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Full text of "Henry Evans and Negro Methodism"

HENRY EVANS AND NEGRO 
METHODISM 

BY STEPHEN B. WEEKS 

WITH its strong appeal to the emotions and its emphasis on 
experience, Methodism has always been popular among 
Negroes. Indeed, among Southern Negroes the Methodists and 
the Baptists, who represent an essentially similar type of religious 
life, are in a very large majority, and to one of this race the whole 
Methodist organization in Fayetteville, N. C, traces its orgin. 

The first preacher and teacher of Methodism in that town 
was Henry Evans, a Negro. We know very little of the life of 
this early preacher, and almost all that we do know with cer- 
tainty comes from the autobiography of Rev. William Capers, 
bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, who was the 
preacher in charge of the Methodist congregation in Fayetteville 
at the time of the death of Evans. Another source of some in- 
formation is the autobiography of Rev. James Jenkins, a travel- 
ing Methodist preacher of the Carolinas who visited him in 1802. 

Bishop Capers introduces his story of Henry Evans in an 
unusual way: 

"But the most remarkable man in Fayetteville when I went 
there, and who died during my stay, was a Negro by the name 
of Henry Evans. I say the most remarkable in view of his class; 
and I call him Negro with unfeigned respect. He was of that 
race without any admixture of another. The name simply des- 
ignates the race and it is vulgar to regard it with opprobrium. 
I have known and loved and honored not a few Negroes in 
my life, who were probably as pure of heart as Evans, or any- 
body else. Such were my old friends, Castile Selby and John 
Boquet of Charleston, Will Campbell and Harry Myrick of Wil- 
mington, York Cohen of Savannah, and others I might name. 
These I might call remarkable for their goodness. But I use the 
word in a broader sense for Henry Evans, who was confessedly 
the father of the Methodist church, white and black, in Fayette- 
ville, and the best preacher of his time in that quarter; and who 
was so remarkable as to have become the greatest curiosity of 
the town, insomuch that distinguished visitors hardly felt that 
they might pass a Sunday in Fayetteville without hearing him 
preach." 



HENRY EVANS AND NEGRO METHODISM 



689 



It is said that Evans was born in Virginia of free parents, 
and as he was "almost too feeble to stand" at the time of his 
death in 1810 we may perhaps safely carry back the date of his 
birth to 1730 or 1735. He became a Christian and a Methodist 
when quite young and was licensed to preach in Virginia. There 
is a report also that he removed from Virginia to the neighbor- 
hood of Doub's Chapel in what was then Stokes, now Forsyth 
County, North Carolina, and while there was also licensed to 
preach. He stayed there about a year, but being a shoemaker 
by trade and thinking to improve his financial condition, he 
determined to remove to Charleston, South Carolina. It was 
while on his way southward from Stokes that he was detained 
for a few days in Fayetteville. Here, like St. Paul, his spirit 
was stirred within him "at perceiving that the people of his race 
in that town were wholly given to profanity and lewdness, never 
hearing preaching of any denomination, and living emphatically 
without hope and without God in the world." 

Bishop Capers then continues his narrative as follows : 

"This determined him to stop in Fayetteville; and he began 
to preach to the Negroes, with great effect. The town council 
interfered, and nothing in his power could prevail with them to 
permit him to preach. He then withdrew to the sandhills out- 
side of the town, and held meetings in the woods, changing his 
appointments from place to place. No law was violated, while 
the council was effectually eluded; and so the opposition passed 
into the hands of the mob. These he worried out by changing 
his appointments, so that when they went to work their will 
upon him he was preaching somewhere else. Meanwhile, what- 
ever the most honest purpose of a simple heart could do to recon- 
cile his enemies was employed by him for that end. He eluded 
no one in private but sought opportunities to explain himself; 
avowed the purity of his intentions, and even begged to be sub- 
jected to the scrutiny of any surveillance that might be thought 
proper to prove his inoffensiveness. 

" Happily for him and the cause of religion, his honest coun- 
tenance and earnest pleadings were soon powerfully seconded by 
the fruits of his labors. One after another began to suspect 
their servants of attending his preaching, not because they were 
made worse, but wonderfully better. The effect on the public 
morals of the Negroes, too, began to be seen, particularly as 
regarded drunkenness and their habits on Sunday. It was not 
long before the mob was called oft* by a change in the current of 
opinion, and Evans was allowed to preach in town. At that time 
there was not a single church edifice in the city, and but one 
congregation (Presbyterian) which worshiped in what was called 
the statchouse, under which was the market; and it was plainly 



690 



THE SOUTHERN WORKMAN 



Evans or nobody to preach to the Negroes. Now, too, not a few 
mistresses and some masters were brought to think that the 
preaching which had proved so beneficial to their servants might 
be good for them also; and the famous Negro preacher had some 
whites as well as blacks to hear him. Among these were my old 
friends, Mr. and Mrs. Lumsden, Mrs. Bowen (for many years 
preceptress of the Female Academy), Mrs. Malsby, and, I think, 
Mr. and Mrs. Blake. From these the gracious influence spread 
to others, and a meeting-house was built. It was a frame of 
wood, weather-boarded only on the outside, without plastering, 
and about fifty feet long by thirty feet wide." 

Unfortunately Bishop Capers gives no dates for these inter- 
esting occurrences, but we are able to fix them as antedating 
1802, for in that year Rev. James Jenkins visited Fayetteville and 
writes in his autobiography: 

"We had no white society there at that time; I found, how- 
ever, a small society of colored people, under the care of a col- 
ored man by the name of Evans, who preached to them regu- 
larly, and no ordinary preacher was he. I visited him every 
round and encouraged him all I could, and furnished him with a 
steward's book in which to register whatever might appertain to 
his office. About this time he leased a lot for seven years and 
commenced building a church, twenty by thirty feet, out of 
rough-edged materials. They met the expenses themselves, ex- 
cept $5, which was given them by a white man. This was the 
first Methodist church in the place; it was called 'the Negro 
church.' In a short time it became crowded, and an addition of 
ten feet was made to it." 

In 1803 Mr. Jenkins writes: " Old Sister Malsby, who was 
then a member of the Presbyterian church, and who, as I was 
told, had been led out of the public congregation for shouting, 
asked me if she might come in among the Negroes ? This was 
the first white member we had in the place." 

If we turn again to Bishop Capers we will find the result of 
the step taken by " old Sister Malsby." He says: "Seats, dis- 
tinctly separated, were at first appropriated to the whites, near 
the pulpit. But Evans had already become famous, and these 
seats were insufficient. Indeed, the Negroes seemed likely to 
lose their preacher, Negro though he was, while the whites, 
crowded out of their appropriate seats, took possession of those 
in the rear. Meanwhile Evans had represented to the preacher 
of Bladen circuit how things were going, and induced him to take 
his meeting-house into the circuit and constitute a church there. 
And now there was no longer room for the Negroes in the house 
when Evans preached; and for the accommodation of both classes, 
^ the weather-boards were knocked off and sheds added to the 



HENRY EVANS AND NEGRO METHODISM 



691 



house on either side, the whites occupying the whole of the orig- 
inal building, and the Negroes those sheds as a part of the same 
house. Evans's dwelling was a shed at the pulpit end of the 
church." 

Of Evans himself Bishop Capers says: " I have not known 
many preachers who appeared more conversant with the Scriptures 
than Evans, or whose conversation was more instructive as to 
the things of God. He seemed always deeply impressed with the 
responsibility of his position; and not even our old friend Castile 
was more remarkable for his humble and deferential deportment 
towards the whites than Evans was. Nor would he allow any 
partiality of his friends to induce him to vary in the least degree 
the line of conduct or the bearing which he had prescribed for 
himself in this respect. And yet Henry Evans was a Boanerges, 
and in his duty feared not the face of man." 

Of Evans's death, which occurred between June 13 and Decem- 
ber 22, 1810, the inclusive dates of Bishop Capers' pastorate in 
Fayetteville, he has this to say: 

"It was my practice to hold a meeting with the blacks in the 
church directly after morning preaching every Sunday. And 
on the Sunday before the death of Evans, during this meeting, 
the little door between his humble shed and the chancel where 
I stood was opened, and the dying man entered for a last fare- 
well to his people. He was almost too feeble to stand at all, but, 
supporting himself by the railing of the chancel, he said: ' I have 
come to say my last word to you. It is this : None but Christ. 
Three times I have had my life in jeopardy for preaching the 
gospel to you. Three times I have broken the ice on the edge of 
the water and swum across the Cape Fear to preach the gospel to 
you. And now, if in my last hour I could trust to that, or to any- 
thing else but Christ crucified, for my salvation, all would be 
lost and my soul perish forever.' A noble testimony! Worthy 
not of Evans only, but of St. Paul. His funeral at the church 
was attended by a greater concourse of persons than had been 
seen on any funeral occasion before. The whole community ap- 
peared to mourn his death, and the universal feeling seemed to 
be that in honoring the memory of Henry Evans we were paying 
a tribute to virtue and religion. He was buried under the chancel 
of the church of which he had been in so remarkable a manner 
the founder." 

Bishop Asbury also bears testimony to the thoroughness of 
Evans's work. He was at Fayetteville in 1811 and writes in his 
Journal: "Preached; our house is too small; preached in the 
afternoon; we must enlarge our house." By January 1814, this 
desire had probably been attained, for the congregation was then 
strong enough and the house of worship large enough to enter- 
tain the South Carolina Conference and thus, in the case of 
Henry Evans, were the Scriptures fulfilled, "for his works did 
follow him."