One of the Best Preachers in The World

Thomas Coke referred to Harry Hosier as “one of the best preachers in the world.” It was not uncommon for Hosier to preach to crowds of several hundred—even reaching more than a thousand on at least one occasion. Unfortunately, this acclaimed orator faced unfounded accusations and posthumous rumors, which have tainted his image. His legacy is often forgotten and understated—I want to change that by looking at Hosier’s accomplishments and providing some alternative perspectives on the accusations made against him.

It would be an understatement to say that Harry Hosier is one of the most significant leaders in early Methodism. I must confess that I was largely unaware of this fact despite my research in this realm. In many books and articles about early American Methodism there is often great focus on people such as Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke. While I do not want to discredit the incredible work of these two men, historians have neglected an important leader in the early Methodist Movement. Hosier is believed to be the first black preacher licensed by the Methodists.[1] The earliest recorded sermon that Hosier preached was in Falls Church, VA at the Fairfax Chapel on May 13, 1781.[2] For most of the next twenty-five years Hosier would preach to large crowds.

McEllhenney and Stith indicate:

“…his words poured out rhythmically and with a range of volume. This rhetoric, combined with a keen mind and outstanding communication skills, enabled the biblical truths he proclaimed to pulverize the stony hearts of his listeners.”[3]

Unfortunately, his homiletical gift was questioned by racist rhetoric from white Methodists, noted by Henry Boehm:

“Some inquired whether he was really black, or whether Anglo-Saxon blood was not mixed in his veins.”[4]

Hosier stayed committed to his mission despite the fact that he was not treated as an equal with other Methodist ministers. He was not able to vote at the Christmas Conference, was never ordained, and during the early years of his ministry, he was often treated as an addition for preaching engagements. Even though he was not treated equally, he became quite the draw for people. Boehm notes:

“He was unboundedly popular, and many would rather hear him than the bishops.”[5]

At the turn of the 19th century, black parishioners made up one fifth of the Methodist membership, in large part to the ministry of Hosier.[6] His preaching attracted all people and would seek to overcome the racial inequality that he faced by faithfully continuing to preach the gospel.

Freeborn Garrettson wrote in 1784:

“…as there was a degree of persecution against Harry I thought it expedient to leave him behind.”[7]

One might interpet this statement to be a sense of caring for Hosier in hopes of protecting him from persecution. However, some other sources postulate that Garrettson struggled with jealousy of Hosier’s popularity, even refusing to refer to him as “Brother Hosier” and solely as “Harry.”[8]

In 1791, Hosier was accused of an incident regarding a woman by the name of Sally Lyon.[9] We do not have record of these charges, but we do know that Hosier was found not guilty. Where this story becomes more convoluted is the posthumous rumors that developed about him after this incident. A rumor was circulated that he:

“…fell by wine [and became] a drunken rag-picker in the streets of Philadelphia.”[10]

Variations of this rumor have been treated like history, claiming the source of his decline was his popularity, skin color, or the alleged charges with Lyon. However, it appears as though there is no reliable evidence to confirm any of these statements.[11]

Hosier’s story is an important piece of the Methodist story, the American story, and the Christian story. Unfortunately, much of his story has been tainted and nearly expunged from the Methodist story. Is it possible that Hosier slid into alcoholism and depression near the end of his life and victoriously overcame his addiction? Yes, but I am more inclined to believe that this story was embellished or exaggerated. A significant season of growth in the Methodist Movement can be attributed to the work of Hosier and how could this be accomplished while he was “in the streets of Philadelphia”? During the same time period he was assumed to be a drunken “rag-picker” he was actually noted as having founded most of the Methodist presence in New England.[12] While I have no evidence to prove that Hosier never experienced this downward season of life, I want to help rewrite the history of Hosier and reclaim the meaningful ministry he did for the sake of the church.

We have to be careful to not let rumors redefine a story.

“…the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (Luke 7:34, NRSV).


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