“In great Perils of our Lives”: George Whitefield and Stono Rebellion of 1739

George Whitefield

It was late at night on Wednesday, January 2, 1740, in colonial South Carolina. George Whitefield and a small party were trying find their way to “a Gentleman’s House, where we had been recommended” but they missed their turn in the dark, and decided to keep on going, “trusting to the Almighty.” Soon after they saw a light, but when they went up to it, they found “a Hutt full of Negroes.” One of Whitefield’s friends figured they might be “some of those who lately had made an Insurrection in this Province, and were run away from their masters.” Whitefield and company rushed off (“thought it best to mend our Pace”), but soon came upon another fire, and imagined another “Nest of such Negroes” so they went off the road through the woods to avoid them. Whitefield and his friends were terrified, believing they were “in great Perils of our Lives”(A Continuation of the Reverend Mr. Whitefield’s Journal, from His Embarking After the Embargo, to His Arrival at Savannah in Georgia, 78–79).

Why was Whitefield so afraid? What was the “Insurrection” he was referring to? How does this help us situate Whitefield in the racial landscape of colonial America at the time?

A Buffer Zone

To understand the mindset of a British citizen traveling in South Carolina in 1740, you have to first step back and look at international politics, in this case, the tension between Britain and Spain. Britain had long felt discomfort with Spanish Florida to the south; the two were competing for the loyalty of native tribes, trade, and land and Britain felt the need for a “buffer zone” between South Carolina and Florida. This was part of what prompted the formation of the Colony of Georgia in 1732, but the boundaries of Georgia did not fall neatly into the existing European territorial claims. Philip Woodfine explains:

“In North America… tensions were mounting over British settlement and expansion in the new colony of Georgia, a large part of which lay in territory long claimed by Spain.” 

Philip Woodfine, Britannia’s Glories: The Walpole Ministry and the 1739 War with Spain, 1.
map from Provincial America, 1690-1740

James Oglethorpe, one of the trustees of Georgia, and the only one to actually visit the colony, wasn’t worried. In April 1834, he noted, that if push came to shove:

“we are in very little Apprehension of the Spaniards we being much more able to dislodge them from Augustine than they us from Savannah” 

“Copy of a Letter from Mr. Oglethorpe to the Trustees dated at Charles Town 2d April 1734,” in Letters from Georgia, v. 14200, 1732-1735 June, 73.

Letters to and from the Colony of Georgia are riddled with references to the “Spaniards” and in particular, their settlement at St. Augustine in Florida, demonstrating that their “vecinas del sur” (neighbors to the south), were regularly on their minds.

(For more on this, see: Herbert E. Bolton and Mary Ross, The Debatable Land: A Sketch of the Anglo-Spanish Contest for the Georgia Country (University of California Press: 1925 — Free on Google Books)

“Freedom”

One particular point that the Spanish sought to exploit was the British practice of enslavement. In June 1738, it was reported in Georgia that: 

“a Proclamation was publickly read in the streets of Augustine purporting That all the Negro Slaves that had run away from the English should have their Freedom” 

(in Letters from Georgia, v. 14203, 1737 June-1739 January, 58.

The Trustees of the Colony had prohibited slavery in Georgia (one of the best accounts of this that I’ve found is Andrew C. Lannen, “Liberty and Slavery in Colonial America: The Case of Georgia, 1732-1770,” Historian 79.1 (2017): 32–55). This was not because they were abolitionists, but for a variety of other reasons, including this desire to maintain a “buffer zone” between slave-holding South Carolina and Spanish Florida. To respond to this promise of freedom in Augustine, enslaved Black people would have to first escape from South Carolina, only to attempt to cross Georgia, where officials were watching and waiting to capture escaped slaves and return them to their owners before they could make it to Florida. Once in Florida, Spanish officials even created armed regiments of self-emancipated Black soldiers, a prospect that was frightening and destabilizing to the racialized British colonial order.

It was into this context that Whitefield made his first visited to the Colony of Georgia, arriving in May 1738 (A Continuation of the Reverend Mr. Whitefield’s Journal, from His Arrival at Savannah, to His Return to London, 1). His first visit only lasted three months, and in fact, Whitefield would have been in the Colony when the “Proclamation” in St. Augustine was read.

Interestingly, Whitefield did not agree with the Trustees that having a “slave free buffer zone” between South Carolina and Florida was necessary. In fact, he thought it was crippling the Colony of Georgia:

“The people were denied the use of both rum and slaves… So that, in reality, to place people there on such a footing, was little better than to tye their legs and bid them walk. The scheme was well meant at home; but, as too many years experience evidently proved it was absolutely impracticable in so hot a country abroad”

Memoirs of the life of the Reverend George Whitefield, 25. 

Whitefield’s return trip to England took him into slaveholding South Carolina, and by September 9, he was on board the “Mary” a ship “bound from Charles-Town to England” (Journal… Savannah to London, 13).

The Embargo

Meanwhile, tensions between Britain and Spain continued to mount, and Whitefield was directly impacted. In 1739, as a “precautionary measure,” Britain placed an embargo on all shipping (Philip Woodfine, Britannia’s Glories, 211). This embargo meant that Whitefield was unable to travel back to the Colonies, and indeed, his journals are divided accordingly: 

The embargo would be lifted in August 1739, and by August 14, Whitefield was on board the “Elizabeth” on his way to Philadelphia, where he would land late in October. 

While Whitefield’s ship was making its way across the sea, several dramatic events were taking place that would impact him, and all of the colonies.

“Patience perforce”

In June 1739, Oglethorpe noted growing tension with the Spanish in Florida to the south:

“The Governour of Augustine is wonderful civil, but I believe the reason is Patience perforce. We are as Civil but will not trust them” 

Oglethorpe to the Earl of Egmont, June 13, 1739 in “Letters from Georgia, v. 14204, 1739 June-1740 June,” 1.

Oglethorpe went on: 

“I hear that they are to have a great Reinforcement at Augustine, and families to Settle there. 

They receive the run-away Negroes, and have Strove to bribe our Indians from us, but my Party among the Creeks, particularly those who were in England, Stick firmly to us, yet there are some Priests and others Sent up by the French and Spaniards with presents to bribe the mercenary Part, So that my friends in the Nation have invited me to come up. They are to have a general meeting in July, where they either will renew their Assurances of Fidelity to the King or go into the Spanish Interest” 

Oglethorpe to Egmont, June 13, 1739,” 1–2.

In July 1739, in response to this invitation from his “Indian friends,” Oglethorpe embarked on a four hundred mile “Tour into the Indian Nations to Establish Peace between them and the English” (“A Ranger’s Report of Travels with General Oglethorpe, 1739–1742,” 218).

Several months into the trip, on September 13th, the party received word “of a Declaration of War with Spain,” which would come to be know as “The War of Jenkin’s Ear” (“Ranger’s Report,” 222). While most of this war would take place elsewhere (in the Caribbean, and in South America), battle lines were also drawn between Georgia and Florida, and in 1742, Spain would (unsuccessfully) attempt to invade Georgia itself. Interestingly, a young George Washington (7 years old at the time) received reports of this war directly from his older brother, Lawrence Washington, who was serving as a Captain in a Virginia Company dispatched to Cartagena (Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life, 9).

“Calling out Liberty”

On September 17th, just a few days after Oglethorpe’s party heard about the start of the war, they received another report. They “met a Trading Boat going to Fort Augusta, the People on board her told us the Negroes in Carolina had raised up in Arms and killed about forty White People” (“A Ranger’s Report,” 222). Needless to say, armed resistance to enslavement was (and is) a complicated subject, and considered very differently depending on whose perspective it is viewed from. 

Williams

Let’s look at this incident first from the perspective of one of the first Black historians, George Washington Williams (1849–1891) in his History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880 (1883):

“Sudden and destructive insurrections were the safety-valves to the institution of slavery. A race long and cruelly enslaved may endure the yoke patiently for a season: but like the sudden gathering of the summer clouds, the pelting rain, the vivid, blinding lightning, the deep, hoarse thundering, it will assert itself some day; and then it is indeed a day of judgment to the task-masters! The Negroes in South Carolina endured a most cruel treatment for a long time; and. when “the day of their wrath” came, they scarcely knew it themselves, much less the whites. Florida was in the possession of the Spaniards. Its governor had sent out spies into Georgia and South Carolina, who held out very flattering inducements to the Negroes to desert their masters and go to Florida. Moreover, there was a Negro regiment in the Spanish service, whose officers were from their own race. Many slaves had made good their escape, and joined this regiment. It was allowed the same uniform and pay as the Spanish soldiers had. The colony of South Carolina was fearing an enemy from without, while behold their worst enemy was at their doors! In 1740 [note: the actual date was September 1739] some Negroes assembled themselves together at a town called Stone [Stono], and made an attack upon two young men, who were guarding a warehouse, and killed them. They seized the arms and ammunition, effected an organization by electing one of their number captain ; and, with boisterous drums and flying banners, they marched off “like a disciplined company.” They entered the house of one Mr. Godfrey, slew him, his wife, and child, and then fired his dwelling. They next took up their march towards Jacksonburgh, and plundered and burnt the houses of Sacheveral, Nash, Spry, and others. They killed all the white people they found, and recruited their ranks from the Negroes they met. Gov. Bull was “returning to Charleston from the southward, met them, and, observing them armed, quickly rode out of their way.” In a march of twelve miles, they had wrought a work of great destruction. News reached Wiltown, and the militia were called out. The Negro insurrec­tionists were intoxicated with their triumph, and drunk from rum they had taken from the houses they had plundered. They halted in an open field to sing and dance; and, during their hilarity, Capt. Bee, at the head of the troops of the district, fell upon them, and, having killed several, captured all who did not make their escape in the woods.” 

Williams, History of the Negro Race in America, 299–300.

The Ranger who accompanying Oglethorpe on his journey added this additional detail reported from a Black person who they encountered on September 20th:

“…about fifty of these Villains attempted to go home but were taken by the Planters who Cutt off their heads and set them up at every Mile Post they came to”

“A Ranger’s Report,” 223.

On October 9, James Oglethorpe wrote back to the Trustees in England, and included “An Account of the Negro Insurrection in South Carolina.” Located between South Carolina and Floriday, Oglethorpe had mobilized very colonial force available to help capture any self-emancipated Black people:

“[General Oglethorpe] im­mediately ordered a Troop of Rangers to be ranged, to patrole through Georgia, placed some Men in the Garrison at Palichocolas… and published a Proclamation ordering all the Constables &ca. of Georgia to pursue and seize all Negroes, with a Reward for any that should be taken. It is hoped these measures will prevent any Negroes from get­ting down to the Spaniards.” 

“An Account of the Negro Insurrection in South Carolina,” 236.

The “Account” further explained the roots of the insurrection in the promise of Black freedom in Spanish Florida:

“Sometime since there was a Proclamation published at Augustine, in which the King of Spain (then at Peace with Great Britain) promised Protection and Freedom to all Ne­groes Slaves that would resort thither. Certain Negroes belonging to Captain Davis escaped to Augustine, and were received there…

Several Spaniards upon diverse Pretences have for some time past been strolling about Carolina, two of them, who will give no account of themselves have been taken up and committed to Jayl in Geor­gia. The good reception of the Negroes at Augustine was spread about, Several attempted to escape to the Spaniards, & were taken, one of them was hanged at Charles Town…

“Account,” 232, 233.

The “Account” describes the southward march like this:

“Several Negroes joyned them, they calling out Liberty, marched on with Colours displayed, and two Drums beat­ing, pursuing all the white people they met with, and killing Man Woman and Child when they could come up to them.”

“Liberty” was on their minds and on their lips!

Two days later, on October 11, Oglethorpe wrote to the Trustees again, noting the strategic location of Georgia in light of the war with Spain, and in repressing any further attempted Black revolutions.

“I think a little Time will make this Province the most flourishing of any in America. This Colony lies between the French & Spaniards and Carolina, and if there was not that Distance of an Intervening Province, it would be Impossible to prevent a General Revolt of the Negroes. From Georgia we can with Ease invade the Spanish Florida and the French on the Missisippi. 

“Letter from Coll. Oglethorpe, 11 Oct. 1739,” in Letters from Georgia, v. 14204, 1739 June-1740 June,” 35–36.

The incident would become known as the “Stono Slave Rebellion,” which was the largest slave rebellion in the Southern Colonies (“Stono Rebellion”).

For more on this, see:

“a Woman was dancing a jigg

All of this—declarations of war, an attempted slave revolution—had occurred while George Whitefield was on a ship crossing the Atlantic.  He finally landed in Pennsylvania on October 30, reaching Philadelphia late on November 2 (Journal… Embargo to Savannah, 26–27). From there he began working his way south, through Maryland and North Carolina, reaching South Carolina on January 1, 1740 (Memoirs, 48–49; Journal, 77). 

On January 2, Whitefield records an incident regarding a woman “dancing a jigg”:

“By Advice of my Friends, I went in amongst them whilst a Woman was dancing a jigg. At my first Entrance I endeavour’d to shew the Folly of such Entertainments, and to convince her how well pleased the Devil was at every Step she took. For some Time she endeavour’d to out-brave me; neither the Fiddler or she desisted but at last she gave over, and the Musician laid aside his Instrument. It would have made any one smile to see how the rest of the Company, one by one, attack’d me, and brought, as they thought. Arguments to support their Wantonness; but CHRIST triumph’d over Satan.—They were all put to Silence, and were for some Time so over-aw’d, that after I had discoursed with them on the Nature of Baptism, and the Necessity of being born again, in order to enjoy the Kingdom of Heaven” 

Journal, 77.

This is a telling example of the kinds of “sins” Whitefield was concerned with at the time, and a stark contrast in light of his own participation in enslavement.

“In Great Perils of Our Lives”

As Whitefield and his party continued to make their way toward Charlestown, the Stono rebellion was apparently on their minds, and they were terrified of the possibility of more violence. Thus is the setting for the incidents in the woods we began with. Whitefield describes the night like this:

“At Night we thought to call at a Gentleman’s House, where we had been recommended, about Forty Miles distant from our last Night’s Lodging, but the Moon being totally eclipsed, we missed the Path that turned out of the Road; and then thought it most advisable, as we were in the main Road, to go on our Way, trusting to the Almighty to strengthen both our Beasts and us. We had not gone far but we saw a Light; Two of my Friends went up to it, and saw a Hutt full of Negroes; they enquired after the Gentleman’s House whither we were directed, but the Negroes seemed surprized, and said they knew no such Man, and that they were but new Comers. From these Circumstances one of my Friends inferr’d, that these Ne­groes might be some of those who lately had made an Insurrection in the Province, and were ran away from their Masters. When he return’d, we were all of his Mind, and therefore thought it best to mend our Pace. Soon af­ter we saw another great Fire near the Road Side, but imagining there was another Nest of such Negroes, we made a Circuit into the Woods, and one of my Friends at a Distance observed them dancing round the Fire. The Moon shining bright, we soon found our Way into the great Road again; and after we had gone about a Dozen Miles, expelling to find Negroes in every Place, we came to a great Plantation, the Master of which, to our great Comfort, gave us Lodging, and our Beasts provender. Upon our relating the Circumstances of our Travels, he gave us Satisfaction about the Negroes, inform’d us whose they were, and upon what Occasion they were in those Places in which we found them. This afforded us much Comfort, after we had rode near Threescore Miles, and, as we thought, in great Perils of our Lives. Blessed be thy Name, O Lord, for this, and all other thy Mercies, thro’ JESUS CHRIST! 

Journals, 78–79.
Mr. Whitefield’s Journal

The next morning, Whitefield’s party had “a hospitable Breakfast set before us by the Gentleman who last night received us into his house,” before continuing on their way, arriving in Charleston two days later on January 5 (Journal, 79).

“such divine Judgments”

While in Charlestown, all of these events were evidently on Whitefield’s mind. The next day (January 6) was a Sunday, and Whitefield preached in “one of the Dissenting Meeting-houses.” Whitefield criticized their clothing as too festive for the times:

“I question whether the Court End of the Town at London could equal, at least exceed them in affected Finery and Gaiety at Dres, and a Deportment ill-becoming Persons who have had such divine Judgments lately sent abroad amongst them.—I reminded them of it in my sermon; but I thought at first I seem’d to them as one that mocked”

Journal, 80

Thomas Kidd asserts that by “divine Judgments,” Whitefield was referring to the Stono Rebellion and the War of Jenkins’ Ear (George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father, 100; Kidd mistakenly cites page 81 of the Journal instead of page 80). The “Gaiety” of the people was in stark contrast to visceral fear of “Peril” that Whitefield himself had felt just 3 nights before, and he was sure to let them know about it in the sermon.

“civil, diligent and laborious”

Two days later, Whitefield set out on the final leg of his journey, from Charles-Town to Georgia, riding in “an open Canoe” (Journal, 82). The Canoe was powered by enslaved labor: “having five Negroes to row and steer us.” Whitefield comments on the character of these enslaved laborers, and one wonders whether he was on edge at first, wondering whether these too, were the type who might rise up at any time. Instead, he notes, “The poor Slaves were very civil, diligent, and laborious.” It was an overnight trip, and they apparently slept overnight “on the water,” and after paddling nearly all of the next day, arrived “about five on Wednesday evening” at Beaufort. There they stayed at an Inn — though, one wonders (assumes?) that the sleeping quarters for the enslaved rowers was separate (and unequal!) to that of the esteemed white clergyman Whitefield. On Wednesday, Whitefield notes that they “refreshed ourselves at a Plantation in the Way,” and later slept for four hours on the shore. “… a little after Midnight we prayed with the Negroes, took Boat again, and reached Savannah before Noon the next Day.” A nearly twelve hour shift of paddling the canoe, from midnight until noon. Whitefield notes that he next “Had a joyful Meeting with my dear Friends” — one suspects that, by contrast, his enslaved transportation labor was attempting to recover from their exertions.

“the Hazard of being knocked on the Head

“Stephens’ Journal”

In April 1740, Whitefield took a trip north again, visiting Philadelphia, and other cities in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, before returning to Georgia in June (Journal…Georgia to Philadelphia, 18–52). At the time, General Oglethorpe was attempting enlist soldiers to fight in the war against Spain, and while Whitefield was gone, the recruiters came to Whitefield’s orphanage at Bethesda. The incident is recorded in the William Stephens, “A Journal of the Proceedings in Georgia, Beginning October 20, 1737” (in Colonial Records of the State of Georgia, Volume 4):

Thursday, April 24: Enlisting of Men was now the principal Affair in hand; which had so drained the Town, that it was hard to find a Man more to enter: Wherefore it was resolved by the Officer, to make a Visit to the People at work about Mr. Whitfield’s Plantation at the Orphan-House; which I would have nothing to say to, but left them to do as they pleased, being unwilling to shew the least Discouragement in so important a Service; and not over-fond of meddling, where my appearing in it (I had Reason to apprehend) would be ill construed as a Sort of Sacrilege, in breaking in upon such a Work, carrying on for so pious an Use: Moreover, I knew it was a Mat­ter much in question among the Directors of that Work, whether or not it was lawful in the Sight of God, to take up Arms with an offensive Intent, or on any Occasion, but purely in Defence of our own Lives…

Friday, April 25: …The enlisting Officer stuck to his Purpose of Yesterday, and marched with a few Volun­teers, and a Drum attending him, to beat up for more Soldiers at the Orphan-House, where he would find a Number of People; but what Disposition any of them were in for War, or what Success he met with, we yet had not learnt.

Saturday, April 26: Capt. La Feit, and his Subaltern Recruit­ing Officer, taking Breakfast with me, I was informed by them what Success they had attending Yesterday’s Ex­pedition to Bethesda (which is the Name given to that Place by Mr. Whitfield) and it proved almost fruitless, one or two Fellows only taking on: They took Notice to me of the People in general there, being provided with one and the same Answer; which it was supposed was taught them to give, by their Employers, when in­vited to take Arms; which was, that they had good Pro­visions, and a Place to sleep in, with ready Money to Pay for their Work, where they were, which they were not desirous to change for the Hazard of being knocked on the Head, and the Certainty of be­ing continually exposed to bad Weather, either Heats, or heavy Rains.

Sunday, April 27: Mr. Simms observed the Directions given him by Mr. Whitfield, in reading the Prayers of the Church, and a Sermon (out of what Author I know not) in the Forenoon, and after, maintaining the Doctrine of Justification by Faith alone, in stronger Terms than had been delivered yet; excluding from Heaven all who came not fully up to the Pitch of Faith…

“Stephen’s Journal,” 559–62

Stephen’s perspective is fascinating. He knows some will consider it “sacrilegious” to pull men away from such a “pious work” as building the orphanage in order to fight in the war. He also knows that the Bethesda group was debating a form of pacifism, and might object on those grounds. In the end, however, the excuse given for not enlisting was simple economics: they had a good job, and good pay, with no risk. They did not want to change things for “the Hazard of being knocked on the Head” and the terrible conditions of war.

Observations

Many things are striking about this whole situation. It is fascinating that the Spanish allowed freed (by their own agency) Black people to fight in their own regiment, and (allegedly) paid them equally with their regular Spanish soldiers. This kind of radical equality so near to the slave-holding British colonies would introduce radically subversive and destabilizing energy into that society. The call for “Freedom” in Augustine was powerful, and provoked an initial crack-down (the two hangings) from the white authorities in South Carolina, before the full fledged rebellion actually occurred.

The insurrection was extremely violent, on both sides. What is particularly striking to me, though, is the brutality on the part of the British “planters.” While positioning themselves on the side of white, European, Christian, “civilization” (versus the “savagery” of Native Americans and Africans), the white planters engage in conduct as brutally violent as anyone, beheading the runaway slaves, and setting their heads up “at every Mile Post they came to.” Oglethorpe’s Ranger doesn’t say for how many miles these heads were placed, but it was meant as a graphic intimidating warning. Again, I don’t know if the heads were still up on those posts several months later when Whitefield was passing through, nor if he even passed along the same road, but the possibility is fascinating.

It is noteworthy, to me at least, where Whitefield situates himself in all of this. His descriptions of Black people are telling, imagining a “Nest of such negroes,” using language fitted for animals rather than people. It’s interesting too, that Whitefield felt completely at home in the hospitality of various white slave-owners: the “master” of a “great plantation,” and then again at another plantation on the way to Georgia. In fact, he interprets this hospitality as part of the “mercies of God” toward him and his fellow travellers. Interesting also, is Whitefield’s description of his enslaved canoe paddlers, especially in light of the fear of violence he had been experiencing.

Finally, I want to highlight those enslaved canoe paddlers, on whose backs (literally?) Whitefield’s luggage would have been carried, and by whose efforts he was carried along on this segment of his journey “preaching the Gospel” in the colonies. Whitefield saw no contradiction, and in fact, probably thought he was helping bring them to Christ as he “prayed with them” before their twelve hour stint of paddling.

In all, this is a fascinating episode in the life of “America’s spiritual founding father.”

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