Heeding the Call: The Story of Nicholas Carper | Presbyterian Historical Society

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Heeding the Call: The Story of Nicholas Carper

August 29, 2023
Compiled in 2023 by Nancy M. Ehrlich from back cover index pages of Delorme Atas Maps and Gazetteer, various editions and dates with approximate locations for Nicolas Carper. Not to scale.

--by Nancy Ehrlich

Oral tradition, written reminiscences, snippets of his public life, and a few public records offer glimpses of Nicholas Carper’s call to use his gifts and talents to preach God’s word.[1]

Nicholas Carper was born enslaved in 1776, probably in the western Virginia mountains. His mother, name unknown, was the property and daughter of German Evangelical John Jacob Carper. At some point, Nicholas and his mother came into the possession of Jeremiah James “Jerry” Jack of Huguenot descent who moved his family and slaves from Virginia to the Kentucky/Tennessee border.[2] Jerry Jack transferred ownership of Nicholas (and possibly his wife Milly) to his son, William “Billy” Jack.[3]

In 1801 some Jack household members, including Billy Jack’s wife Esther and Nicholas, attended a Great Revival camp meeting on the Kentucky/Tennessee border. Nicholas, who probably grew up in the Jack household with Billy Jack, identified with Presbyterians, and Esther Jack, with Quakers and Scots Presbyterians. At the camp meeting, Esther and Nicholas “got religion,”[4] and Nicholas felt called to preach the Gospel to his fellow bondsmen. Within months Nicholas began evangelizing and preparing himself for the ministry. White folks listened to his preaching too. Some offered to buy him, but Billy Jack would not sell. Instead, Jack enabled Nicholas to attend and preach at camp meetings where he could be instructed by the speakers in Scripture and theology.

Sometime between 1812 and 1815, the Billy Jack family and their slaves moved to Missouri, settling on the south bank of the Missouri River upstream from Lexington where Billy Jack operated a ferry and opened a warehouse. The Jack family joined a settlement populated by close relatives of Cumberland Presbyterian founder Finis Ewing, southwest of town. These locations allowed Nicholas to exhort his neighbors on both sides of the Missouri River, including Osage villages and the Harmony Mission about 80 miles to the southwest. Billy Jack “got religion a year after his arrival in Missouri.”[5]

In the Spring of 1822, Home Missionary Rev. Salmon Giddings, the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, visited United Foreign Mission Stations on the Osage River, including Harmony.[6] Rev. Giddings may have met Nicholas and heard him preach. Somehow, he learned of Nicholas’ gift of communication and the ability to hold an audience’s attention with strong, melodious, and convincing preaching. After the tour, Rev. Giddings helped organize the St. Louis chapter of the American Colonization Society. He promoted Nicholas’ eligibility for the ACS’s program to educate American slaves in theology and medicine and then move candidates and their families to Liberia. In cooperation with this plan, Billy Jack sold Nicholas for $350 to Samuel Bright, the farm supervisor at Harmony Mission, in May 1823. Within the Mission family, Nicholas took advantage of theological, academic, and medical tutoring by the school headmaster Amasa Jones and others. He also traveled with Congregationalist-trained pastors organized into the Independent Indian Missions Presbytery and accompanied them on visits to Congregationalists and Presbyterians in southern Missouri, southeastern Kansas, Oklahoma, and perhaps Arkansas.

Portrait of Rev. Salmon Giddings, undated. [islandora:86214]

Nicholas bought his freedom in 1825 and adopted his mother’s surname, Carper. Immediately he began paying Jack for Milly and their children.[7] Now free, Nicholas Carper with Amasa Jones attended a meeting of the Indian Missions Presbytery at Union Mission.[8] Amasa Jones and Nicholas Carper were licensed to preach with the presbytery’s anticipation that Licentiate Carper would emigrate to Africa through the auspices of the American Colonization Society. Two years later, in 1827, with Harmony Mission in decline and the Osage forced across the state line, Billy Jack sold Milly to Rev. Nathaniel Brown Dodge, Harmony Mission Superintendent, and Rev. Salmon Giddings of St. Louis. Licentiate Carper had previously paid Jack $200 and promised to pay Dodge and Giddings an additional $150 for Milly’s freedom. In the same agreement, Licentiate Carper and Milly received permission to take their two youngest children to St. Louis and keep them in their possession within the state for eighteen months, providing them with food, clothing, and health care.

Rev. Dodge, Indian Missions Presbytery member, and Licentiate Nicholas Carper attended the 1829 spring meeting of Missouri Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., seeking to affiliate with that presbytery. Following examination by an unnamed committee, Rev. Dodge and another academically trained minister were admitted to the presbytery. However, the committee requested that Missouri Presbytery express its views on candidacy to Licentiate Carper with the admonition that “unless he complies with their injunctions relative to study and to connect himself with a church under our Presbytery will find themselves compelled to withdraw from his candidacy.”[9] Licentiate Carper became Candidate Carper on a vote of the Presbytery, accompanied by a certificate of dismissal from the Indian Missions Presbytery. The committee prepared a study plan for the Candidate with instructions to report next spring. In 1830 and 1831, the committee stated that Candidate Carper had not complied with its instructions. In his defense, Carper replied that he lived in poverty and supported his family, which prevented pursuing the proscribed course of study. He said he had no money and could not acquire the funds. He requested that Missouri Presbytery dismiss him to the Indian Missions Presbytery from which he had come, and Presbytery complied. Carper would not go to Liberia.

Undaunted and perhaps disappointed, he returned to Harmony and devoted himself to ministry. Nicholas Carper’s empowerers quickly acted. The Lexington Presbytery of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church welcomed, examined, and ordained him, possibly waiving the Greek and Latin requirements.

With Indian Removal and the decline of the Osage missions, Rev. Carper and his family moved to northern St. Louis, and he transferred his membership to the Cumberland Presbytery of St. Louis. He worked on both sides of the Mississippi River in abolitionist-owned businesses and ferries. When Giddings and Dodge were paid and the entire Carper family free, they moved across the Mississippi River to Illinois and into the American Botton settled by free Blacks and escaped slaves. Rev. Carper and others founded the town of Brooklyn. From there, Nicholas accepted invitations to preach from Baptist, Congregational, and Presbyterian churches, and continued to speak at camp meetings. Rev. Carper was so engaged that he neglected to transfer membership to the Vandalia Presbytery until reminded to do so in 1838.

Rev. Nicholas Carper died in 1840. His remains lie in an unknown and unmarked place. His earthly estate passed to Milly and their children. His spiritual legacy includes those he encouraged to believe. If he published anything, it does not survive. Memories of his powerful and melodious speaking voice that captured and captivated audiences lingered for over half a century, especially his oft repeated phrase, “I have heard that a Negro has no soul. I am three-quarters white. Does that mean I have three-quarters of a soul?”

Nicholas Carper persevered. Perhaps apprehensive but unafraid, he used his unique gifts in service to the Lord, thanking God for the many Brothers and Sisters in Christ who supported and aided him, especially Milly, his life partner.

[1] Manumission documents and federal census information are primary sources of information on the Nicholas Carper and his family. Cumberland Presbyterians Judge Robert Ewing (son of Rev. Finis Ewing) and Rev. J.B. Logan heard Nicholas Carper preach, and Logan mentions Rev. Carper in a history of the Vandalia Presbytery. Rev John B. Hill relates Carper’s story in A History of the Kansas City, Presbytery and its Predecessors (Kansas City: Gurd & Fletcher Printing Co., 1901). Hill undoubtedly used notes, diaries, and stories about the man from his father, New School Home Missionary Rev. Timothy Hill, who arrived in Missouri after Carper’s death. The family trees of John Jacob Carper, Nicholas Carper. Jeremiah Jack, and William Jack in Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org, and Find-A-Grave helped establish chronology. Facts about Rev. Salmon Giddings’ life are found in Rockne Myers McCarthy and Charles A. Maxfield, “Presbyterian Pioneers: The Laity, Salmon Giddings and the Presbytery of Missouri,” American Presbyterians 69, no. 1 (1991), 1-10. I also consulted histories of St. Louis City and County and Madison and St. Clair County, Illinois, and several websites devoted to the history and archaeology of Brooklyn, Illinois.

[2] Jeremiah Jack was a founder and Ruling Elder of New Lebanon Presbyterian Church near Knoxville, Tennessee.

[3] The United States Census records, accessible through several web sites, seem to indicate Nicholas Carper and his family were the only humans William Jack ever owned. At various times, Jack resided in Jackson, Cass, and Platte Counties in western Missouri where he died in 1864.

[4] “Got religion” is a phrase associated with camp meetings. In two words it describes spiritual awakening but implies emotional expression, sometimes extreme. Given the German Reformed and Huguenot upbringing in the Carper and Jack families and subsequent tutelage by academically trained Congregationalists, Nicholas’ preaching may not have elicited extreme bodily movements in the audience.

[5] A War of 1812 veteran, Captain Billy Jack and his wife Esther were soon granted the title, “Fathers and Mothers in Israel,” conferred upon non-clergy spiritual leaders. This designation was used in the nineteenth century by Presbyterian, Baptist, Congregationalist, German Reformed, Methodist, and Universalist leaders, mostly west of the Appalachians.

[6] The United Foreign Mission Society, renamed the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, was an agency affiliated with the Congregationalist, Dutch Reformed, and Presbyterian Churches. Most of the Harmony Mission staff were Congregationalists governing themselves in the Presbyterian manner. Indian Missions Presbytery members, denominationally independent, resided and worked in Southwest Missouri, Southeastern Kansas, eastern Oklahoma, and perhaps in Arkansas near Fort Smith

[7] Nicholas and Milly’s children, Nancy (b. 1815) and Larkin (b. 1819), immigrated with the Jack family to Missouri where Andrew C. “Andy” (1820), Cornelius J. “Neely” (1823), Mary (1826), and William (1832) were all born into slavery. Their last child, Nicholas Hubbard Carper, was born free because Milly was free. Another Ancestry.com tree does not mention Nancy and names Fannie, born in 1825. Their sons, Larkin, Andy, Neeley, and Nicholas Hubbard, became Cumberland Presbyterian ministers.

[8] In 1823 missionaries among the Osage and Cherokee in the Arkansas River Valley organized the Indian Missions Presbytery, independent of denominational connections and with oversight over new missions. After the Osage removal from Missouri, some missionaries remained and offered services to white residents. Most joined Harmony Presbytery, begun in 1841, and affiliated with the PCUSA-New School Missouri Synod the following year.

[9] Minutes of the Presbytery of Missouri, 1817 -1920, The State Historical Society of Missouri, Manuscript Collection, (C1354), vol. 1, 144 -145.