The Rev. “Black Harry” Hoosier (or Hosier) 1750-1810
| Portrait of Harry Hoosier|
Early in his ministry, Harry became a close associate of Bishop Francis Asbury (1745- 1816), the “Founding Father of the American Methodist Church.”
(In 1771, Asbury – an Englishman – heard an appeal from John Wesley for preachers to go to America to “spread the Word.” Asbury responded, and during the next four decades he preached almost 20,000 sermons and rode over a quarter of a million miles across America – on horseback! When Asbury first arrived, there were only 550 Methodists in America, but by the time of his death in 1816, there were 250,000 – and 700 ordained Methodist ministers. In 1924 when a statue of Bishop Asbury was erected in Washington, DC, President Calvin Coolidge declared of Asbury that “He is entitled to rank as one of the builders of our nation.”)
Hoosier and Bishop Asbury traveled and preached together, but Bishop Asbury (who drew huge crowds) remarked that Harry drew even larger crowds than he did! In fact, the Rev. Henry Boehm (1775-1875) reported: “Harry. . . . was so illiterate he could not read a word [but h]e would repeat the hymn as if reading it, and quote his text with great accuracy. His voice was musical, and his tongue as the pen of a ready writer. He was unboundedly popular, and many would rather hear him than the bishops.” Harry also traveled and preached with other popular bishops of that era, including the Rev. Richard Whatcoat (1736- 1806), the Rev. Freeborn Garretson (1752-1827), and the Rev. Thomas Coke (1747-1814). The Rev. Coke said of Asbury that, “I really believe he is one of the best preachers in the world. There is such an amazing power that attends his preaching . . . and he is one of the humblest creatures I ever saw.”
Hoosier ministered widely along the American frontier and is described by historians as “a renowned camp meeting exhorter, the most widely known black preacher of his time, and arguably the greatest circuit rider of his day.” However, he was unpopular in the South for two reasons: first, frontier Methodists such as Hoosier tended to lean Arminian in their theology, contrasted with the denominations of the South that were largely Calvinistic (e.g., Presbyterians, Reformed, Episcopalians, Baptists, etc. – yes, the Baptists of that day were largely Calvinistic!); second, Methodists were outspoken against slavery whereas the majority of the South supported slavery. Therefore, southern groups such as the Virginia Baptists came to use the term “Hoosiers” as an insulting term of derision that they applied to Methodists like Black Harry Hoosier, meaning that they were anti-slavery in belief and Arminian in theology.
Fisk University history professor William Piersen believes that this is the source of the term “Hoosier” that was applied to the inhabitants of Indiana. Piersen explains, “Such an etymology would offer Indiana a plausible and worthy first Hoosier – ‘Black Harry’ Hoosier – the greatest preacher of his day, a man who rejected slavery and stood up for morality and the common man.”
Noted African American historian Carter Woodson reported the words of early Methodist historian John Ledman in describing the closing chapter of Harry Hoosier’s life:
After he had moved on the tide of popularity for a number of years . . . he fell by wine – one of the strong enemies of both ministers and people. And now, alas! this popular preacher was a drunken ragpicker in the streets of Philadelphia. But we will not leave him here. One evening, Harry . . . determined to remain there until his backslidings were healed. Under a tree he wrestled with God in prayer. Sometime that night, God restored to him the joys of his salvation [Psalm 51:12]. . . . About the year 1810, Harry finished his course. . . . An unusually large number of people, both white and colored, followed his body to its last resting place, in a free burying ground in Kensington [near Philadelphia].
The Rev. Harry Hoosier was used by God to draw thousands of Americans to Christ during the early decades of the Second Great Awakening.
If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy this one on Francis Asbury.