Sarah Kemble Knight: Travelling Beatnik from the 1700’s

“The road trip” is common theme not only in film and literature, but also in the lives of many people. After graduating college, I participated in the road trip tradition. A friend of mine and I drove west from Texas to California, then up and down the west-coast, meeting new friends and reconnecting with old friends, camping, swimming, not showering sometimes for a week. Our road trip lasted between 3 and 4 months and it is an understatement to say that it changed me.

Old Road

 The Road

Many people associate the “road trip” genre with beatnik culture in the 1950’s and 60’s, due to books such as On the Road by Jack Kerouac, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson and The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test by John Wolfe–all of which which feature road-trip adventures largely based on reality, but the genre extends beyond the beatniks. Films such as Almost Famous, Easy Rider and Dumb and Dumber also feature a road-trip as their main plotline, and while not all of these films focus on an artistic or spiritual change inspired by a road trip (as was common amongst beatnik road trip stories), many of them imply at least some change in the road-tripper. A woman named Sarah Kemble Knight made a road trip strikingly similar to the beatnik road trip, except she did in 1704, almost 250 years before beatnik culture officially began.

Sarah was a teacher in the late 1600’s and early 1700’s. In 1703 her husband died, and the following year she embarked on a 200 mile road trip from Boston, MA to New York City to help “a friend in the settlement of her deceased husband’s estate .” She essentially hitchhiked her way to New York, meeting up with guides, canoeing across rivers, staying with hosts she’d never met before, some pleasant, some “unmannerly,” listening to stories told by a deaf couple and writing poems about the moon—what we think of when we think about beatnik road trips, except she was primarily on horseback, and at a time when “women of the United States of America had practically no rights.”

We know about her journey because of a journal she kept while she was travelling. While this journal only briefly discusses the reason she makes this journey—to help a friend settle an estate—the events surrounding her road trip may give us a different insight. Her husband passes away in 1703, she begins this road trip in 1704, and she opens a school in 1705: this tells us that there were a lot of changes going on within these three years of her life. Even if her official reason for travelling was to help a friend with an estate, with all of the changes going on in her life, it’s possible that this road trip provided Mrs. Kemble Knight a space for reflection, growth, and possibly even healing, as it does in the beatnik road trip narrative.

While on her journey she encounters some difficulty. She is often so disgusted with the food she is offered on her journey that she goes to bed “supperless”; if you’ve ever taken a road trip you’ve probably experienced this—eating on the road can be rough sometimes. She witnesses things she doesn’t approve of, such as masters who display “too great familiarity” with their slaves, and natives who “marry many wives and at pleasure put them away,” which she notes honestly in her journal. While her naivety and racist undertones are not particularly consistent with the “beatnik” scene (Hunter S. Thompson was certainly not naïve), we must remember that this was the early 1700’s.

On my road trip I encountered a lot of people who believed in “open relationships” because they thought rules were stifling—something that I was curious about, but soon learned was too intense for me. Sometimes I met people who made me feel like I was on another planet. I imagine the confusion I felt for these people was somewhat similar to what Kemble Knight felt, as while she expresses discomfort and distaste for these practices, she also details them carefully and seems interested in them.Road trips push us out of our comfort zones, and Mrs. Kemble Knight was pushed out of hers, as these experiences demonstrate.

There are also many moments in her journal in which she seems inspired by her surroundings and experiences. She retells many of the stories she hears from other people, and writes of New York:

 “The Bricks in some of the Houses are of divers Coullers and laid in Checkers,”

…which sounds like a long lost line from the song Lucy in the Skies with Diamonds, by the Beatles.

What is perhaps the most impressive thing about this journey of hers? After only 3 months of travelling in a car, I was worn out and ready to be home. Her trip lasted 5 months, and her last journal entry indicates that by that time, she too, was ready to be home. So, we have major life changes followed by a long road trip filled with strangers, discomfort, and artistic inspiration—it may have been the 1700’s, and she may have been on horseback and in canoes, but I think Sarah Kemble Knight deserves the title of honorary beatnik.


 

Knight, Sarah Kemble, and Bruce Rogers. The Journal of Madam Knight. New York: Peter Smith, 1935. Print.

 

The Many Faces of Calvinism in Early America

Text on Predestination; Jedidiah Mills 1747

Text on Predestination; Jedidiah Mills 1747

It’s hard for me to take the idea of predestination seriously. You know, that idea in some religious faiths that the fate of all beings is decided upon their creation, that some are saved, some are screwed and there’s nothing anyone can do to change that. If that’s the case, then someone tell me, what’s the point of anything?

Predestination is a major component of Calvinism, named for one of its founders, John Calvin. I’ve always felt the same about Calvinism as I have about predestination—it just doesn’t really make sense.  I was in a play in high school called “Life During Wartime” in which this same John Calvin was written in as the narrator—he went on and on about original sin and predestination throughout the play, only to be confronted by the ghost of a dead character at the end. This ghost, after a heated debate with Calvin, asks him how exactly it is that he knows he is saved. He cannot answer.

Calvinism was predominant in early America, and apparently a popular belief of the time was that life status, success, and happiness were indicators that someone was to be saved, and misfortune, a sign that someone was doomed. Slavery was also predominant in early America, and being enslaved would be considered some pretty serious misfortune. This would imply that all slaves were doomed. How did slaves take to this idea of predestination, or Calvinism in general?

THE GOOD

Let’s begin on a positive note, a note that perhaps surprised me most.  As it turns out, in some ways, religion in early America—regardless of its questionable content—helped to create communities for slaves, and ultimately was a big contributor to the abolition movement.

One of the sad realities of slavery is that it involves “disconnecting and disassociating [slaves] from their social, cultural, and familial pasts, thus negating what made them individuals,” (May, p.10). Religion helped give slaves both a common language and a common belief system (complete with a past-story) to connect with.  This helped them to “establish a common ground on which to speak about social and political rights,” (May, p.5) which would eventually help advance the abolition movement, but I’m sure also provided slaves with some emotional and psychological relief.

Different people interpreted Calvinism differently, and allowing slaves to participate in religion meant that slaves would begin to add in their own interpretations of Calvinism. Jupiter Hammon, the first African American to publish poetry in America, was taught religion by his master and remained a slave for all of his life. He wrote many poems about religion and salvation, but interprets Christianity differently than strict ideas of predestination would support. In one poem he exclaims “Redemption now, to everyone,” and states that sinners who repent “shall not cry in vain,” (Hammon p.46).  Here, Hammon describes a more egalitarian view of salvation than would typically be associated with Calvinism. Also, the fact that his works were published means that to some extent they met the public, and thus to some extent, his religious writings began crafting that common language and common community that Africans had been previously kept separate from in America.

But it wasn’t only slaves that interpreted religion as more egalitarian, some white, land-owners did as well. The first anti-slavery publication in North America was largely supported by biblical references and religious teachings. It was written by Samuel Sewall, a white judge and merchant in Early America.

THE BAD

Calvinism wasn’t always used and interpreted for good. Many slaves were denied access to Christianity altogether, as if it were something reserved for white people alone. One of the reasons for this was the obvious contradiction between Christianity and slavery: masters had to make sure their slaves weren’t Christians, because if they were, then it would be wrong to enslave them. Some people, like the Reverend Cotton Mather, chose to use fancy words and strange logic to get around this contradiction, and supported both teaching slaves religion and keeping them slaves.

Mather did this by teaching slaves a slightly different version of Calvinism than “masters” and white people were taught. In The Negro Christianized, he outlines a version of Christianity that he believes could and should be taught to slaves—much of which focuses on the holiness of subordination (figures, right?).  Interestingly, he also changes much of the “We” and “Us” language found in the Lord’s Prayer to “I” and “you” language. It’s likely that this focus on addressing the slave as a singular person was meant to prevent slaves from creating a community of worship, because as mentioned above, communities are harder to enslave than individuals.

Fortunately, Mather’s attempt at creating a way of teaching slaves religion that would not help them to create community, question their servitude, or justify rebellion was ultimately (and thankfully) unsuccessful, as in the long run, religion did work to create community for African Americans.

THE ENTHUSIASTIC

And yet there is another angle to look at with regard to slavery and religion; at the time they came to America, “African Americans were already fully formed and cultured individuals and groups,” (May, p.10) with their own religious beliefs, community, history, language, etc. Religion often plays a big part in determining how we view the world, our souls, what happens after death, how we are supposed to interact with each other, and many other aspects of life. As such, many Africans brought to America were not looking for a new religion, a new world view.

“Africans generally chose not to adopt Christianity for nearly the first two centuries they were in North America. In fact, the vast majority of African and African American slaves living in the British-American colonies were born and died with almost no knowledge of Christianity.” (May, p.11)

The religious and spiritual practices in Africa varied greatly around the time of America’s birth. But generally, African religions had a focus on “orality, extemporaneous address, and enthusiasm,” (May, p.17, emphasis added). These traits were not lost as slaves began to claim Christianity as their own.

Phillis Wheatley Statue in Boston, MA

Phillis Wheatley Statue in Boston, MA

In early America, the concept of “enthusiasm” was viewed a little differently than it I is today. It was more explicitly associated with religious experience and there was much debate over how genuine it was. However, enthusiasm was not something slaves were supposed to show, as it would imply that they had a direct connection with god and thus did not need their masters or preachers. Nevertheless, “scholars suggest that the enthusiastic worship of early black Christians constituted a retention of traditional West African worship practices that featured ecstatic dance movement and spirit possession,” (May, p.20), indicating that Traditional African religions were often used to alter, to personalize Christianity.

Phillis Wheatley, another famous African American poet from Early America, often wrote about Pagan gods and stories in her poems, but uses some Christian imagery as well. She seems to move in out of these two modes of thought seamlessly. This is perhaps most interesting when we take into account that pagan myths may have had more in common with some Traditional African religions that Christianity did—pagan myths come from a predominantly oral culture that viewed “divine madness” (or enthusiasm) as a positive thing (Plato).

So, ultimately, Calvinism in early America was not just one thing. It was not just predestination and it was not just a bunch of white people talking about original sin. It was used to provide community to slaves and to support abolition, it was used to deny abolition, it was reinterpreted to be more egalitarian, more hopeful, and it was fused with enthusiasm and Traditional African religions.  So, while John Calvin’s idea of predestination is still lost on me, it is clear that slaves reinterpreted religion in ways that helped them to change the world—something that does make sense.


America’s First Negro Poet: The Complete Works of Jupiter Hammon of Long Island. Ed. Stanley Austin Ransom, Jr. Port Washington: Kennikat P, 1964. 35-41. Print. 10.

Carretta, Vincent. Complete Writings by Phillis Wheatley, Penguin Books; New York, 2001.

Mather, Cotton and Royster, Paul, editor, “The Negro Christianized. An Essay to Excite and Assist that Good Work, the Instruction of Negro-Servants in Christianity (1706)” (1706). Electronic Texts in American Studies. Paper 28. Web. 7 Sept. 2014.

May, Cedrick. Evangelism and Resistance in the Black Atlantic, 1760-1835. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2008. Print. 24.

Sewall, Samuel. The Selling of Joseph: A Memorial. Boston: Bartholomew Green and John Allen, 1700. Web. 6 Sept. 2014.