John Marrant (1755-1791)
The Life of John Marrant
John Marrant was born free in New York and grew up in South Carolina, Florida, and Georgia. He fell out with his family after converting to Methodism when he was thirteen. A year later, he left home for the woods, where a Cherokee hunter rescued him and brought him to his village. However, the Cherokee imprisoned him.
According to his autobiography, Marrant escaped a sure death when he converted the entire Cherokee band to his faith. He thereafter remained with the tribe for two years before returning to his family. During the American Revolutionary War, he was possibly kidnapped or pressed into the Royal Navy. After the war, he lived in London. Here, he gained the patronage of the Countess of Huntingdon’s Christian abolitionist circle.
In 1785, Marrant was ordained as a minister in England. Shortly thereafter, he moved to Canada to minister to Black Loyalist congregations in Nova Scotia. In 1787 he settled in Boston, where he married a year later. However, in 1789 or 190 he returned to London, the last station of his life.
The Narrative of John Marrant
During his ordination in 1785, Marrant delivered an oral account of his life. This inspired William Aldridge, a white minister, to pen Marrant’s autobiography. A Narrative of the Lord’s Wonderful Dealings with John Marrant, a Black (1785) became an instant success and was reprinted across Britain, Ireland, and Canada. Marrant claimed full authorship of his account when he oversaw and enlarged his text for its fourth edition.
The narrative is primarily written as a spiritual autobiography, a form of life writing focusing on a person’s move from sin to salvation. This was an apt genre for a black preacher who claimed access to the ministry and pursued an agenda of black religious and physical liberation.
Within this text, Marrant uses his experience of Cherokee captivity to mark his “birth” as a Methodist preacher and missionary. By describing how his prayers and sermons converted his captors, he turns the Indian captivity narrative on its head. The black captive obtained not only his freedom but also a position of spiritual authority among the Cherokees. This enabled him to be accepted, as a black man, among the white evangelical circles of Britain and North America.
As he integrated an Indian captivity narrative within a spiritual autobiography, Marrant establishes himself as a Protestant Christian preacher. He thus asserts his claim to authority and social agency usually denied to black men in the white-dominated “evangelical empire” (Karen Weyler).
Sources and Further Reading
There are several editions of Marrant’s narrative. A scholarly edition is this one:
- Marrant, John. A Narrative of the Lord’s Wonderful Dealings with John Marrant, a Black. 1785. Black Atlantic Writers of the Eighteenth Century: Living the New Exodus in England and the Americas. Ed. Adam Potkay and Sandra Burr. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1995. 75-105.
An online edition accessible for free is this one:
- Marrant, John. John Marrant’s Narrative. 1785. Canada’s Digital Collections: Black Loyalists Digital Collection. Ottawa: Industry Canada, 1996-2004. Marrant_Narrative
Selected Research Literature
- Andrews, William L. To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of African American Autobiography. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986.
- Burnham, Michelle. Captivity and Sentiment: Cultural Exchange in American Literature, 1682-1862. Hanover, NH: UP of New England, 1997.
- Chiles, Katy L. Transformable Race: Surprising Metamorphoses in the Literature of Early America. New York: Oxford UP, 2014.
- Green, Keith Michael. Bound to Respect: Antebellum Narratives of Black Imprisonment, Servitude, and Bondage, 1816-1861. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2015.
- Gustafson, Sandra M. Eloquence Is Power: Oratory and Performance in Early America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
- Miles, Tiya. “‘His Kingdom for a Kiss: Indians and Intimacy in the Narrative of John Marrant.” Haunted by Empire: Geographies of Intimacy in North American History. Ed. Ann Laura Stoler. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2006. 163-188.
- Montgomery, Benilde. “Recapturing John Marrant.” When Brer Rabbit Meets Coyote: African Native American Literature. Ed. Jonathan Brennan. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003. 158-167.
- Weyler, Karen A. Empowering Words. Outsiders and Authorship in Early America. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2013.
- Zafar, Rafia. We Wear the Mask: African Americans Write American Literature, 1760-1870. New York: Columbia UP, 1997.
Online Sources and Links
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