gracious the Lord has been to him. Give me your hand, good friend, (turning to the African,) God be with you here and everywhere—and blessed be his holy name for calling wicked sinners—as I hope he has done you and me—to love and serve him, for his mercy's sake."
Each one greeted him as he came into the house, and some addressed him in very kind language.
"Master," said he, "I don't know what to say to all these good friends—I think this look like little heaven on earth."
He then with tears in his eyes, which, almost before he spoke, brought responsive drops into those of all present, said, "Good friends and brethren in Christ Jesus, God bless you all, and bring you to heaven at last."
It was my usual custom, when I met to converse with those friends, to begin with prayer and reading a portion of the Scriptures.
When this was ended, I told the people present that the providence of God had brought this young man for a time under my ministry; and that, finding him very seriously disposed, and believing him to be very sincere in his Christian profession, I had resolved on baptizing him, agreeably to his own wishes. I added, that I had now brought him with me to join in Christian conversation with us; for as in old times, "those who feared the Lord spoke often one to another," as a testimony that they thought upon his name. So I hoped we were fulfilling a Christian and brotherly duty, in thus assembling for mutual edification.
Addressing myself to the African, I said, "William, tell me, who made you?"
"God, the good Father."
"Who redeemed you?"
"Jesus, his dear Son, who died for me."
"Who sanctified you?"
"The Holy Spirit, who teaches me to know the good Father, and his dear Son Jesus."
"What was your state by nature?"
"I am a wicked sinner. I know nothing but sin, I do nothing but sin; my soul is more black than my body."
"Has any change taken place in you since then?"
"I hope so, master—but I sometimes I am afraid not."
"If you are changed, who changed you?"
"God the good Father; Jesus, his dear Son; and God the Holy Spirit."
"How was this change brought about in you?"
"God made me slave when I was young little boy."
"How, William, would you say God made you a slave?"
"No, master, no; I mean, God let me be made slave by white men, to do me good."
"How to do you good?"
"He took me from the land of darkness and brought me to the land of light."
"Which do you call the land of light—the West India Islands?"
"No, master—I mean the land of Providence—but America is the land of light to me, for there I first heard the good minister preach. And now this place where I am now, is the land of more light; for here you teach me more and more how good Jesus is to sinners."
"What does the blood of Christ do?"
"It cleanses from all sin. And as I hope—from my sin."
"Are then all men cleansed from sin by his blood?"
"O no, master."
"Who are cleansed and saved?"
"Those who have faith in him."
"Can you prove that out of the Bible?"
"Yes, sir; He who believes on the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son, shall not see life—but the wrath of God abides on him." John 3:36.
"What is it to have faith?"
"I suppose that it is to think much about Jesus Christ, to love him much, to believe all he says to be true, to pray to him very much; and when I feel very weak and very sinful, to think that he is very strong and very good, and all that for my sake."
"And have you such faith as you describe?"
"O! master, I think sometimes I have no faith at all."
"Why so, William?"
"When I want to think about Jesus Christ—my mind runs about after other things. When I want to love him—my heart seem quite cold. When I want to believe what he says to sinners, all to be true—I then think it is not true for me. When I want to pray—the devil puts bad, very bad thoughts into me, and I never thank Christ enough. Now all this makes me sometimes afraid I have no faith."
I observed a very earnest glow of attention and fellow-feeling in some countenances present, as he spoke these words. I then said, "I think, William, I can prove that you have faith, notwithstanding your fears to the contrary. Answer me a few more questions."
"Did you begin to think yourself a great sinner, and to feel the need of a Savior, of your own self, and by your own thought and doing?"
"Oh! no, it came to me when I thought nothing about it, and sought nothing about it."
"Who sent the good minister in America to awaken your soul by his preaching?"
"God, very certainly."
"Who then began the work of serious thought and feeling in your mind?"
"The good God; I could not do it of myself, I am sure of that."
"Do you think that Jesus Christ and his salvation is the one thing most needful and most desirable?"
"O! yes—I quite sure of that."
"Do you believe that he is able to save you?"
"Yes, he is able to save to the uttermost!"
"Do you think he is willing to save you?"
"I dare not say that. He so good, so merciful, so kind—he will never cast out any who come to him."
"Do you wish, and desire, and strive to keep his commandments?"
"Yes, master, because I love him, and that makes me want to do as he says."
"Are you willing to suffer for his sake, if God should call you to do so?"
"I do think I could die for my love to him; he did not think it too much to die—for wicked sinners; why should this wicked sinner think it much to die—for so good and righteous a Savior?"
"I think and hope I may say to you, William, Your faith has made you whole."
Thus ended my examination for the present. The other friends who were in the house listened with the most affectionate concern to all of this. One of them observed, not without evident emotion,
"I see, sir, that though some men are white, and some are black, true Christianity is all of one color. My own heart has gone with this good man every word he has spoken."
"And so has mine," gently re-echoed from every part of the room.
After some time passed in more general conversation on the subject of the African's history, I said, "Let us now praise God for the rich and unspeakable gift of his grace, and sing the hymn of redeeming love—which was accordingly done. Whatever was the merit of the natural voices, it was plain that there was melody in all their hearts. The African was not much used to our way of singing, yet joined with great earnestness and affection, which showed how truly he felt what was uttered. When the fifth verse was ended,
"Nothing brought him from above,
Nothing but redeeming love."
He repeated the words, almost unconscious where he was— "No, nothing, nothing but redeeming love—brings him down to poor William; nothing but redeeming love!"
The following verses were added, and sung by way of conclusion:
See, a stranger comes to view,
Though he's black—he's lovely too, [Song 1:5]
Come to join the choirs above,
Singing of redeeming love!
Welcome, Negro, welcome here,
Banish doubt, and banish fear;
You, who Christ's salvation prove,
Praise and bless redeeming love!
I concluded with some remarks on the nature of salvation by grace, and exhorted all present to press forward in the heavenly race. It was an evening, the circumstances of which, had they never been recorded on earth, were yet doubtless registered in the book of remembrance above.
I then fixed the day for the baptism of the African, and so took leave of my little affectionate circle.
In a few days the African was baptized; and not long after he went on a voyage with his master.
Since that time I have not been able to hear any news of him—whether he yet wanders as a pilgrim in this lower world—or whether he has joined the heavenly choir in the song of redeeming love in glory—I know not. Of this I am persuaded, he was a monument of mercy—to the Lord's praise. He bore the impression of the Savior's image on his heart, and exhibited the marks of converting grace in his life and conversation with singular simplicity and earnest sincerity. O! give to God the glory!