On this Day: Rev. Henry Highland Garnet

On this day 155 years ago (February 12, 1865), Rev. Henry Highland Garnet delivered a sermon in the U.S. House of Representatives. This marked the first time a Black speaker had preached in the U.S. Capitol. Garnet was an abolitionist and a Presbyterian minister.

Born a slave in Kent County, Maryland in 1815, Garnet escaped to freedom in 1824. He first attended the African Free School and then the Oneida Institute in New York. He served as a minister beginning in 1840 at the Liberty Street Presbyterian Church in Troy, NY, (1840 – 1848), actually being ordained in 1842. Later churches he served were in New York City (September 1856 – 1864 and then 1869 – 1881, Shiloh Presbyterian Church) and in Washington, DC (1864 – 1869, Fifteenth St. Presbyterian Church).

Garnet began promoting abolition in the early 1840s. In 1843, he gave perhaps his most famous speech, the “Call to Rebellion.” In it, he calls upon enslaved people to rise up against their “God-cursed” oppressors. He cited the examples of several heroes of the abolition movement—Denmark Vesey, Nathaniel Turner, and Joseph Cinque among them. He also drew upon his own experience, as he had escaped north with his family at age 9, and had been fighting to succeed ever since, even when confronted with racism and violence.

“Brethren, arise, arise! Strike for your lives and liberties. Now is the day and the hour. Let every slave throughout the land do this and the days of slavery are numbered. You cannot be more oppressed than you have been — you cannot suffer greater cruelties than you have already. Rather die freemen than live to be slaves.”

“Call to Rebellion,” August 1843.

On Sunday, February 12, 1865, Rev. Garnet spoke in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol. His historic appearance was arranged by President Abraham Lincoln and took place only a few days after the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. At the time, Garnet was pastor of the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. Read a published version of the sermon here.

While we typically think of the antebellum period as a thing of American history, Garnet was constantly drawing attention to abolition movements in other countries, such as Cuba and Brazil. He continued this internationally-driven work for years after emancipation in the States. His lifelong dream was to travel to Africa.

In 1881, Garnet was appointed by President James A. Garfield as diplomatic minister to Liberia. Liberia’s history is complicated; at once a product of both white supremacy and abolition. It’s too much for one blog post, but here you can find a short overview. Liberia also has ties to Presbyterianism—Rev. Robert Finley, a pastor from New Jersey, was one of the original founders of the American Colonization Society in 1816 (which later established the country). To many abolitionists at the time, the ACS seemingly began as a solution for free African Americans to establish themselves in Africa, where they would hypothetically live without the obstacle of racism. However, many soon felt that the ACS intended to remove Black people from America and to evangelize Africa.

Those who immigrated to Liberia suffered alarmingly high mortality rates due to disease and lack of infrastructure. In 1847, Liberia split with the bankrupt American Colonization Society and became a sovereign nation.

Interestingly, although we’ve chosen to highlight Garnet on February 12, the following date is also significant to his life. On February 13, 1882, Garnet died of malaria less than two months after arriving in Liberia.

Today, Rev. Henry Highland Garnet’s legacy lives in his speeches and sermons, and in his progress for abolition, not only for African Americans, but also for enslaved people around the world.

The humblest peasant is as free in the sight of God as the proudest monarch that ever swayed a sceptre. Liberty is a spirit sent out from God, and like its great Author, is no respecter of persons.

“Call to Rebellion,” August 1843.

Today’s post written by Aspen Reynolds, fellow at PHC.

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