Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Uncle Abram Brown, Mississippi 1863

When Elkanah Beard was 24 years old he began a journal. Not because he thought he would be famous one day and that his writings would be published, but because he felt that he wanted a future reference to the working of the Holy Spirit in his life. At that time he was involved in the mercantile business and found that he had little time or energy to read, pray and meditate like he felt he should. He wrote “ I often feel deep remorse of conscience for having neglected that for which I was created”.

The first entries of his journal told about his life, his family, his marriage to Irena Johnson in 1852, and his vocations of teaching and business. Over the next 5 or 6 years, Elkanah began to work himself out of his business. At the first of June 1863, Elkanah wrote in his journal: “I have been under a religious engagement of mind for several months, to spend some time as a missionary among the colored people encamped on or near the Mississippi River who have been lately liberated from Slavery.......I feel very much cast down under the weight of this being so momentous and my abilities the poorest of the poor....but believing that my present and future happiness depends on my faithfulness to [God].” A few weeks later Elkanah found himself ready to join a trip planned by New Garden Quarterly Meeting to travel south to help the large number of slaves liberated by the Union Army. On June 17, 1863 Elkanah departed for a 6 week tour of refugees camps along the Mississippi River. On June 29, 1863 in Helena, Arkansas Elkanah met and talked to a freed gray-headed slave named Uncle Abram Brown. Elkanah wrote this man’s story in his journal to preserve a record a remarkable piety and prayerfullness under very adverse circumstances. This is the story.

Abe was 73 years old and had just been freed as a slave. Born a slave in 1790, his first Master was very kind to him. This master became involved in debt and had to put some of his slaves on the auction block to sell to the highest bidder. Abe was 24 years old at that time, strong and robust and in good health. Consequently he was bought by a man whose business it was to buy slaves and he chained Abram to a gang of slaves and marched them to Tennessee. Up on another auction block, Abram was sold to a cotton planter named Brown. Mr. Brown was a member of the Methodist church and a owner of an extensive plantation and 100 Negroes. Mr. Brown also made great pretensions of religion, contributed largely to the support of the church and was regular in his devotional exercises at home or abroad.

Abe had a difficult time in his new home and did not find it agreeable. He was allowed fellowship with all the other slaves because he obeyed all the orders given to him without muttering or complaining and he always made sure his tasks were done in time. Abe began to imagine in his mind ways to make his life better and more comfortable. He was encouraged to use the female slaves for his own pleasure by his master with the hopes of breeding more slaves. Abram said that he soon decided that he wanted to keep himself entirely free from that sin. He said “not that I had a regard for the laws of God or the welfare of my soul, but secretly felt that I wanted no children to trouble my head about who would without doubt be sold at the age of 10 or 12 and shipped south. I hated the religion of the Slaveholder and was disgusted at Maters prayers which I often heard cause he told us was had no souls and that the prayers of a black man never went higher than the brayen of a mule.”

When Abe was 30 he had the opportunity to go to a camp meeting in the neighborhood with the Brown family. At that meeting his soul was awakened and he became convinced that there was a religion for the black man as well as the white man. This brought a change to Abe and sobered him about his own life and his eternal life. Mr. Brown observed that Abe looked thoughtful and sad and feared that Abe caught a spark of light from the ministry. In Mr. Brown’s eyes, that would render Abe useless as a slave. So Mr. Brown resolved that Abe would not be able to attend any more campmeetings. In addition, this good Methodist plantation owner told all of his slaves that it was preposterous for them to assume to be religious or even attempt to call upon the high and holy name of the God who made heaven and earth. That was a privilege of white men only. A Negro’s highest attainment was to obey his master’s orders and revere him.

In spite of that warning, the spark of God in Abe’s soul was kindled to a flame that night and at midnight, Abe met God in a powerful way alone in his cot. His soul was filled with a Godly fire and he rose from his cot and began to vocally magnify the name of Jesus. He thanked God for giving him evidence that his sins were forgiven. Abe said “before I got up off my knees I prayed to the good Lord that he might bless the colored people everywhere and free them from all their sins and from their yoke of bondage.”

God heard Abe’s prayers, as did Mr. Brown. The next morning Mr. Brown gathered all his slaves together to hear a lecture about what a wonderful and good master he thought he was and how happy they would all be if only they would take his advice. Mr. Brown then addressed Abe and said “Abe, you rascal you. I was awaken last night by all your loud noise and I will make an example of your prayers.” He then ordered Abe stripped of all his clothing and tied him down to receive 250 lashes for trying to pray and for asking the Lord to set them free from their bondage. All the time the overseer and master were applying the whip to Abe’s back, Abe never opened his mouth and bore the pain with courage. Not a groan or a murmur escaped his lips.

This event stopped Abe from vocalizing his prayers, but he prayed in his heart and day by day he drew near to God in the secret of his soul. He occasionally slipped away into deserted places in the woods where he cried out and told Jesus all of his longings. Abe said “I always went mighty hungry out there, but the blessed Jesus filled my soul brim full before I came away.”

Not too many years after this flogging, Abe decided to marry a wife. He hoped and prayed that the woman he chose would be modest and moral. It was not very long after their marriage that she proved not to be and took up with another man and left Abe. He remained single until the end of his days.

Life for Abe seemed mostly peaceful until Mr. Brown and all his slaves moved to Mississippi in 1859. Abe had just reached his 69th year, he was silver haired, and his vision was dim, yet he was permitted to stay in a small cabin to himself and was put to basket weaving, a trade he learned at night when he was a boy, and had become quite proficient in. Mr. Brown ordered a basket made for his wife. Abe worked hard on the basket and expected that maybe his master would offer him praise for his work as all the other slaves had done when they saw the basket that Abe made for the Misses. On the morning that the basket was complete, Mr. Brown came to Abe’s door and took the basket, turned it over and over in his hand looking for a defect. Finally he found a little split on the bottom of the basket that stuck out 1/2 inch and Mr. Brown took his faithful servant to account for this mistake.

Abe pleaded “ Master, I’ve gotten old and my eyes are failing so, I didn’t see the mistake!”. Mr. Brown replied, “Abe, I’ve been watching for a chance to give you a whipping for a long time, now strip your clothes.”

When Abe was nude, he was tied over a log and the master used a cowhide whip to lash him 40 times. At the end, Abe exclaimed “O Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.” At this the wrath of the master was raised and he called for assistance. The lash was given to Abe with even greater determination and at every stroke the blood gushed forth from the deep gashes until Abe had been given over 300 lashes in total. (Elkanah Beard testified that the gashes weren’t even healed at the time he met Abe, 3 years later.) When the lashing stopped, Abe cried out again, “Lord, pity me and have mercy on Master though he have none on me.”

Anger belched forth from Mr. Brown soul and he said “You damned, infernal fool, I tell you to pray to me and not think or say a word about God.” In the midst of unbelievable pain, Abe was full of confidence and hope and replied: “Oh, the blessed God hears me and know I love him and that I tried to serve you as well as I could.”

The other slaves began to encourage Abe to pray to the master to forgive him for calling upon the name of the Lord, saying “He’ll kill you if you don’t!” But Abe’s faith was not shaken. He received too many blessings at the hand of the Lord in answer to prayer to withdraw his trust or allegiance to God.

Mr. Brown ordered another 100 lashes to be given to Abe and then sat down nearby to keep tally. Once the number was completed, and before the thongs could be untied that held Abe to the log, a weak, yet firm voice from Abe said, “Now master, I prayed to God all the time you had me beaten to forgive you all your sins and I expect to keep praying and praising the blessed Jesus long as I lives.”

Abe was too weak to walk or stand and was carried to the house, washed in salt and water, greased and rolled up in a blanket where he lay several weeks almost helpless.

This story was witnessed to by several who were present at the telling of this tale by Uncle Abe to Elkanah Beard. After the telling of this story, Elkanah asked Abe several questions:
“How do you think that we should worship God?” Abe replied: “The good book says God is a Spirit and all that worship Him does it in the spirit and in the truth too.”
“Is it right then for us in our own will to set a time to preach or pray?” Abe replied: “ I guess not, though it is mighty fashionable now days for people to be praying long and very loud, makes me think of them Pharisees that Christ said only pretended.”
“Are they not past redemption who buy and sell human beings and would, if it were in their power, to forever crush down the colored man? Abe replied: “I expect some of them is, but God has a mighty big store of mercy and lets a heap of folks repent just before they die,”
“Well, are we to pray for them who treat us so cruelly?” Abe replied: “Christ say so, so I believe he knowed, and that what makes me think so. I never felt no happier than when I could in truth pray for my baddest enemy.”

Elkanah and Irena Beard spent the next 6 years traveling from Indiana to Vicksburg helping with freed slaves in refugee camps and establishing schools, orphan asylums, and settlements. Irena worked alongside Elkanah teaching, sewing, and helping with medical needs. Both spent much time preaching and ministering to all whom they came in contact, freed slaves, other church workers and military personnel. They returned to Randolph County in 1869 and shortly after offered themselves to the London Missionary Society for service in India where they spent time teaching and preaching from 1870-1873. In May of 1873 they moved to Winchester, IN at the request of Thomas Moorman, Thomas Ward and other Winchester Quakers to preach the gospel and organize a new Friends Meeting within the city limits.