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George White, b. 1764
A Brief Account of the Life, Experience, Travels, and Gospel Labours of George White, an African; Written by Himself, and Revised by a Friend
New York: Printed by John C. Totten, 1810.

Summary

George White (1764-1836) was one of the first African American deacons to be ordained by the Methodist church in the United States. Born a slave in Accomack, Virginia, White was sold when he was only eighteen months old to an owner in Esther County, Virginia. He was sold again at age six to a slaveholder in Somerset County, Maryland, and at fifteen to a family in Suffolk County, Maryland. He remained with them until his owner’s death in 1790, when he was freed.

White’s emancipation at age twenty-six led him to turn more seriously to religion. He believed that “as God in his providence had delivered me from temporal bondage, it was my duty to look to him for deliverance from the slavery of sin” (pp. 6-7). Although White had attended the services of the Church of England in Maryland, he was converted to Methodism in New York City in 1795. Unhappy with the segregated services of the John Street Methodist Church, White began attending services with a congregation of African Americans the next year. The group formally organized as the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1799. They met in their own building but remained under the jurisdiction of a white minister and the mainstream Methodist Church. That same year, White married Mary Henery. He supported his wife and two daughters by selling fruit on the street, combining his work as an itinerant preacher with trips to the countryside to procure fresh produce.

Over the next three years, his application to become a preacher was rejected five times by the Quarterly Conference of the Methodist Church, despite his success as an itinerant preacher. He finally obtained his license in January 1808. In 1815, White became just the sixth African American ordained as a deacon by the Methodist church. Whether White’s first marriage ended with the death of his wife or a divorce is unknown. In any case he married his second wife, Mary Ann Forsyte, in 1817, and she bore him a son in 1820. White left to join Richard Allen’s Bethel African Methodist Church in 1820 and was ordained as a deacon in 1822. White continued to preach until 1829, when he was expelled for unknown reasons from his position as an itinerant preacher. Under his leadership, entire congregations left the Methodist Church to join Allen’s church. White continued working as a shoemaker, a trade he had taken up to support his second family, until his death in 1836.

A Brief Account of the Life was published in 1810 and focuses on White’s struggle to win ordination as a Methodist preacher. Shortly after White’s conversion in 1805, he dreams vividly of hell and “the torments of the damned; out of whose mouths and nostrils issued flames of fire” (pp. 9-10). In his dream, the guide who shows White the various features of hell tells him to “Go, and declare what you have seen”; instructions that make him believe he should become a preacher (p. 10).

White applies to become an exhorter but is initially rejected because of his “inability and ignorance,” lacking “even the knowledge of the English alphabet,” and because he speaks in a “broken way . . . of Christ, and his love to sinners” (p. 11). In July 1805, three months after his initial application, White is given a “license to exhort” and begins his work as an itinerant preacher on Long Island, in New York City and in upper New Jersey (p. 12).

White converts many with his preaching, and he also believes that his preaching sanctifies him. During a meeting in his own house, White falls “prostrate upon the floor, like one dead” and obtains “a spiritual view of the heavenly hosts surrounding the eternal throne, giving glory to God and the Lamb; with whom, all my ransomed powers seemed to unite, in symponious strains of divine adoration” (p. 14). This powerful spiritual experience creates in White a desire to read the scriptures himself, and he employs his sixteen-year-old daughter as a teacher. White makes great progress but can only learn to read from the Bible. His daughter can “learn me nothing from the common spelling book; no, not so much as the alphabet; for my mind was so perfectly taken up with the notion of reading the bible, that I could think of nothing else” (p. 15).

After learning to read, White receives another spiritual prompting that instructs him to become a preacher, and he applies for a license. Despite White’s success in converting large crowds, he is denied a license five times before he is finally accepted. When White asks the elders who review his application “if they were dissatisfied with the discourse I had delivered” and “if there was anything exceptionable in my character,” they reply in the negative; White is never given reasons for his rejections, but scholarship shows that even in the relatively democratic Methodist Church, African Americans were rarely given leadership positions in the early nineteenth century (p. 24).

White eventually obtains his preaching license and a congregation, where his ministry fuels dynamic religious growth. The Account concludes with a sermon he preached at the funeral of a woman named Mary Henery—who may have been a relative of his wife of the same name.

Works Consulted: Hodges, Graham Russell, Introduction, Black Itinerants of the Gospel, New York: Palgrave, 2002.

Zachary Hutchins

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