Miracle in the Collection Plate
Rev. Christopher Rush, 1850
Brothers and sisters, we know why we’re here this evening. The sad news has traveled fast of Brother James’s capture. For three years he lived amongst us, tasting happiness. His wife and child are here with us tonight. God bless you, Sister. Without a goodbye, James was handcuffed, and shoved on a steamboat to Baltimore, to be sold—legally! Neighbors, we know that upright, decent man: James Hamlet: a loving husband, father, friend. Many of us would gladly risk the fine or prison sentence, if we could help him. My friends, all is not lost! It’s not too late! We are told that Brother James may be redeemed! His buyer will sell him! But we cannot wait: we need eight hundred dollars to free him. Eight hundred. I know every penny counts, living from widow’s mite to widow’s mite. But with God’s help, we can raise that enormous amount! Let’s make a miracle in the collection plate!
In 1850 the U.S. Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law, which made any federal marshal or other official who did not arrest an alleged runaway slave liable to a fine of $1,000. Law enforcement officials everywhere now had a duty to arrest anyone suspected of being a runaway slave on no more evidence than a claimant’s sworn testimony of ownership. The suspected slave could not ask for a jury trial or testify on his or her own behalf. In addition, any person aiding a runaway slave by providing food or shelter was subject to six months’ imprisonment and a $1,000 fine. Officers who captured a fugitive slave were entitled to a bonus. Slave owners only needed to supply an affidavit to a federal marshal to capture an escaped slave. This law led to many free blacks being conscripted into slavery, as they had no rights in court and could not defend themselves against accusations. James Hamlet was the first fugitive arrested under the new law. His African American and Abolitionist friends raised the money necessary to purchase his freedom.
Copyright © 2015 Marilyn Nelson. Published with permission of Namelos Editions.
Born in 1946, Marilyn Nelson is the author of over eight books of poetry, as well as many collections of verse for children and young adults. She served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2013 to 2018.
Date Published: 2016-01-19
Source URL: https://poets.org/poem/miracle-collection-plate