An Oration on the Abolition of the Slave Trade
A speech by Russell Parrott at the African Church of St. Thomas in Philadelphia, on January 1, 1812, commemorating the legal abolition of slave trafficking.
See also: Teaching Guide to Early African American Antislavery Sermons, Joe Lockard
Russell Parrott (1791-1824) was a lesser-known figure in Philadelphia’s early African American community (‘Russel’ appears as a variant spelling of his name). There are three known addresses by Parrott: An Address on the Abolition of the Slave-Trade Delivered before the Different African Benevolent Societies on the 1st of January, 1816, An Oration on the Abolition of the Slave Trade (1814), and the present address of the same title from 1812. During this period in the early Republic, January 1st anniversary orations on the legal abolition of slave trafficking were a regular feature of the annual cycle of celebrations in African American churches. Sometimes these commemorative speeches were scheduled for a convenient date in early January. For another example of this rhetorical genre, see George Lawrence’s 1813 Oration on the Abolition of the Slave Trade delivered in New York City’s African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. For further background, see William Gravely’s excellent essay, “The Dialectic of Double Consciousness in Black American Freedom Celebrations, 18108-1863,” Journal of Negro History 67 (Winter 1982) 4:302-317.
This Oration was the center of the commemoration service, which began and ended with prayers offered by Absalom Jones, who had initiated this tradition at St. Thomas Church with his 1808 Thanksgiving Sermon. Parrott addresses slave trafficking as an evil whose abolition is a work of religious uplift. He describes the enslavement of Africans and their transatlantic passage as a savage horror (4-5) whose conclusion is on plantation fields.
In concluding this description Parrott paraphrases William Cowper’s poem ‘The Time-Piece’, to suggest that such sights “Mercy, with a bleeding heart, weeps to see inflicted on a brute.” (6) See ‘The Task – Book II, The Time-Piece,’ The Works of William Cowper, ed. Robert Southey (London: Baldwin and Craddock, 1835-7) vol. 9, 98, lines 24-25. Parrott here employs lines that appear frequently in antislavery texts and instance the borrowing of British abolitionist culture. The same line appears in the rhetoric of later US abolitionists such as John Fee and Charles G. Finney, as well as the1833 Declaration of the Anti-Slavery Convention in Philadelphia and an 1852 slave narrative by James Watkins.
Parrott gives thanks to “that Omnipotent Being” (7) for abolition of transatlantic slave trafficking through the human agency of Benezet, Sharp, Wilberforce and others. He expresses satisfaction that black society in Pennsylvania has advanced significantly in consequence of antislavery effort there, although Parrott provides a much too sanguine portrait of Philadelphia’s African American community at this date. (8-9) He abjures the black community to make reciprocal return on such “generous” support through “a peaceful demeanor, a respectful observance of the laws, and due reverence to the constituted authority.” (9) Finally, Parrot finds benefit for Africa in abolition of maritime slave trafficking because Christianity has entered and “by her enlivening presence she dispels the clouds of paganism and error.” (10)
- Joe Lockard