Comparison of Conversion Narratives: Olaudah Equiano and John Marrant
Spiritual autobiographies, or conversion narratives, were popular forms of literature in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with Americans and Europeans alike. Daniel Shea explains a spiritual autobiography is “primarily concerned with the question of grace: whether or not the individual has been accepted into divine life, an acceptance signified by psychological and moral changes which the autobiographer comes to discern in his past experience” (XI). Accordingly, these type of texts were often used as religious, political, or cultural propaganda. With this in mind, Olaudah Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African by Himself (1789) and John Marrant’s Narrative of the Lord’s Wonderful Dealings with John Marrant, a Black (1785) do not ostensibly seem interconnected. Equiano’s narrative tells the story of an eleven year old Black boy who is captured and must endure the trials and tribulations of the slave trade and its related injustices. On the contrary, John Marrant is a free, educated black male who accepts Christianity, willingly abandons his family, and assimilates into Native American culture. While at first these texts seem completely unrelated, a closer look at their similarities reveals their belonging to the same genre.
Although Equiano’s text is generally studied as a slave narrative and Marrant’s as a captivity narrative, it is most beneficial to interpret both works as spiritual autobiographies, or tales of conversion. On that note, the mere structure of both narratives suggests their belonging to the spiritual autobiography genre. In general, spiritual autobiographies and conversion narratives are characterized by the author’s journey from rags-to-riches, damnation-to-salvation, or ignorance-to-grace. Indeed, both Equiano’s Interesting Narrative and John Marrant’s Narrative of the Lord’s Wonderful Dealings follow this structure. For example, in Equiano’s case, the former slave becomes a well-known, well-educated, respected abolitionist. His narrative follows him from his African Pagan roots to his final achievement as a saved, free black man. Born in 1745 in present-day Nigeria, Equiano was captured and sold to slave traders headed for the West Indies at the age of eleven. After a brief stay in Virginia, Captain Henry Pascal purchased Equiano as “a present to some of his friends in England” and renamed him Gustavas Vassa (Equiano 36). It is under the ownership of Pascal where Equiano is exposed to Christianity, a force which guides his success up until the end of his life. After spending much time traveling with Pascal, he is again sold in 1763 to a man named Robert King. Working on Mr. King’s trading sloops, Equiano was able to profit from minor trading exchanges, ultimately enabling him to purchase his own freedom in 1766. Once free, he returns to England where he begins attending school and even obtains a job working as an assistant to scientist Dr. Charles Irving (Potkay & Burr 159-162). As commonly seen in spiritual autobiographies, Equiano’s humble beginnings are transformed into a life of accomplishments, ultimately aided by his discovery of Christianity.
Similarly, John Marrant’s Narrative of the Lord’s Wonderful Dealings follows this same path of damnation to salvation. His narrative details his life as a free black child in the American colonies, his Christian conversion, his capture by the Native Cherokee tribe, his assimilation into Indian culture, and his subsequent spiritual and cultural transformation (Potkay & Burr 67-74). Feeling dejected and unaccepted by his family because of his newfound spirituality, Marrant wanders off into the wilderness “to go home altogether” (Marrant 16). Despite problems enduring and navigating unknown areas, Marrant explains “the Lord Jesus Christ was very present, and that comforted [him] through the whole” (18). Eventually, he stumbles upon an “Indian hunter” who takes Marrant back to his village after realizing how far from home he has travelled (19). Although his initial relationship with the Cherokee tribe leaves him jailed and scheduled for execution, it is his relationship with God that leads to his acceptance into the Native community. As Katherine Chiles points out in Transformable Race, the hopeless and fearful black wanderer transforms into a renowned and respected Indian preacher (123). Thus, John Marrant’s narrative, as well as Equiano’s, closely follow the rags-to-riches, grace-to-salvation structure commonly found in other spiritual autobiographies of the period.
According to Daniel Shea, spiritual autobiographies are characterized by the author allowing God and divine intervention to be the deciding factor in their life (XII). In both Marrant and Equiano’s narratives, God becomes the guiding force in their lives almost immediately after their first exposure to Christianity. For Marrant, this occurs when he is on his way to “play [music] for some gentlemen” and stumbles upon a “large meeting house” where “a crazy man…[is] hallooing in there” (10). Recognizing it as preaching a sermon, Marrant’s friend encourages him to disrupt the service by loudly blowing his french horn. When Marrant gets ready to do so, the “crazy man,” renowned Reverend George Whitefield cries out, “PREPARE TO MEET THY GOD, O ISRAEL” while looking “directly upon [Marrant], and pointing with his finger”
(10, 11). After this spiritual encounter, Marrant is struck to the ground “both speechless and senseless” by Whitefield’s invocation of God and falls ill for the following three days until a minister is sent to convert him to Christianity, healing him of his ailments (11). Returning to the requirements of a spiritual autobiography, it is this moment of divine intervention which makes way for Marrant’s subsequent conflicts where he must rely completely on God to pave the way for his life. Similarly, Equiano’s first encounter with God’s presence ignites his interest in the spiritual world and guides all his decisions thereafter. Upon his first arrival in England and his first sight of snow, twelve-year-old Equiano asks his ship-mate “the use of it, and who made it” to which his ship-mate replies, “a great man in the heavens, called God” (39). Through this brief explanation of God, Equiano’s “immediate ambition had been realized” (Walvin 91). Equiano goes on to describe the effect this moment had on him:
After this I went to church; and having never been at such a place before, I was again amazed at seeing and hearing the service. I asked all I could about it; and they gave me to understand it was “worshipping God, who made us and all things.” I was still at a loss, and soon got into an endless field of inquiries, as well as I was able to speak and ask about things (39).
Notably, Equiano views his newfound spirituality as the strongest force in his life as his faith in God begins to grow. It is this same unfaltering faith that makes Equiano feel safer and more confident in his ability to change into someone loved by God instead of his previous damned state. For example, when seven people, including Equiano himself, fell off of the ship’s upper-deck and no one was hurt, Equiano gave God credit for sparing his life: “I thought I could plainly trace the hand of God, without whose permission a sparrow cannot fall. I began to raise my fear from man to him alone, and to call daily on his holy name with fear and reverence: and I trust he heard my supplications (53). Similarly, the power of God directly saves John Marrant’s life as well. After Marrant’s family rejected him and his adopted religion, he takes to the wilderness, testifying “the Lord Jesus Christ was very present, and that comforted [him] through the whole” (18). When he initially encounters the “Indian hunter,” Marrant informs him he was “supported by the Lord” even though the Indian is ignorant to Christianity (19). Despite this, the Indian hunter convinces Marrant to join him in returning back to the Native village. Once Marrant arrives at the Indian community, he is separated from the man he met in the wilderness and forced to answer to the rest of the tribe about his intentions and purposes for his being there or he will be executed. Unable to explain his presence satisfactorily, he is thrown in jail and scheduled to be put to death the following day. However, the account that follows exemplifies the requirements of a spiritual autobiography and demonstrates the active role God plays in Marrant’s life. In jail, he begins praying in the native Cherokee language, supposedly “wonderfully affect[ing] the people” nearby (24). To his surprise, his praying converts the executioner who insists “no one shall hurt [Marrant] ’til thou haft been to the king” (24). As a result, he is “taken away immediately” to meet the King where his explanation of God’s word and the Bible converts the King’s daughter instantly (24). Just as Marrant experienced after hearing Reverend Whitefield, the young girl is overcome with “bodily weakness” and passes out ill, severely angering the Cherokee King who threatens to kill Marrant on the spot if his daughter is not immediately cured (27). When Marrant prays over the girl, he explains “the Lord appeared most lovely and glorious” and relieved her of her ailments (27). As a result, a “great change [takes] place among the people; the King’s house [becomes] God’s house” and Marrant successfully converts the entire Native village to Christianity. (28). As Marrant explains, he is “treated like a prince” thereafter and “the Lord made all [his] enemies to become great friends” (28- 29). In this way, the reader is able to understand the significance of God’s acting power in Marrant’s life. Also worth noting is the power of God to comfort the men through their trials and tribulations.
In Equiano’s case, when Captain Henry Pascal sells him to another owner after promising his freedom, Equiano wonders if he has done something to cause the Lord to punish him. In this moment, he believes it is God punishing him instead of the white man: “At the moment I expected all my toils to end, was I plunged […] in a new slavery […] I wept very bitterly for some time: and began to think that I must have done something to displease the Lord, that he thus punished me so severely” (59). He goes on to explain how he “felt the Lord was able to disappoint [him] in all things,” just as the Lord aids his success and happiness (59). By doing so, Equiano, as well as John Marrant, “appropriate[ed] God’s word to his individual purposes” which “constituted an especially bold form of self-authorization” (Andrews 1). These instances, along with several others in both Equiano’s Interesting Narrative and John Marrant’s Narrative of the Lord’s Wonderful Dealings reveal what a powerful and guiding force God becomes in the lives of these men, further reiterating their belonging to the spiritual autobiography genre.
To continue, the most notable similarity between these two narratives is both Equiano and Marrant’s choice to adopt the racial “mask” of their captors. As Sisters of the Spirit explains, the Negro had traditionally been considered “a kind of Canaanite, a man devoid of Logos, whose low social status was a punishment resulting from sin or from a nature defect of the soul” (Andrews 1). In short, blacks were considered sub-human, and therefore unable to obtain salvation in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As a result, “the black spiritual autobiographer had to lay the necessary intellectual groundwork by proving that black people were as much chosen by God for eternal salvation as whites” (Andrews 1). In order for Equiano and John Marrant to successfully demonstrate their potential for salvation, both men adopt the racial ‘mask’ of their captors. In John Marrant’s case, his adoption of the Cherokee mask begins almost immediately after encountering the Indian hunter in the woods. Before they have even arrived at “a large Indian town, belonging to the Cherokee nation,” Marrant has already “acquired a fuller knowledge of the Indian tongue” (21). Interestingly, he learns enough of the language in that short period to fully pray in Native Cherokee tongue. After converting the whole village to Christianity, he immediately “assume[s] the habit of the country, and [dresses] much like the king” (28). As Katherine Chiles points out, Marrant “assum[ing] the habit of the country” indicates “he dressed like the Cherokee and practiced their mode of living (such as learning their language), and that he took on the constitution or appearance of the Cherokee body” (Equiano 28, Chiles 126). He has transformed so much into a Native that when he returns home his family does not recognize him: “[the] singularity of my dress drew every body’s eyes upon me, yet none knew me” (32). Indeed, Marrant’s adoption of the Cherokee ‘mask’ is “less about disguising himself for a certain duration than about becoming something different from his prior […] state of blackness” (Chiles 122). In short, Marrant sheds his former blackness as a way to escape the historical exception of blacks from Christianity and establish himself as a spiritual autobiographer. Just as Marrant adopts the mask of his native captors, Equiano adopts the manners and habits of his white captors and counterparts. At first convinced white people are mean, savage, and cruel, Equiano comes to see whites as “magic” as the narrative progresses (140). He explains:
I now not only felt myself quite easy with these new countrymen, but relished their society and manners. I no longer looked upon them as spirits, but as men superior to us; and therefore I had the stronger desire to resemble them; to imbibe their spirit, and imitate their manners. I therefore embraced every occasion of improvement; and every new thing that I observed I treasured up in my memory (46).
In this moment, Equiano decides he sees himself more as a European than a black African. He wants to imitate the people that have held him captive because of their seeming intelligence and good manners. As a result, Equiano strives to achieve this whiteness through his education, especially concerning religion. Consequently, he surrounds himself with white, educated companions who assist him in his understandings of the Bible. Throughout the narrative, Equiano is eager to adopt the ‘white mask’ of his superiors so he will be considered their social and spiritual equal. Near the narrative’s conclusion, Equiano reveals: “I whitened my face, that they might not know me, and this had its desired effect” (119). Just as Marrant makes a complete racial transformation into a Native, Equiano adopts the persona of a white, Christian European in order to give himself the same opportunities for salvation as his racial counterparts.
To conclude, we return to Daniel Shea’s definition of spiritual autobiographies. As anticipated, Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African by Himself (1789) and John Marrant’s Narrative of the Lord’s Wonderful Dealings with John Marrant, a Black (1785) fulfill the requirements of acceptance into divine life after psychological and moral changes. Furthermore, the structure of both narratives, their focus on divine intervention, and their adoption of a ‘racial other’ reveals their belonging to the spiritual autobiography genre.
Andrews, William. Sisters of the Spirit: Three Black Women’s Autobiographies of the Nineteenth Century. Indiana University Press, 1986.
Chiles, Katherine. Transformable Race. Oxford University Press, 2014.
Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African. London, 1789.
Marrant, John. A Narrative of the Lord’s Wonderful Dealings with John Marrant: a Black. London, 1785.
Potkay, Adam and Sandra Burr. Black Atlantic Writers of the Eighteenth Century. St. Martin’s Press, 1995.
Shea, Daniel B. Spiritual Autobiography in Early America. Princeton University Press, 1968.
Walvin, James. An African’s Life: The Life and Times of Olaudah Equiano, 1745-1797. Wellington House, 1998.
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