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Christopher McPherson

By Sadie Van Vranken

Christopher McPherson was a free black businessman, clerk, and self-styled prophet, born in the mid-eighteenth century to a Scottish father and enslaved black mother. He grew up enslaved to David Ross, and worked as a clerk under Ross in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. After being formally emancipated by Ross in 1792 and converting to Christianity in 1799, McPherson worked as a clerk in the U.S. House of Representatives.

While in Philadelphia, he wrote to President John Adams warning of the impending end of the world and dined with James Madison. Moving to Richmond, Virginia, McPherson became a successful businessman and began acquiring property. A series of petitions lodged by McPherson for the establishment of a new graveyard for the free black population of Richmond and his protest of a Richmond law prohibiting blacks from using hired carriages brought McPherson to the attention of local authorities and began a series of legal battles. In 1811, McPherson established a night school for African Americans, which drew protest from the white community that the existence of such an institution was “impolitic and highly improper.” McPherson was arrested for disturbing the peace later that year, jailed, and sent to the Virginia Lunatic Asylum, which declared him sane. Upon release, McPherson distributed printed copies of his conversion and his prediction of the end of the world around Virginia, citing Nimrod Hughes’s prophecies. He began writing his autobiography while in jail and published it later in 1811.

McPherson’s Christ’s Millennium, of One Thousand Years Commenced and the Downfall of Kings, &C. before the Throne of Justice, the Word Particularly Sent to Them as Noted Herein . Also, the Restoration of the Jews to New Zion, as Foretold by the Prophets is a somewhat disjointed collection of documents, not all focused on his millennial prophecies. The book opens with an autobiographical account of his life, and contains several certificates of character from white Americans acquired throughout his life. McPherson is intent upon stating that he has been “considered by my numerous white acquaintance as one of their number,” and strives to prove his respectability through the certificates. McPherson includes records of his trials, his account of his conversion, the certificate of his sanity from the Virginia Lunatic Asylum, and numerous other documents. The book ends with letters from McPherson to a diverse collection of world rulers, including Napoleon Bonaparte, the king of Portugal, the Pope, the sultan of Turkey, and kings and bashaws of the Barbary States, warning them of Nimrod Hughes’s prophecies, requesting peace, and declaring the United States the new Zion.

McPherson’s narrative has not survived well over the years. Both his initial 1811 printing and a second edition published by Christopher McPherson Smith, presumably a descendent, in 1855, have only one known surviving copy. The Huntington Library holds both editions. McPherson’s failed prediction of the death of one-third of mankind in 1812 likely contributed to the book’s short lifespan, as well as the reputation for lunacy McPherson held in cultured circles. However, at the time of his publication, McPherson’s book seems to have traveled in elite political circles; John Adams mentions having received the volume alongside Nimrod Hughes’s pamphlet in an 1812 letter to Thomas Jefferson. McPherson’s narrative was also likely the first book copyrighted by a black author in America. Susanna Ashton has previously claimed that William Grimes was the first African American to claim copyright for a book-length work with his 1825 Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave, but Virginia copyright records contain McPherson’s copyright entry in 1811, although there is no copyright statement in the book.1 As an educated free black man, McPherson used print networks, political connections, and legal recourse to pursue racial justice and advance his vision of religious restoration. Although he was dismissed as a lunatic and remains relatively unknown, his work is a significant contribution to early black print culture.

Further reading:

For more on Nimrod Hughes’ prophecies: http://pastispresent.org/2017/fun-in-the-archive/nimrod-newspapers-and-the-apocalypse-of-1812/

Documenting the American South on McPherson: https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/mcpherson/menu.html

Encyclopedia Virginia on McPherson, with associated documents: https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/McPherson_Christopher_ca_1763-1817#start_entry

McPherson, Christopher. Christ's Millennium, of One Thousand Years Commenced and the Downfall of Kings, &C. before the Throne of Justice, the Word Particularly Sent to Them as Noted Herin. Also, the Restoration of the Jews to New Zion, as Foretold by the Prophets. Richmond: Printed for the author, 1811.

[1] A Record of Virginia Copyright Entries, 1790–1844 (Richmond: David Bottom, Superintendent of Public Printing, 1911), 15.