Why a Black Preacher’s Fiery Sermon at a White Church Received a Lasting Tribute

Image of the Week: This painting commemorates a key moment in the life of minister and activist Lemuel Haynes.

American. Lemuel Haynes preaching, circa 1835-40. Painted tray, oil paint on papier-mâché, 65.3 cm.
American. Lemuel Haynes preaching, circa 1835-40. Painted tray, oil paint on papier-mâché, 65.3 cm. Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence. Bequest of Miss Lucy T. Aldrich.

This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black in Western Art Archive at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

The ornate, lacquered contours of a meticulously painted serving tray highlight a moving oration from the pulpit by a noted early-19th-century black preacher. The figure has long been identified as Lemuel Haynes, a dynamic Congregationalist minister from New England who adumbrated his abolitionist sentiments within the unassailable context of divine Scripture. The venue for his spirited address provides a fitting centerpiece for the discussion of his influential career as a leading preacher and activist of the time.

In mid-June 1814, Haynes traveled to Fairfield, Conn., to attend the annual session of the General Association of Congregational Ministers. On the way, he had been invited to deliver a sermon in nearby New Haven by Timothy Dwight, president of Yale College. The event is described at length in a biography published in 1837 by his younger colleague and fellow pastor Timothy Mather Cooley. The location of Haynes’ sermon was the Congregational Church of the United Society in New Haven.

With him in the pulpit, as seen here, was Dwight himself and another highly distinguished local authority, Elizur Goodrich, a professor of law, probate judge and mayor of New Haven. Haynes’ spirited homily on a passage from the book of the biblical prophet Isaiah professed the positive, enabling desire of God for the salvation of humankind. By the conclusion of his sermon, the audience of several hundred people was profoundly moved, to the point of tears.

The tray commemorates this key moment in Haynes’ career. It records one of the few times—indeed, perhaps the first time—that a black clergyman had preached before such a large, predominantly white congregation. There may also have been black attendees among the congregation. Just below the pulpit and in the background, several people sit in shadow, making their race difficult to determine. If black people had actually been in attendance in the church, however, they would have been required to sit in a more remote section in the steeple tower.

Judging from the fashions worn by those in attendance, the tray was painted well after the event it depicts, apparently following the death of Haynes himself in 1833. The image therefore serves as a visual coda to the tributes of dozens of political and religious leaders filling the pages of Cooley’s biography of Haynes.

Haynes grew up as a black person in a largely white world. Of obscure parentage, he was born out of wedlock to an unidentified white woman and black father in West Hartford, Conn., in 1753. Soon abandoned by his mother, at 5 months of age Haynes was indentured for a period of 20 years to a family in Middle Granville, Mass.

Not a slave but still not truly free, he lived in the providentially nurturing home of David Rose, a devout deacon of the local Congregational church. After service in the American Revolution, Haynes came back to marry a white woman, with whom he began a large family. In 1785 he was formally ordained as a Congregationalist minister. Three years later he was assigned a pulpit in the West Parish of rural Rutland, Vt., where he was to remain for the next 30 years.

The illustrious preacher had come of age during the momentous transition between the Colonial period and the emergence of a new nation. His view of the future of a black man in the United States was informed by the more progressive ideology of the Federalists, particularly as represented by George Washington and John Adams. Haynes adopted their notion of a common national destiny resolutely guided by the Christian deity. From his earliest days, he negotiated a course through the inherent promises and real contradictions of this positive view of cooperative government.

As a young man, his natural inclination toward theology was shaped by the predominantly Congregationalist environment of New England. New Divinity theology had been introduced in New England a generation or so earlier by the mesmerizing sermons of preachers like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield. Their reformist views called for a more active interpretation of the standard Calvinist conception of human sin and divine will, and claimed that God used all human acts, good and bad, to achieve the ultimate redress of injustice. This theological shift in the Congregational Church took place within the larger context of the Great Awakening, a popular revivalist movement that gripped the American colonies from the 1730s.