Preaching in the Wilderness: John Marrant and John the Baptist

I enjoy teaching John Marrant’s A Narrative of the Lord’s Wonderful Dealing with John Marrant, A Black (1785) for various reasons, chief among them being that Marrant’s narrative destabilizes students’ perceptions African Americans during the early years of the republic in similar ways that Sarah Kemble Knight does with women during the colonial period  and William Apess does with Native Americans later in the 1830s. Today, I want to look at Marrant’s narrative and his deployment of biblical figures throughout the text, specifically the connection between Marrant and John the Baptist. Joanna Brooks points out that Marrant’s narrative, Samson Occom’s narrative, and those of other people of color serve as representations of the American Lazarus through the writers’ facing of death and oppression (social and physical) and their resurrection. Marrant does not mention Lazarus in the Narrative, but  he does bring to mind Saul of Tarsus (Paul) and other biblical figures who experienced rescue and redemption.

6909717-mWhen detailing his conversion about being “struck to the ground” by George Whitefield’s words to him, Marrant could not eat and only drank small amounts of water for three days. Struck blind on the way to Damascus, Saul went to Damascus where he remained blind and did not eat or drink until Ananias removed the scales from Saul’s eyes. Like Saul, Mr. Hart comes to Marrant and prays with him, working through the conversion process. Marrant says, “and so falling upon our knees, he [Mr. Hart] continued in prayer a considerable time, and near the close of his prayer, the Lord was pleased to set my soul at perfect liberty, and being filled with joy, I began to praise the Lord immediately.” Like Ananias assisting Saul, Mr. Hart assists Marrant in his conversion experience. As well, Marrant, like Saul, enters into the ministry in hopes of converting others.

Even though Marrant does not mention Saul (Paul) directly, his story does appear similar. Marrant does reference Old Testament figures such as Daniel,  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Marrant deploys Daniel and the men in the fiery furnace when he encounters danger and possible death. When faced with death at the hands of the Cherokee, Marrant begins to pray in front of the executioner: “I desired them all to do as I did, so I fell upon my knees, and mentioned to the Lord his delivering of the three children in the fiery furnace, and of Daniel in the lion’s den.” Marrant addresses God here, while the executioner listens.  Like Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, Marrant’s imprisonment and impending execution come about because he is a stranger in a foreign land. For the figures in the Bible, they are captives in Babylon. Marrant calls upon to God to protect him as He did with those in the furnace and Daniel. As such, Marrant’s prayers bring about his salvation and stay the execution for a little while longer.

Marrant’s references to Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego set him up as a prophet who will lead others to salvation. For me, the most pertinent parallel to a biblical figure involves the prophet who preceded Jesus before the start of his ministry. We do not get a conversion story for John the Baptist, but his description in the Bible corresponds to Marrant’s description of himself when returns to his family. John preaches in the desert of Judea, and his “clothes were made of camel’s hair and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey” (Matthew 2:4). Quoting Isiah, John replied to people who asked who he was with, “I am the voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord'” (John 1:23).

220px-anton_raphael_mengs_-_st-_john_the_baptist_preaching_in_the_wilderness_-_google_art_projectJohn the Baptist arises from the desert dressed in animal skins, subsisting on honey and locust, and exhorting his audience to make themselves right before the arrival of Jesus. When he returns from his time in the “wilderness,” Marrant crosses the line back into “civilization” dressed “purely in the Indian style; the skins of wild beats composed my garments; my head was set out in a savage manner, with a long pendant down my back, a sash round my middle, without breeches, and a tomahawk by my side.”  Marrant’s description of his dress places him as a Cherokee, of course, but it also presents him as one walking out of the wilderness to proclaim his experiences and faith. His dress brings to mind John the Baptist’s clothing.

When he eats a meal with a family, they do not bless the food, and Marrant reproaches them. Upon his reproach, Marrant perceives that the man made “a sound conversion,” adding that the man commented, “Here is a wild man, says he, come out of the woods to a be a witness for God, and to reprove our ingratitude at stupefaction!” Just as John the Baptist provides a voice in the wilderness, Marrant’s appearance from the “savage” frontier as a disciple of God, serves as a voice to those who he dines with.

John the Baptist preached against the wickedness of his time, telling people to make themselves right in preparation for the arrival of Jesus. While not explicitly doing this in his narrative, Marrant makes a similar move in the ways he presents whites and his relationships with the Cherokee and other Native American tribes. Speaking about the ways that Native Aerican tribes viewed whites, Marrant notes, “When they recollect, thet the white people drove them from the American shores, they are full of resentment.” This is a single sentence, and we must remember that William Aldridge mediated the first few editions of Marrant’s narrative. However, through it, Marrant subtly comments on the sins of whites in regards to Native American relations.

Likewise when he inserts the section on the plantation in later editions, Marrant shows how wickedness, racism, and slavery hinder salvation. After the mistress and master kick him off the plantation for preaching to their slaves, the mistress dies “in a very dreadful manner.” The wickedness of the mistress comes to the forefront, ultimately leading to her destruction and death or hindering the work of God. After the mistress’ death, the master resumed services and Bible study for his slaves.

Marrant’s career took him to Birchtown where he preached to poor whites, Micmac Indians, and Blacks and to Boston before he died in 1790. He became a “voice in the wilderness” who came out of the wilderness to preach against the harsh treatment of Native Americans, enslaved individuals, and free people of color. In these ways, his ministry appears similar to John the Baptist in the ways that he sought to prepare people for their interactions with Jesus.

There is a lot more that needs to be discussed, and I am contemplating other aspects that need to be explored in the novel.  Until then, what are your thoughts?  Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter: @silaslapham.

 

 

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