The Legacy of Josiah Henson

21 03 2011

Josiah Henson

by KRISTEL ANTHONY, Detroit, Michigan, USA

Many people know little about their ancestry. But I believe our ancestry is important to our growth and development as a people. I believe our heritage influences our identity.

I say this because my heritage has influenced me. I treasure my heritage because of the rich blessings that have rippled for more than 200 years.

My heritage includes a strong story of faith. It’s a tale of putting God above self that still resonates today. I delight in knowing it set my family on a path that led to Community of Christ.

My family has traced the birth of Josiah Henson, my great-great-great grandfather, to June 15, 1789. He was born a slave in Charles County, Maryland. He saw many horrific things as a child. When Josiah was 3, his father was beaten severely by his master for defending his mother, whom the white overseer had beaten.

His father’s punishment was severe. His right ear was cut off close to his head, and he received a hundred lashes on his back with a whip. Soon after, he was sold, never to be seen again by his family. I tell you this because it had to have deeply impacted Josiah.

Soon after, the master, intoxicated, fell into a stream about a foot deep and drowned. This prompted the sale of his estate, including his slaves. Because Josiah was so young, he remained with his mother, and they were sold together. His other five siblings were sold off, and he never saw them again.

Josiah grew into a strong and robust young man with pride and ambition. Whatever the task given to him—hoeing, mowing, or reaping—he surpassed his fellow slaves. He also excelled in athletic exercises. He began to receive favorable regard from the overseer and master.

He also gained great influence with his companions in slavery, who regarded him as a leader. Josiah held compassion for his companions, for many were starving, miserable, and unable to help themselves. Josiah helped them to some comforts the owners denied them.

Meat was not a part of their regular food. But the master had plenty of sheep and pigs. Josiah would pick the best of the flock and carry it a mile or two into the woods. He’d slaughter it, cut it up, and share it among his friends, to whom it was both luxury and medicine.

Another time in Josiah’s life that is precious to me is when his master sent him on a mission to New Orleans, Louisiana, with the master’s 21-year-old son and three white handymen. Their job was to take a flatboat to New Orleans to sell cattle, pigs, poultry, corn, whiskey, and other articles. The master’s son then was to pay the handymen and sell Josiah to the highest bidder.

By this time in life, Josiah had a wife and children. He knew of the master’s plans. But he had to follow the orders given to him. As they traveled to New Orleans, his anger grew more ferocious daily at his master’s plan and all those participating.

He considered killing the four white men he traveled with and escaping. Then one rainy night, Josiah was alone on deck as the white men slept below. He crept down, took an ax, and entered the cabin.

As Josiah later told in The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, a dim light let him see the master’s son, who was nearest. His hand slid along the ax handle. He raised it to strike the fatal blow. Suddenly, the thought came to him:

“What! Commit murder! And you a Christian?”

He had not thought of it as murder before.

It was self-defense, it was preventing others from murdering me, it was justifiable, and it was even praiseworthy. But now, all at once, the truth burst upon me that it was a crime. I was going to kill a young man who had done nothing to injure me, but obey commands which he could not resist; I was about to lose the fruit of all my efforts at self-improvement, the character I had acquired, and the peace of mind which had never deserted me. All this came upon me instantly, and with a distinctness which made me almost think I heard it whispered in my ear; and I believe I even turned my head to listen, I shrunk back, laid down the axe, crept up on deck again, and thanked God, as I have done everyday [sic] since, that I had not committed murder.

I remained on deck all night, instead of rousing one of the men to relieve me, and nothing brought composure to my mind, but the solemn resolution I then made to resign myself to the will of God, and take with thankfulness, whatever he might decide should be my lot.

I reflected that if my life were reduced to a brief term, I should have less to suffer, and that it was better to die with a Christian’s hope, and a quiet conscience, than to live with the incessant recollection of a crime that would destroy the value of life, and under the weight of a secret that would crush out the satisfaction that might be expected from freedom and every other blessing.

They arrived at New Orleans a few days later, and sold everything. The next day Josiah was to be sold. He could not sleep that night. A little before daylight, the master’s son awoke ill. Josiah had to care for him and pay for both their fares back to Kentucky on a steamboat with the earnings from the sale.

Josiah made it back to his wife and children, and soon after they escaped to Canada.

In his life as a free human being, Josiah helped bring more than 100 slaves from the South to freedom in Canada. They established the city of Dawn (now Dresden, Ontario) and set up schools and businesses.

My great-grandmother was a granddaughter of Josiah. She, her husband, and children were baptized in the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. My grandmother moved to Detroit when she was a young woman.

I am blessed to come into the church from a heritage of several generations. I am blessed to have a legacy richly filled with faith and steadfastness. I’m thankful for my great-great-great grandfather’s autobiography, Truth Stranger than Fiction, which resides in the public library.

I’m also thankful for a book based somewhat on his life, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But it cannot compare with Josiah’s own words and writing. How great will our biography be when our years have passed? Will someone tell our life stories?

It is my prayer, that though our life journey may be much different than that of our forefathers, we live in greatness and godliness and boldly confess our witness before God and the world in which we live.


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21 03 2011
Bill Gunlock, Taipei Church

I am moved almost to tears. Thank you, Kristel. Over here, tales like your ancestors’ in slavery still extists in human trafficing. Thank God CNN has declared war on it. Bless you for sharing with the world your story.




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