The legacy of John Marrant lies in his published writings. Marrant contributed to religion, literature, and the progress of African Americans in the midst of slavery.
Born June 15, 1755 in the colony of New York, Marrant eventually traveled to the South with his mother, after his father's death in 1759. The family settled in Charleston, South Carolina, after stays in St. Augustine, Florida and in Georgia. Marrant was able to read and to spell by the age of eleven. Thereafter Marrant received an education in the arts; he learned to play the French horn and violin in eighteen months. Like many African American men at the time, he entertained white gentry at balls and other events. As Julien-Joseph Virey noted in his eighteenth-century work, Natural History of the Negro Species Particularly, the sensual and artistic human characteristics were considered to be a temperament divinely bestowed to Africa and its descendants; hence African Americans' musical talent was respected in spite of the fact that musicians themselves were denied basic human rights. In spite of his artistic skills, Marrant was required to be an apprentice in order to learn a pragmatic trade—carpentry. Eventually he returned to his pursuit of music, which indirectly led to his fame.
Marrant had an extraordinary conversion at the age of thirteen. While playing a prank on the renowned evangelist George Whitefield, Marrant was stopped by the words of the preacher and converted to Christianity.
Persecuted by his own family, Marrant sought comfort with a Cherokee tribe. Marrant remained with the tribe for some time before returning to Charleston in 1772 to teach slaves. He joined the navy late in 1776. After serving Britain for six years, he was injured in the Dutch Anglo War and discharged in 1782. The years after that were spent in ministerial training under the Huntington Methodist Connexion, which was sponsored by Selina Hastings, who was one of the benefactors of Phyllis Wheatley. In 1785 he was ordained a minister and traveled to Nova Scotia to minister to over three thousand African American refugees who fled slavery by fighting in the war.
Marrant's marital status remains unclear. The New York City Inspection Roll of Negroes in 1783 identifies Marrant as the owner of Melia Marrant and her two children. Devona Mallory, in African American Lives, argues that there is no reason to believe that the woman and children were not Marrant's family. However, Joanna Brooks and John Saillant, in Face Zion Forward, suggest that it is possible that Marrant owned slaves since he needed to avoid offending his Huntington Methodist Connexion.
- Born in the colony of New York on June 15
- Father dies; mother moves family to Florida and Georgia before settling in Charleston, South Carolina
- Converts to Christianity at the age of thirteen
- Runs a church school in South Carolina
- Serves the British Navy at the start of the Revolutionary War
- Discharged from military
- Ordained a minister; travels to Nova Scotia to minister to North American black refugees
- Publishes A Narrative of the Lord's Wonderful Dealings with John Marrant, A Black
- Publishes A Sermon Preached on the 24th Day of June 1789 … at the Request of the Right Worshipful the Grand Master Prince Hall, and the Rest of the Brethren of the African Lodge of the Honorable Society of Free and Accepted Masons in Boston
- Publishes A Journal of the Rev. John Marrant, from August the 18th, 1785, to the 16th of March, 1790
- Dies in Islington, London, England
In 1785 Marrant published A Narrative of the Lord's Wonderful Dealings with John Marrant, A Black with the assistance of Reverend William Aldridge, who transcribed it. It has been argued by some critics that Marrant could not write at this time. Presumably Marrant had learned to write before he published his journal five years later, entitled A Journal of the Rev. John Marrant, from August the 18th, 1785, to the 16th of March, 1790. In his review of Marrant's writings in American Writers before 1800, John C. Shields notes that the Journal is written in a more conservative tone than the Narrative. This differ-ence may substantiate the idea that the first work was transcribed by someone else. Arthur P. Davis, in Dictionary of American Negro Biography, also notes differences in the tone of the two works. He argues that the Narrative is sensationalized with the incredible accounts of divine intervention in Marrant's life. The Journal, in Davis' opinion, is monotonous. Perhaps Henry Louis Gates Jr. articulates it best in The Signifying Monkey when he notes that many of the early African American narratives were dictated to white editors, who possibly revised them in some ways.
In an article in African American Review, Cedrick May contends that Marrant's work is based on a theology rooted in black religion, which is founded on tradition and ambitious social change. Marrant's work is also an Indian captivity narrative; it was one of the top three Indian captivity narratives in circulation during the eighteenth century.
In spite of Marrant's popularity and influence as an African American writer, some critics still hold that Mar-rant failed to communicate much on behalf of his race. In his A Sermon Preached on the 24th Day of June 1789 … at the Request of the Right Worshipful the Grand Master Prince Hall, and the Rest of the Brethren of the African Lodge of the Honorable Society of Free and Accepted Masons in Boston, Marrant focused the text on love and virtue against evil. In relation to race, he does clearly note that blacks have a place of honor as the descendents of Cush, who were responsible for the creation of some of the ancient wonders and mathematics.
Marrant died in Islington, London, England in 1791. As Shields aptly argues, Marrant's life modeled liberty in mind, body and soul, which he desired for all humankind regardless of color; this desire for universal freedom only heightened his example for eighteenth century African Americans who were denied these liberties and thought to be less than human. Marrant was a man who stood in three worlds without limitations: the literary world, the religious world, and the world of progress for African Americans.
Brooks, Joanna, and John Saillant. Face Zion Forward: First Writers of the Black Atlantic, 1785–1798. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2002.
Carretta, Vincent, ed. Unchained Voices: An Anthology of Black Authors in the English-Speaking World of the Eighteenth Century. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1996.
Davis, Arthur P. "John Marrant." In Dictionary of American Negro Biography. Eds. Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston. New York: Norton, 1982.
Gates, Henry Louis Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Shields, John C. "John Marrant." In American Writers Before 1800. Eds. James Levernier and Douglass R. Wilmes. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983.
Virey, Julien-Joseph. "Natural History of the Negro Species Particularly." Trans. J. H. Guenebault. Race: The Origins of An Idea, 1760–1850. Eds. Hannah Frankziska Augstein and Andrew Pyle. Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 1996.
Walker, James W. St. G. "John Marrant." In Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Trans. J. F. Flinn. Toronto: University of Toronto Press and Les Presses de l'université Laval, 1979.
May, Cedrick. "John Marrant and the Narrative Construction of an Early Black Methodist Evangelical." African American Review 38 (Winter 2004): 553-72.