A Discourse, Delivered at the African Meeting-House
An 1808 sermon delivered by Jedidiah Morse commemorating the abolition of the slave trade (Boston: Lincoln and Edmands). Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.
Jedidiah Morse (1761-1826) is best known as one of the earliest US geographers and author of the first popular geography textbook, Geography Made Easy (1784). This was followed in 1789 by American Geography, or a View of the Present Situation of the United States, which was even more distinctly a means of political and nationalistic propaganda. In 1797 he published his Elements of Geography, and in 1814 his Universal Geography. His works were in print throughout his lifetime and well afterwards. As well as being the ‘father of American geography,’ he was the father of Samuel F.B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph. See Richard J. Moss, The Life of Jedidiah Morse: A Station of Peculiar Exposure (Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1995).
Morse, born in Woodstock, Connecticut, was educated at Yale University and had a parallel career as a Congregational minister. He founded the Andover Theological Seminary, and was known as a strong conservative and orthodox Calvinist who opposed liberal theologies. He was central to the development of New England devotional literature. For further discussion, see Leon Jackson, “Jedidiah Morse and the Transformation of Print Culture in New England, 1784-1826,” Early American Literature (March 1999) 34:1.
Morse voiced a conservative opposition to slavery. The preface to the present sermon indicates that this July 4 celebration by Boston’s black community had received permission from the state and city government, emphasizing that endorsement of this occasion was limited to welcoming the new anti-trafficking law (see Act of Mar. 2, 1807, ch. 22, 1, 2 Stat. 426, based on U.S. Const. art. I, § 9, cl. 1). rather than sanctioning broader social protest against slavery. As an official speaker, Morse presents an acceptably orthodox view of the abolition of slavery, one emphasizing maintenance of a proper social order and abolition as a necessary evolutionary step towards improved social health.
Morse employs the occasion to discuss sin as a form of slavery, arguing “Every other species of slavery respects the body only. The soul is left free. But the slavery of sin reaches the soul, as well as the body, and subjects the whole man to the most degrading and fatal bondage.” (10) True freedom from slavery, according to Morse, lies in acceptance of Christian salvation. Thus this celebratory event is an evangelical moment during which he calls upon his audience to realize that escape from a ‘greater’ slavery of sin lies within their reach.
Morse sees in the Act realization of a divine plan, suggesting “while Africa lay enveloped in heathenish and Mahometan darkness, those who were to be made free in Christ, were brought, (though by the instrumentality of wicked men) to the light of his gospel, in Christian countries.” (18) However, given the subsequent growth of Christian missionary activity in Africa, “God hath shut the door against their further transportation.” (ibid)
For Morse, paramount freedom lay in release from sin promised by evangelical Christianity. “Civil freedom, and its attendant blessings, will avail you nothing without this,” (19) he informs his audience, calling on the black community to prove themselves worthy of freedom through repudiation of sin, sobriety, piousness, humility, and acceptance of their social position. He did not favor general emancipation of slaves in the United States, suggesting in the printed Notes — not during the sermon — that the best policy would be to “let them remain as they are, and make their condition in that state as comfortable and happy, as possible.” (24) For further works by Morse, see The American Gazetteer (Boston: S. Hall and Thomas Anderson, 1797), and Morse’s important report on relations with Indian tribes, A Report to the Secretary of War of the United States, on Indian Affairs (reprinted Augustus M. Kelley, New York, 1970).
— Joe Lockard