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An Oration on the Abolition of the Slave Trade


A New Year's sermon given by George Lawrence in New York City in 1813, on the fifth anniversary of the banning of slave importation into the United States (New York, 1813). Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.


Cover for Teaching Guide to Early African American Antislavery Sermons

See also: Teaching Guide to Early African American Antislavery Sermons, Joe Lockard 


Little is known about George Lawrence, who delivered this New Year’s Day oration. Lawrence was not among the early leaders of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in New York City, which was chartered in 1801 by black members of the John Street Methodist Church. There are no further known publications by George Lawrence. Abraham Thompson, who offered a prayer at the beginning of this service, was one of the founders of the church and, together with James Varick and Leven Smith, one of the first three ordained ministers of this new congregation. For further on the early development of the AME Church in New York City, see Carol R. George, Segregated Sabbaths: Richard Allen and the Emergence of Independent Black Churches, 1760-1840 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973) 141-146.

This oration is an example of the New Year’s antislavery sermon tradition within the early African Methodist Episcopal churches. For further on this rhetorical tradition and similar holiday sermons, see William B. Gravely, “The Dialectic of Double-Consciousness in Black American Freedom Celebrations, 1808-1863,” Journal of Negro History 67 (Winter 1982) 4:302-317, and Leonard I. Sweet, “The Fourth of July and Black Americans in the Nineteenth Century: Northern Leadership Opinion Within the Context of the Black Experience,” Journal of Negro History 61 (July 1976) 3:256-275.

Lawrence gave his oration on the fifth anniversary of the abolition by the United States of slave importation. However, as he notes, this was only a “partial restoration” of rights and a pre-condition to the “full fruits of emancipation.” (6) Lawrence sets contemporary conditions for blacks against the invocation of a utopian lost African civilization. He reviews the bitter conditions of African enslavement and transport to the Americas, even while acknowledging that his audience may find confronting this history “excruciatingly painful.” (9) However, knowledge of this shared history, he argues, will enable the black and white communities to find union and “social love.” (10) Like many black social commenters of the period, Lawrence emphasizes black intellectual attainments despite oppressed circumstances, writing “the noble mind of a Newton could find room, and to spare, within the tenement of many an injured African.” (13) Lawrence concludes with a positive and optimistic vision of expanding liberties and social justice.

— Joe Lockard