Lemuel Haynes: The Most Important American Figure That You’ve Never Heard Of
An Unquestionable Legacy
Lemuel Haynes is perhaps the single most important American figure most Christians have never heard of. Born July 18th in 1753 to a Black man and a White woman, Haynes was abandoned by his parents in the home of a family friend who sold the infant Haynes into indentured servitude. By the providential hand of God, however, young Lemuel was placed into a Christian home, where by all accounts, including his own, he was treated as a member of the family and raised to love the things of God.1
Growing up in colonial Vermont, Haynes worked hard and studied hard, proving himself quite adept at intellectual pursuits despite being largely self-taught. He has affectionately been called a “disciple of the chimney-corner” as that is where he would spend most evenings after work reading and memorizing while other children were out playing or engaging in other diversions.
This addition to the Crossway Short Classics series features 4 rarely published sermons from black Puritan minister Lemuel Haynes, along with his biography and a foreword by Jared C. Wilson.
Haynes’s commitment to theology began in that chimney-corner, and eventually he was born again. Not long after his conversion, he turned his followership of Christ and his intellectual bent into a serious endeavor by writing and preaching. An oft-told anecdote about Haynes concerns a scene of family devotions at the Rose household where he was indentured. Given his adeptness at reading and his deep concern for spiritual matters, the Rose family would often ask Haynes to read a portion of Scripture or a published sermon. One night, Haynes read a homily of his own without credit (apparently the sermon on John 3:3 included in this volume). At the end, members of the family remarked at its quality and wondered, “Was that a Whitefield?” “No,” Haynes is said to have replied, “it was a Haynes.”
The few sermons we have of Lemuel Haynes prove him to be an exceptional expositor in the Puritan tradition, similar to Edwards or Whitefield though simpler than the former and more substantive than the latter. And yet, what Haynes may have lacked in eloquence compared to his contemporaries, he more than made up for in biblicism and applicational insight.
Officially licensed to preach in 1780 by the Congregational Association, Haynes soon after preached his first public sermon (on Psalm 96). He was then ordained in 1785 and would go on to receive an honorary Master of Arts degree from Middlebury College.
Haynes was a New Light revivalist and New Divinity theologian. He was also a patriot— he enlisted in the Continental Army in 1776 and marched with colonial troops to Ticonderoga, among other assignments. His military service was no mere distraction or aimless diversion but was representative of his heartfelt affection for the American experiment. His first biographer Timothy Mather Cooley thus described him by saying, “In principle he was a disciple of [George] Washington.”2
Haynes needs no modern apologies, no asterisk next to his legacy.
These two significant truths about Haynes’s philosophical convictions—his Puritan theology and his American patriotism—would prove to be the two most powerful motives in his life and ministry. He did not see these viewpoints as contradictory but complementary. Haynes believed, for instance, that the abolition of slavery was not just a true move of human righteousness in reflection of the real belief in the providence of God but also the truest form of faith in the American experiment.
So what kind of preacher was Lemuel Haynes? Cooley remarks, “Never did he wait to inquire whether a particular doctrine was popular. His only inquiries were, ‘Is it true? Is it profitable? Is it seasonable?’”3
As such, Haynes ought to stand as a superlative model for modern American evangelicalism—politically minded but theologically driven—as he is indeed an ideological forerunner for so many of the controversies still peppering the evangelical landscape today. For example, in his abolitionist tract “Liberty Further Extended” (published in 1776!), one can see clearly the theological and religious roots of the concern for racial justice that one finds, for instance, in Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In Haynes’s work we find a model for speaking to our divisive politicocultural contexts today. While we no longer struggle with legalized slavery in America, we are nevertheless still torn over issues of justice, human relations, and other related concerns. At once a Christian may feel drawn toward a subgospel approach to justice issues, in which doctrine takes a back seat to human flourishing and liberation, and toward a nonapplicational theology that divorces the gospel from its social implications.
Right now in American evangelicalism we are experiencing a great balkanization, some of which involves fracture lines along issues of social justice or racial reconciliation. One would think we’d be beyond the concerns addressed in more rudimentary terms in colonial America. But here we are, perennially in the place where our ministries must take the timeless word fearlessly and pastorally into a troubled world. Haynes can be a trusted guide in this endeavor.
In many ways, Haynes could be considered a kind of American Spurgeon—a faithful preacher and pastor, beloved for decades by his church and his family, and concerned to see the implications of the gospel fleshed out in homes and in society. Like Spurgeon, Haynes had a sharp wit and an imagist approach to illustration. Like Spurgeon’s own engagement with the Downgrade Controversy, Haynes maintained a regular public debate with rising challenges to orthodoxy, including, most notoriously, the universalist Hosea Ballou. (His famous response to Ballou, allegedly preached as an impromptu counterpoint immediately after Ballou had soiled Haynes’s own pulpit with this heterodoxy, is titled “Universal Salvation” and included in this volume.) And like Spurgeon—thus unlike some of his own ministerial contemporaries—Haynes needs no modern apologies, no asterisk next to his legacy. He was a great minister of grace, worthy of great emulation.
- This foreword is adapted from Jared C. Wilson, “Lemuel Haynes and the Right Preaching of Justice,” For the Church (blog), March 15, 2021, https://ftc.co/. Used by permission.
- Timothy Mather Cooley, Sketches of the Life and Character of Rev. Lemuel Haynes (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1837), 169.
- Cooley, Sketches, 79.
This article is by Jared Wilson and is adapted from Selected Sermons by Lemuel Haynes.
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