Classic Book of the Month – The Life of Josiah Henson

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Tuesday, February 4th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Well, it’s time for our Classic Book of the Month. For that we welcome back WORLD book reviewer Emily Whitten.

Hey, Emily! Thanks for joining us.


REICHARD: What have you got for us today?

WHITTEN: How ‘bout one of the most famous men in America in the 19th century?

REICHARD: Sounds good!

WHITTEN: This writer met with an American president. He had two interviews with the Queen of England, and his autobiography went through four editions during his lifetime. His name is Josiah Henson. And I’m guessing, Mary, that like me before I did this research, you may not have heard of him before.

REICHARD: I have not!

WHITTEN: If you had lived in the 1850s, the book you would most likely have in your home would be—well, Mary, what would you say?

REICHARD: The best selling book of all time. The Bible?

WHITTEN: Right. Second to the Bible, you’d most likely own Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It was translated into around 60 languages and made Stowe the best-selling American writer of the 19th century. Josiah Henson’s autobiography served as one of the most important sources for that novel. Henson provided inspiration for a number of characters, including Uncle Tom. Here is former Maryland Congressman Al Wynn speaking at the 2016 Josiah Henson Leadership Conference:

WYNN: “Paraphrasing it from the Bible, without vision, the people perish. Josiah Henson definitely had vision. In the time of slavery, a lot of people were fairly complacent. Not Josiah Henson. He saw freedom not just for himself but also for his family and, as a result, escaped with his family to Canada.”

Henson went on to rescue over a hundred slaves on the underground railroad. He founded a settlement for freed slaves, and he launched Canada’s first trade school for them as well. 

REICHARD: I guess he did have vision! It’s a shame I don’t know more about this man already.

WHITTEN: There’s a frustrating reason for that. In Stowe’s book, Uncle Tom is a Christ figure who gives his life to protect two female slaves. The novel does have racial blindspots, for sure, but Stowe tried to portray slaves as worthy of respect. Unfortunately, she didn’t copyright her story, and other writers created their own plays and musicals using her characters. Here’s Stowe biographer Nancy Koester:

KOESTER: “In common parlance today, an Uncle Tom is a traitor. A lot of that stereotype came from the so called Tom shows, the Uncle Tom plays that were put on after Harriet’s book was published. Some of those plays quickly reverted to racial stereotypes by having white actors with black face playing black people and using really racist stereotypes of the time. She didn’t support that. She had no control over that, and she received no profits from that…”

So, Mary, because Henson claimed to be the real life Uncle Tom, people today sometimes assume he’s like the racist stereotype. But that’s far from the truth. If you want to read about a strong, loving, principled Christian leader who poured his life into lifting others up and fighting injustice, you want to read Josiah Henson’s story. It’s really inspiring.

REICHARD: What would you say makes his story so inspiring,  particularly?

WHITTEN: He just overcame so much. For instance, early in life, his father was beaten and sold away for trying to protect Henson’s mother. Here’s the audiobook excerpt read by Rodney Louis Tompkins:

TOMPKINS: “…though it was all a mystery to me at the age of three or four years, it was explained at a later period. And I understood he had been suffering the cruel penalty of the Maryland law for beating a white man. His right ear had been cut off close to his head, and he received a hundred lashes on his back. He had beaten the overseer for a brutal assault on my mother and this was his punishment.”

That was just one of the brutal, unfair things he would experience as a slave.

REICHARD: Absolutely horrendous. 

WHITTEN: Yes it was. Henson learned to overcome that kind of evil in part during a camp meeting he attended at the age of 18. Here’s historian Jamie Kuhns speaking to a gathering near Henson’s home in Maryland in 2019:

KUHNS: “If you were enslaved back then, if you attended church, and often slave people had to attend the same church their master went to. They would hear sermons about obedience and loyalty to their master. Instead, at the camp meeting that he went to, he heard about salvation. It was the first time that Henson learned God wanted to give salvation to everyone. It wasn’t just reserved for the planter class. It was for everyone, regardless of your race and your wealth. And that really spoke to him.”

Henson soon began preaching to other slaves. Later, he would earn enough money as a preacher in his free time to buy his own freedom. Sadly, corrupt owners took the money and kept him and his family enslaved. At that point, he felt he had the moral right to escape. Soon, he and his family began the long trip to Canada.

REICHARD: I guess that would be on the underground railroad?

WHITTEN: Yes, that’s right. And his writing provides an important primary source about that. Work on underground railroad tended to be pretty secretive. I will also say, some of the scenes in the book are a little raw. He writes in a straight-forward way. And I think Henson’s clarity and forthrightness actually give the book more lasting value for audiences today.

REICHARD: Emily, I know in many places it was illegal for slaves to learn to read and write. I believe Henson’s contemporary, Frederick Douglass, got in trouble about that several times. I’m curious as to how Henson came to write his autobiography?

WHITTEN: Henson did not learn to read and write as a slave, though he did learn later on. So when he decided to write his story, the Boston Anti-Slavery Society provided someone he could dictate his story to. And keep in mind, Henson served as both a plantation manager and a preacher. In both those roles he developed excellent communication skills. I suspect that’s why the book reads so smoothly.

REICHARD: Thanks for this recommendation today, Emily. 

WHITTEN: You’re very welcome, Mary. Happy reading!

REICHARD: Today, Emily recommended The Life of Josiah Henson by Josiah Henson. We also talked about Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

(Photo/Library of Congress, Schlesinger Library) Josiah Henson as a young man at the left, and at right, at age 87, photographed in Boston in 1876.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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