Run to Freedom chapter 1 – the story of Josiah Henson

I just saw the movie 12 Years a Slave based on the memoirs of a free man who was kidnapped named Solomon. There is a wealth of first hand accounts from those who experienced that time. I wrote this about 12 years ago, and thought it would be such a good movie, so I was glad that this film was made.  I guess it is a bit like the sap of a tree; if it is hindered from flowing in one direction, it will flow in another. It is a story that needs to be told.

When we think that these slave owners were nominal professing Christians (many of them Baptists) and justified their actions from a skewered interpretation of Scripture such as the mistaken idea of the “cursed sons of Ham” – Gen.9:25,26 –  it should give us cause to examine our own beliefs and prejudices. If we would only follow Jesus’ admonition to love our neighbor as our selves, we could make a much better world for us and others to live in.

Its not always easy and often it means doing something that seems illogical or is against the norm and the prevalent view at the time. For example, when I was a teen the majority thought the Vietnam War was justified, now it was considered by a large number of people as a mistake. One of the few sermons I remember from my church was given at that time, “Are We Building Bigger Barns in Vietnam?” – many of the congregation stormed out and that pastor lost his job because he compared the US’s military intervention there to the story of the greedy rich man in the Bible who lost it all (see Luke 12).

Some may think that slavery is a thing of the past, but there are more slaves now than ever before. We should do all we can to stop modern slavery and deliver those who are in bondage. Movies, documentaries, and articles on the subject are plentiful. Some reveal slavery where you would least expect it.
There are many aspects of the problem – one of them being supply and demand. If there demand were dried up – then supply would cease.

I will put this out in chapters as it is quite long. At the end of each chapter I put something to think and pray about as a kind of application – it is what touched me at the time and is not meant to be all inclusive.

Run to Freedom!

Peter van Gorder


The tribulations and adventures of Josiah Henson
(June 15, 1789 – May 5, 1883)

EXO.3:7 And the LORD said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows;
EXO.3:8 And I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey;

“Go down, Moses,
Way down in Egypt Land,
And tell old Pharaoh
To let my people go.”

– Sung by escaped slaves as they set foot on freedom’s shore in Canada.

“The Negro Business is a great object with us. It is to the Trade of the Country as the Soul to the Body.”

— Joseph Clay, slave owner

There is nothing sweeter than freedom and nothing more terrible than living in bondage. Though the slaves of the South were freed in my day, the scars still remain from this grave injustice.
Today some people are slaves of their own passions; some have forged chains stronger than any that our masters put upon us. Physical slavery continues today as well, with an estimated 25 million souls kept in some form of slavery in various parts of the world.
I dedicate my story to those who long for the breath of freedom from the devil’s servitude. When you know the truth it will set you free. If the Son shall set you free you will be free indeed. May you burst the chains of bondage that have enslaved your soul and your body!

Born into the Slave Trap
Chapter one

When I was 5 years old I watched my mother cry out to the Lord, over and over, “Lord, Lord, help me. Save me. Help me. Save my husband.” She cried and swayed and spoke in what sounded more like groaning than words.
Then she sang.

Nobody knows the trouble I see
Nobody knows but Jesus.
Nobody knows the trouble I see
Glory, hallelujah!
Sometimes I’m up, sometimes I’m down
Oh, yes, Lord.
Sometimes I’m almost to the ground
Oh, yes, Lord.
Although you see me going ‘long so
Oh, yes, Lord,
I have my trials here below.
What make ole Satan hate me so?
O yes, Lord
Because he got me once and he let me go
O yes, Lord.


I didn’t understand then what could cause her to groan so
“Mother, why are you crying?”
“Josiah, I have great sorrow. They sold your father. I won’t see him no more in this life.”
“Pray, with me,” she said.
“But, I don’t know how to.”
“I’ll teach you.”
“Our Father, which be in heaven, Holy is your name…,” I repeated each line after her.

Later, when I was old enough to understand, I learned what had happened to my father. Our master, a kind man named Dr. Josiah McPherson, hired out my mother and father to work at a nearby farm. There, my father was put out far into the field to work. As he was hoeing, he heard my mother in the distance screaming for help. He ran to find our overseer raping my mother.


My father tried to stop her from getting hurt by hitting the man down. He was mad as a tiger and being a strot stopped him. The overseer knew he had done bad, and before he left, he promised that nothing would happen to my father. However, when the danger was over he forgot his word.

Knowing what a liar this man was, my father hid himself in the woods for as long as he could, to avoid the punishment he knew would befall him. He stayed there for several weeks until hunger got the better of him.
They grabbed my father and took him away. In their mind no matter how evil that man who hurt my mother was, or what he had done, my father was the one who had to be punished to be made an example of. For he had committed the worst sin of all– He had hit a white man. You see, the whites who held the reins of power, were afraid of the volcano of slave discontent erupting and destroying their whole way of life. Fear nurses terror and so in fear they destroyed this one who dared to raise a hand against them.
When they were finished with him he was never the same. He used to play a banjo and sing and be joyful in all night corn husking parties, but after he was beaten so badly, no more. He had no more joy in life and he was like a man sucked dry. They whipped the life out of him till he crawled into his shell, hoping never to be hurt like that again. They didn’t kill him but they might as well have.

He was bleeding badly. My mother tried to nurse his wounds but some wounds of the soul are so deep that they just won’t heal. My father gave up on life and wouldn’t be comforted. No threats of punishments or the worst of all threats – to be sold to someone down South – would make him obey his masters. Less than a year after the incident, he was sold.
My mother and I were also sold at a local slave auction not long after that. One night our owner, Master McPherson, was drunk and fell off his horse as he returned from one of his parties. Even though the water was less than a foot deep he drowned in it. As we were his property we were sold off to the highest bidder. My mother had six children and loved each one dearly. The thought of being parted from them was more than she could bear.
The crowd examined us and the other slaves to be sold as we huddled together. The auction was announced and the sale began. As slaves were displayed, their muscles and teeth were examined. The strength of each slave was exhibited. This was one of the few times that whites had something good to say about us.
The auctioneers shouted, “Prime slaves: healthy, good character, genteel, strong worker, valuable, obedient!” and more of the same.
I wonder if the buyers paused to think or if they had a guilty conscience.
What did they think when the slaves began to sing:

When I was down in Egypt’s land,
Close by the river,
I heard one tell of the promised land,
Down by the river side.

Chorus. We’ll end this strife,
Down by the river,
We’ll end this strife,
Down by the river side.

I never shall forget this day,
Down by the river,
When Jesus washed my sins away,
Down by the river side.

‘Twas just before the break of day,
Down by the river,
When Jesus washed my sins away,
Down by the river side.

Cheer up, cheer up, we’re gaining ground
Down by the river.
Old Satan’s kingdom we’ll pull down,
Down by the river side.

Shout, dear children, for you are free,
Down by the river,
Christ has brought to you, liberty,
Down by the river side.

My two brothers and three sisters were sold first. My mother was sold to a man named Issac Riley. Then it was my turn. My mother was so overcome with grief with the thought of loosing all her children; she ran up to her new master and fell at his feet clinging to his knees begging with tears,
“Buy, one of my babies at least. I will do anything for you if you will just let me have one of my babies.”

He kicked her away and laughed. It is hard to imagine that a man can be so cruel, but his stone heart would not easily yield – even to a mother’s tears.

I heard her say as she crept away, “Oh, Lord Jesus, how long, how long shall I suffer this way!” Even though I was only six years old at the time this scene of my mother’s sorrow never left me.

I was bought by a mean man and was thrown in to a small hut with about twenty other slaves. The living conditions were so bad, I soon fell very ill with a high fever and I was sadly neglected. However, God worked my illness to His purpose, because I was so sick I could do no work, I was sold very cheaply again to Issac Riley, the master of my mother. So God worked it for good and reunited us. Under my mother’s tender care I was nursed back to health.

We were happy to be together again, but life was so hard. Many of us were living together in one cabin – Men, women, children all together without any privacy. The floor was just earth so it absorbed all the dampness. We had no beds, only the spare straw we could find. There were large cracks in the walls and a roof that let in the rain and wind.

contrabands-2 The food was simple and never enough, except at special occasions. Our breakfast was at noon after working all morning. Our dinner was at six and at harvest time we had another meal after the day’s work was completed. It consisted of cornbread with some salted herring. We had some land to work so were allowed to keep the vegetables that we could grow.
We were given a hat every two or three years. The children wore a rough shirt. In winter, we were given a coat. The men were given trousers and the women a dress once a year.
First, my work was bringing water to the workers, and then hoeing between the rows, holding the horse plough for weeding, and then I was a stable boy grooming horses.
I longed for a breath of freedom. If not my body then my mind. I wanted to read so badly. Just as a man who lives in a desert thirsts for water and seeks for it, so I sought some respite from my mental bondage.

Fact box: “Code of 1849.–Every assemblage of negroes for the purpose of instruction in reading or writing shall be an unlawful assembly. Any justice may issue his warrant to any officer or other person, requiring him to enter any place where such assemblage may be, and seize any negro therein, and he or any other justice may order such negro to be punished with stripes. If a white person assemble with negroes for the purpose of instructing them to read or write, he shall be confined to gaol (jail) not exceeding six months, and fined not exceeding one hundred dollars.”–(“Code of Virginia,” 747-48.)

When I went on deliveries of our butter to some of the wealthiest families in the nation’s capital of Washington D.C., I listened to how these educated people spoke and I tried to imitate them. By this method I spoke more correctly than most slaves and the poor whites of the district. I never used slang or slurred my words, saying things like: “go dar,” or “gib me,”

When I was thirteen, I almost lost my life trying to learn how to spell. A slave boy named William learned how to read and spell just by listening to his master’s boys talk as he drove them to and from school. I was so excited to hear him read that I made up my mind that I wanted to do the same. He told me that if I bought a Webster’s spelling book he would teach me. I had already made some ink out of charcoal, and had cut a goose quill so that it looked like my master’s pen, and I had begun to make scratches on odd bits of paper I had picked up in the market.

I had noticed that all the butter I sold was stamped with two letters, “I. R.,” and after awhile I learned that those letters stood for my master, Isaac Riley, and I tried and tried to imitate those marks. These were the first letters I ever wrote.
It seemed to me that if I took some of the apples that had fallen from the trees in our orchard and sold them I should be able to get the money for the spelling-book. I did this.

Early the next morning I was about to harness the horse for my master; the horse was frisky and ran, and I ran to catch up with him. When my hat fell off, the book inside it dropped onto the ground.

As I caught the horse and harnessed it again my master exclaimed, “What’s that?”
“A spelling-book.”
“Whose is it?”
“Where did you get it?”
“Bought it, sir, when I went to market.”
“How much was it?”
“Eleven cents.”
“Where did you get the money?”
“I sold some apples out of our orchard.”
“Our orchard?” he exclaimed, in a passion.
“I’ll teach you to get apples from our orchard for such a vile purpose, so you’ll remember it. Give me that book.”
I stooped to pick it up, and as I saw his big cane coming down I dodged the incoming blow.
“Pick up that book,” he cried as he cussed at me in the worst language you can imagine.

When I reached down for the book again, he beat me across the head and back till my eyes were swollen and I became unconscious. My poor mother found me like this and wept for me and nursed me again back to health. It was some time before I was able to go about my work again.

When my master saw me after I recovered, he said, sneeringly, “So you want to be a fine gentleman? Remember if you meddle with a book again I’ll knock your brains out.”

I carried the rest of my life a scar my master made that day on my head. I knew he would make good on his promise so I did not open a book again until after I was forty-two years of age and out of the land of slavery.

When other masters heard that William was teaching me to read, a grand conspiracy was soon imagined that he would soon make all the slaves in the area literate. William was sent to Georgia to be sold, for the masters in our neighborhood said, “We will not have our niggers spoiled by that rascal.”

This was the life of a slave– one of total dependence on the mercy of their master. A slave had no rights and the master’s word was law. I once saw a man beaten by his master with five hundred strokes with a cane for not submitting to punishment willingly. Women could never be safe from attacks from whites. If a slave’s hand was raised in anyway against a white it was immediately rewarded with severe punishment as my father had experienced.

Our overseer blew a horn, which meant that all the slaves were supposed to gather immediately to begin their work. Anyone who did not appear on time was punished by “bucking.” This was done by tying the offender’s hands and feet together. A strong stick was shoved in the space between. The slave became helpless except to roll from side to side as he was whipped with a wooden paddle, which raised blisters with every blow.

Despite our hard lives, there were bright spots in our lives, especially at Christmas. We were given added meat and we sang and danced on the master’s porch. We all raced to be the first to get the eggnog drink. Our work duties were lessened. The overseers somewhat loosened their grip on their tight control over us during this time.

I had my own ways to escape the drudgeries of every day life. No amount of whipping and cruelty can truly defeat the spark of the Divine in the human spirit. I determined to be the best at whatever I did. I made it my goal to outrun, out jump, outwrestle, outwork, outdo, anyone. A small word of appreciation from my master for my extra labors would keep me happy for a week.
I greatly pitied the women, who had to endure so much. We seldom ate meat so our energy and health were often at low ebb. When I could, I led a sheep, chicken, or pig into the forest to slaughter it and prepare it for the mothers who needed the meat for extra strength and as a medicine. Sometimes I visited the apple orchard at midnight to gather its bounty for us. Fortunately, I was never found out. My master had enough worries and I knew how much to take without being greedy.

1sLike Joseph in the Bible, I prospered the hand of my master. Because of my diligence, I was able to inspire the other slaves to be more productive in their work. I doubled his crops. When I found out that the overseer was cheating my master I exposed his dishonesty and I was made a superintendent of all the work hands. They looked up to me for protection and better treatment, which I tried to procure for them.
Life continued in my routine of meager existence until the day that the Light shined into my life. I was 18 years old but I felt like I had just been born.

Discussion point: Even if we are born into a bad environment, can we still overcome these difficulties? How?
Prayer: Thank you Lord for my parents who have shown me such a good example of faith. Thank you for supplying all my needs and my wonderful godly heritage. Deliver those who are born into bondage. Give them freedom.


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