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Daniel A. Payne

(1811—1893)


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(1811–1893), minister, poet, historian, educator, and abolitionist.

Long recognized as a leading nineteenth-century Christian activist and theologian, Daniel Payne's literary achievements are varied and equally important. From his childhood in Charleston, South Carolina, where he was born to free and deeply religious parents, through his long ministry with the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church and eventual presidency of Wilberforce University, Payne pursued a rigorous program of self-directed study. He began to write and teach at an early age, starting his first school in Charleston in 1829 when he was only nineteen years old, and teaching there until 1835, when the South Carolina legislature made it illegal to teach slaves to read or write. Forced to close his school, Payne moved to the North, where he published a collection of poetry in 1850. In The Pleasures and Other Miscellaneous Poems, Payne included a poem heralding the emancipation of the West Indies in 1838, several poems concerning his family, and moving tributes to his wife and daughter after their deaths in the late 1840s. Much of Payne's poetry also expresses his concern for “moral purity” and “holy virtue.” Payne was very active in the temperance movement and other Christian efforts at social reform.

In 1888, the Publishing House of the AME Sunday School Union printed Payne's autobiography, Recollections of Seventy Years. In this work Payne blends theology, personal experience, and political analysis. The autobiography provides a detailed account of important people and events in the antebellum African American abolitionist movement, the AME church, and African American activist communities nationwide through the extended Reconstruction years (1865–1888). Also a historian, Payne completed his exhaustive two-volume History of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1891. A collection of his sermons was published posthumously in 1972 under the title Sermons and Addresses, 1853–1891.

In all of these works, readers can see the unique tensions present in Payne's dual commitments: first, to self-defined freedom for African Americans, and second, to the spread of a form of “moral reform” that sometimes misapprehended the experience of non-Christians. For example, Payne supported missionary efforts to Africa by African American clergy but infused this support with the desire to convert “barbarous and savage men.” At the same time, he helped found the Bethel Literary and Historical Association (1881), where he and other African American activists studied not only African American literature and history but also celebrated the cultures of Africa in an effort described by some later scholars as Pan-Africanist and nationalist. Another interesting political tension is Payne's early involvement in the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee (1838–1844), where African Americans challenged the legal status quo of the country by assisting newly escaped fugitive slaves, tempered by his later apparently “assimilationist” claims for the legitimate authority of the U.S. government.

W. E. B. Du Bois counted Payne among the most important African American leaders and also listed some of his literary work and sermons among the key documents of African American literary tradition. Payne's autobiography, especially, through its rhetorical blend of literary narrative, theology, and political observation, allows readers access to the challenging complexity of nineteenth-century African American culture.

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Subjects: Philosophy — Literature.


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