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Steven J. Niven

slave and medical pioneer, was born in the late seventeenth century, probably in Africa, although the precise date and place of his birth are unknown. He first appears in the historical record in the diary of Cotton Mather, a prominent New England theologian and minister of Boston's Old North Church. The Reverend Mather notes in a diary entry for 13 December 1706 that members of his congregation purchased for him “a very likely Slave; a young Man who is a Negro of a promising aspect of temper” (Mather, vol. 1, 579). Mather named him Onesimus, after a biblical slave who escaped from his master, an early Christian named Philemon.

This biblical Onesimus fled from his home in Colossae (in present-day Turkey) to the apostle Paul who was imprisoned in nearby Ephesus Paul converted Onesimus to Christianity and sent him back to Philemon with a letter which ...