Documenting the American South Logo
Collections >> North American Slave Narratives >> Document Menu >> Summary

Daniel H. Peterson
The Looking-Glass: Being a True Report and Narrative of the Life, Travels, and Labors of the Rev. Daniel H. Peterson, a Colored Clergyman; Embracing a Period of Time from the Year 1812 to 1854, and Including His Visit to Western Africa
New-York: Wright, 1854.


Little is known about the Reverend Daniel H. Peterson other than the information contained in his autobiography. Peterson was born during the early 1800s to enslaved parents. His exact place of birth is not known with certainty, but it was likely somewhere near Baltimore, Maryland. While he was born to an enslaved mother, Peterson states that he himself was never actually enslaved but does not explain the processes by which he escaped bondage. By 1812, he had entered into an apprenticeship to negotiate his mother's freedom. Peterson devoted his early life to observing the world around him and searching for his ultimate calling in life. While he was struggling to discover what he was supposed to do with his life, he stayed in the households of officials around the Philadelphia area and learned as much as possible about the Methodist church. He worked as a steward in the house of the white John Trusty in New Jersey, and married his eldest daughter, Mary Trusty, but shortly thereafter felt called to fulfill a higher mission for the Methodist Church, which he had joined. He later became itinerant, preaching throughout Pennsylvania before traveling to Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Gambia to explore the efforts of the Methodist church in Africa and impart Christian teaching to these nations.

The Looking Glass (1854) begins with a preface in which Peterson explains his empathy for both African Americans and residents of Africa who live without a knowledge of Christianity. Although Peterson is not in bondage to any white man, he still feels the prejudices of living in America during the 19th century and struggles to explain that even "freed" colored peoples in America are never really free. His ultimate "prayer is that tranquillity, peace, and happiness may cover the earth" as slavery is abolished, racism abates, and Christianity spreads throughout the world (p. v).

The chronology of the narrative is occasionally unclear, as the author regularly moves from one idea to the next without delineating a discernible timeline for the events described. The narrative proper begins with an account of Peterson's birth near Baltimore, Maryland, to "the respectable family of a Mr. Tyler, near connexion of the Hon. John Tyler, late President of the United States" (p. 13). While deciding what to do after he leaves the Tyler household, Peterson recalls many prayer meetings that were held in his parents' house when he was a young child that "preserved [him] from vice, and influenced [his] conduct in all times and places" (p. 14). Inspired by these prayers, Peterson moves to Baltimore in the hopes of finding a family to live with who would support him in his endeavors with the church.

As an adult, Peterson attends the Methodist congregation of a Reverend Fox, where the words of Matthew 8:48 "they gathered the good into vessels, but cast the bad away" make an impression on his soul. He is "impressed with the idea that there was a greater work for [him] to do than to remain an ordinary member of the Church" (p. 19).

After marrying Mary Trusty, he begins to act on these earlier spiritual impressions. He writes that God speaks to him the words "thou art a chosen vessel, and I will send thee far away. Thou shalt bear testimony for my name's sake in distant lands, even among those who know me not, and have not heard the glad tidings of the gospel" (p. 19), and these become the words he lives by for the rest of his life. Along with these strong impressions, he has a vibrant vision of the destruction of the Earth, which helps him "come to the determination to leave all and enter fully into the vineyard of the Lord" (p. 25).

Before describing his mission abroad, Peterson takes time to explain what he told the members of the Bethel church in Philadelphia before he embarked on his journey to Liberia. He chastised them for being proud and haughty for wanting a new church building. In the process of tearing their old building down, a few members of the church were crushed, and he identifies this loss of life as God's condemnation of prideful congregants. Peterson comments on the problem of poor leadership and maintains that the elders of their church were too old to make important decisions for the congregation. He tells them that "There is a fitness to be observed in the administration of public affairs; and when a man is far advanced in life, he is generally incompetent to govern a great body of men" (p. 45). By trying to motivate the younger members of the church, Peterson establishes a theme he will return to in the balance of the narrative. During the description of his mission to Africa and throughout the rest of his story, he focuses on delineating different leadership styles he witnessed and emphasizes the importance of competent leaders.

In a sermon delivered before embarking for Africa, Peterson pleads with the black population in America to remember Africa, admonishing them that the "land from whence you came is still in darkness, while here you are daily gaining light and religion; we may be the instruments in the hand of the Lord for redeeming that very land from the darkness of ignorance and superstition" (p. 50). Peterson tells his African American congregants that although they have experienced oppression, the white population in many parts of the United States has allowed them to build their own churches and practice their religion of choice. He compares slavery in the United States to slavery as it was experienced by the Children of Israel in Egypt, remarking that "The sufferings of the Israelites in Egypt, were much greater than ours in this country" (p. 53) and reminding them that it took longer than a day for the Lord to deliver Israel. Peterson pleads with them to study Christian doctrine and live its precepts so that they can bring Christianity to Africa.

After a long passage across the sea, Reverend Peterson arrives in Monrovia, Liberia, on December 19, 1853. He compares Monrovia to the Garden of Eden with its healthy people, animals, churches, and schools, and comments on the incredible sight of colored peoples governing their own prosperous lands freely and in peace. While he loves his time in Monrovia, Peterson cannot help but think of the potential it holds for church growth. Imagining the future leaders of such a nation, he envisions scores of intelligent African American emigrants and writes that "Those are the people that we want here to light up this great quarter of the world with religion, the arts and sciences" (p. 97).

Sad to leave Monrovia, Peterson eventually boards a British ship en route to Sierra Leone. After a short stay there, he travels to Gambia, where he observes adherents of Islam and expressed surprise at their customs.

Once back in New York, Peterson publicly voices his gratitude to the American government for allowing him and his friends the opportunities to hear the gospel and study it. Throughout the narrative, it is clear that Peterson feels it is his responsibility to encourage the spread of the gospel because he has been so blessed to share the gospel with nations throughout the world. He concludes his autobiography with the words "Bad men make bad governments: good men make good governments" (p. 129).

Erin Penrod

Document menu