Home: Our Story: Faith: The Huntingdonians
One of the first confirmed black preachers in Nova Scotia belonged to an evangelical offshoot of the Anglicans. Known as Huntingdonians after their leader and sponsor, the Countess of Huntingdon, the Huntingdonians were nominally Anglican and even used Anglican prayer books. In practice however, their faith and organization was outside the mainstream church: the Countess routinely recognized ministers who had not been officially ordained, and they had their own set of 'Articles of Faith'. The Countess was a major sponsor and promoter of Methodism in England, and her charity and good will were well known throughout England.
In the mid 1700's, a wave of religious revival known as Methodism had swept through England and the colonies. It taught that all men, as sinners, were equal before God, and that salvation came not through religious ceremony, but only through Jesus Christ. They foreshadowed what we now think of as fundamentalist Christianity, but at the time, they were considered quite strange, and possibly subversive.
Their two most influential preachers were John Wesley, whose ministry will be discussed soon, and George Whitefield, who preached a strong and unforgiving creed of absolute predestination and humility before God. Lady Huntingdon was friendly with both figures, but clearly leaned towards Whitefield's doctrines. The churches that Lady Huntingdon sponsored had enthusiastic daily prayers, revival meetings, and generally emphasized God's role in daily life and following one's 'inner light' in opposition to traditional Anglican conceptions of salvation through religious ceremony.
Methodism's teachings of personal communication with God, the equality of all men as sinners, and personal humility spoke strongly to the natural instincts of the Black Loyalists. Equally, Whitefield's intensity and fervor are reflected in the teachings of today's black churches. It's not surprising that a black preacher with this style soon attracted followers.
This black preacher, John Marrant, was a freeborn black who had been converted to evangelical Christianity at a young age by Whitefield. After his conversion, he had many adventures during the early years of the war, including the miraculous conversion of an Indian chief who had been on the verge of killing him. Marrant was pressed into British naval service and was eventually discharged as a Black Loyalist in England.
His remarkable story and connection to her favorite preacher drew the attention of the Countess and her 'Connexion' while he was in England. Upon meeting the Huntingdonians, his Christianity had a focus and a sponsor. She ordained him as a minister and sent him to bring the Gospel to the blacks in Nova Scotia. The story of his life after escape and the miracles he witnessed was subsequently published in England and became a bestseller. In the sneering analysis of a contemporary, Marrant's Narrative was, "embellished with a good deal of adventure, enlivened by the marvelous, and a little touch of the miraculous...". It was also printed in 19 editions. You can judge for yourself by reading the full text.
Marrant then traveled to Nova Scotia in 1785 to spread the Huntingdonian faith, which at this point was beginning to split entirely from the Anglican Church. He began preaching in Birchtown, where he won some early converts. By all accounts, he was a fiery preacher. The church at Birchtown grew steadily throughout the late 1780's. The Huntingdonian system involved numerous lay preachers who each led prayers and discussion groups. After establishing his church in Birchtown, Marrant began to evangelize throughout the area to both blacks and whites, especially to followers of Henry Alline's New Light faith, leaving lay preachers behind as he moved along. He returned to Birchtown in 1790 to ordain Cato Perkins as a minister. He then traveled to Boston where he preached to a gathering of black Masons and then returned to England. Within a few weeks of his return, he died.
After Marrant's departure a number of his congregation joined the Wesleyans. Cato Perkins retained a following, but clearly the Wesleyans were more influential among the blacks of Birchtown. Perkins led nearly his entire church to Sierra Leone.
The Huntingdonian church lived on in Sierra Leone, even until today. Cato Perkins was a leading figure in the early days of Freetown, and was nominated to carry a petition of complaints to the Colony's investors in England. Today the church is almost nonexistent, with a few scattered chapels in England and Sierra Leone.