McPherson was born enslaved in Louisa County about 1763. His mother was an enslaved woman named Clarinda, his father the white Scottish merchant Charles McPherson. Clarinda was owned by a widow named Winston, and the elder McPherson operated a store from the widow’s home. Charles McPherson apparently convinced Winston to sell Christopher to his friend David Ross, a Scottish merchant who did business in Richmond and Petersburg and who owned a store in Columbia, Fluvanna County. In 1770 Ross sent Christopher McPherson to Goochland County to be educated for two years, after which the young man worked behind the counter at Ross’s Elk Horn Store in Petersburg for three years. He then worked briefly as a teacher.
On January 23, 1781,appointed Davis Ross the commercial agent for Virginia, and McPherson worked as his clerk. As part of their duties, the two were with the Continental army at the siege of Yorktown during the American Revolution (1775–1783). In 1782, Ross resigned his post and returned, with McPherson, to Fluvanna County. From 1784 to 1787, McPherson served as Ross’s principal storekeeper, with eight to ten white men under his supervision. After Ross closed his store, McPherson continued as a clerk for Ross until 1799, supervising two to six white men. He also joined the county militia. On June 2, 1792, Ross signed a deed of manumission in Fluvanna County, freeing McPherson while noting that he had been living as a free man for many years already. About 1797, a riot involving armed black men erupted near Ross’s office in Columbia. After authorities called out the white militia, McPherson emerged from the office, his sword drawn, and warned the black men against violence.
Prophet and Clerk
While still in Columbia McPherson underwent a Christian conversion experience. “I was shewn by the Holy Spirit in my visions,” he later wrote, “that these United States were the new Zion” and that he, McPherson, had been “appointed a messenger to the world.” On July 4, 1799, with the mayor of Norfolk‘s permission, he and John Teed led a procession through the city, and later in the day through Portsmouth, that included a baptism ceremony in the Elizabeth River in Portsmouth. McPherson also began to write letters to prominent men proclaiming his religious message. On October 15, 1799, he wroteasking for an introduction to President John Adams. On November 27, from the capital in Philadelphia, he wrote Adams himself, enclosing a letter dated July 8, in which he describes himself as a figure from the Book of Revelations and warns that the end of the world is near. McPherson received no reply.
While in Philadelphia, McPherson secured work as a clerk to the U.S. House of Representatives while continuing to try to gain the president’s attention. On January 28, 1800, he composed an address to Adams and the U.S. Senate, delivering it via Senators Stephen T. Mason and. Again he received no reply and returned to Virginia that spring. On his way home he dined at Montpelier with James Madison, an event Madison on April 20. McPherson later wrote, “Mr. Jefferson by letter introduced me to Mr. Maddison—I sat at Table Even[in]g & morn[ing] with Mr. M his Lady & Company & enjoyed a full share of the Convers[ation].”
McPherson married Mary “Polly” Burgess that same spring, and the couple had at least one daughter and an adopted son. McPherson worked briefly for William Waller Hening in Charlottesville before finding employment in Richmond with the High Court of Chancery and its single judge, George Wythe. He later attested to creating an index for the court docket “which expedited the business every session.”
McPherson’s social status continued to improve. On July 29, 1800, he signed a notice with the Fluvanna County court as the principal executor of the will of James Ross, his former owner’s brother. In 1802 he appeared as a witness in a court case, and his word was accepted by a jury over that of two white witnesses. McPherson later wrote that in the years 1802 to 1810, he clerked “for all the principal offices both under the general and State governments, and for judges, lawyers, merchants” in Richmond. He also began to accumulate wealth and property, leaving aside for a time his concern with the end of the world. From 1807 to 1810, he rented a house in Richmond for $25 per year, but in 1810 and each of the next two years upgraded to ones worth $18, $36, and $120 per year respectively.
Beginning in 1810 McPherson’s life was marked by a series of run-ins with authority that led to a fall from social grace. On June 18 of that year, the Richmond Common Hall Council passed an ordinance that required the licensing of hack drivers, or men who hired out their horse-drawn carriages to riders. The ordinance prohibited African Americans from riding “except in the Capacity of Maid or Servant to some Lady or Gentleman.” On August 3, McPherson wrote to city officials asking for a deferment and expressed “great astonishment” at being subjected to such legal restraints, which caused him “to reflect on the whole tenor of my life.”
He petitioned the General Assembly on the same issue, including a pamphlet written by Nimrod Hughes, of Washington County. Dated April 3, 1810, it quoted Revelations and prophesied the end of the world on June 4, 1812. “Altho’ to my knowledge, I never saw the man,” McPherson wrote to the assembly, referring to Hughes, “yet I give the fullest belief to his prophecy.”
Neither the city nor the General Assembly granted McPherson his deferment, and on February 22, 1811, the Richmond Enquirerannouncing McPherson’s newly purchased hack for hire. A few weeks later, on March 12, he in the Virginia Argus, of Richmond, the establishment of a night school for “male adults of colour, and with the consent of their owners, Slaves.” Twenty-five students were enrolled under the guidance of a white teacher, and he expected that number soon to double. A public outcry ensued such that the paper’s editor was forced to withdraw the ad, although that education was, in all cases, “a blessing to the people or society who patronize it.” Even so, McPherson was forced to appear in court on charges of creating a nuisance with his school. He responded with an advertisement proclaiming a new school, but it is unclear whether it was ever established.
About the same time, McPherson and his wife were arrested for disturbing the peace after getting into an argument with another man. They were cleared of wrongdoing, but McPherson later complained “that under existing circumstances, in the State of Virginia, a man of colour at present, had but a slender chance of success, in going to law with weighty officers of the land.”
On May 11, 1811, in an attempt to raise money and attention for his grievances, McPherson walked through Richmond, as he later wrote, “singing, dancing, &c. and walking the streets harmlessly with my cane in hand, &c., in so conspicuous a manner, as to draw the attention of influential characters.” After his arrest, McPherson told the court “that I had a new name, Pherson, son of Christ, King of Kings, and Lord of Lords, and prevailed them to read the 19th chapter of the Revalations, which contains my appointment.”
He remained incarcerated from about May 23 until June 12, when he was ordered to Williamsburg. There, on June 14, 1811, he appeared before the board of directors of the Public Hospital for Persons of Insane and Disordered Minds. The directors pronounced him sane, and McPherson promptly traveled to Norfolk and Portsmouth, posting handbills around the city regarding his “conversion and commission” and suffering a beating at the hands of a ship’s pilot. While in jail he had begun writing A Short History of the Life of Christopher McPherson, which he published that year and was republished by Christopher McPherson Smith, probably a relative, in 1855. It contains copies of many of his private and public papers, including letters from jail he addressed to Napoleon,, and James Monroe, announcing the impending apocalypse and calling for an end to war and colonization.
On October 17, 1811, the Alexandria Daily Gazetteabout McPherson’s prophecy. “Although this prediction is not a positive,” the paper wrote, “it certainly has an ‘awful squinting:’ the timid must console themselves with the reflection that there is a wide difference between possibility and probability.”
McPherson returned to Richmond and initiated lawsuits against the man who accused him and his wife of disturbing the peace, the man he accused of beating him, as well as officials who had recommended his commitment to the Williamsburg asylum. His actions finally captured the attention of John Adams, who on February 10, 1812, wrote Thomas Jefferson, “I find that Virginia produces Prophets.” McPherson had sent Adams a copy of both his Short History and Nimrod Hughes’s pamphlet, and Adams worried that, while neither was “ill written,” “I should apprehend that two Such mulattoes might raise the Devil among the Negroes in that Vicinity.” Jefferson replied on April 20 that he had known McPherson for twenty years and he had become “crazy, foggy, his head always in the clouds, and rhapsodizing what neither himself nor any one else could understand.”
The end of the world did not arrive in June 1812, as McPherson had expected, and sometime in 1813, or soon after, he left Richmond for New York. His wife died on October 6, 1816, and he wrote his will on August 13, 1817. He dispersed money to three grandchildren and authorized executors to manumit two of his children by two different enslaved mothers. He died soon after.