African-American Presbyterians at Log College Press

(If the author links in this post are broken, please visit our Free PDF Library and click on the author’s page directly.)

About a year ago, we invited our readers to take note of a growing number of African-American Presbyterian authors available to read and learn about here at Log College Press. These are some of the names that we highlighted last year.

  • Matthew Anderson (1845-1928) - In 1874, Anderson became the first black student to reside in the main seminary building. He became the pastor of Berean Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, and in 1897 he wrote Presbyterianism: Its Relation to the Negro.

  • Titus Basfield (1806-1881) - A former slave from Virginia, he studied at Franklin College in Ohio under the Rev. John Walker and eventually became a minister in the Associate Presbyterian Church. He served as a missionary in Canada for time and struggled with adversity there. He wrote a remarkable autobiography in 1858 titled An Interesting History of the Life of the Rev. Titus Basfield, a Colored Minister in the Associate Presbyterian Church.

  • William Thomas Catto (1810-1869) - Catto served as minister at the First African Presbyterian in Philadelphia. His historical sketch of that church and its first minister (see below) is of great value.

  • John Chavis (1763-1838) - Chavis was born free in North Carolina, and was tutored by Henry Pattillo, studied at Liberty Hall Academy in Virginia, and eventually (on November 19, 1800) became the first black licensed Presbyterian minister in America. We have added a great deal of correspondence by him to Willie P. Mangum, who later served as a US Senator from North Carolina.

  • John Gloucester, Sr. (1776-1822) - Born as a slave, Gloucester was at one time owned by the Rev. Gideon Blackburn, a Presbyterian missionary to Cherokee Indians, who set him free and encouraged him to pursue the ministry. Gloucester became the first black ordained Presbyterian minister in America on April 30, 1810. He then founded the First African Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia.

  • Henry Highland Garnet (1815-1882) - Having escaped from slavery in Maryland, Garnet grew up in New York, studying at the African Free School and the Oneida Theological Institute. An accident deprived him of the use of his right leg, the lower portion of which had to be amputated, which hindered with his studies. He went on to serve as pastor of the Liberty Street Presbyterian Church in Troy, New York, and as pastor of the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC. He was a leading abolitionist who at one time called for armed rebellion by slaves against their masters, and supported efforts for American blacks to colonize Africa. He was the first black minister to preach to Congress with a sermon to the US House of Representatives on February 12, 1865, and became the first high-ranking black federal official when he was appointed as Minister Resident and Consul General to Liberia on June 30, 1881. He died in Liberia the following year.

  • Francis James Grimké (1850-1937) - Born a slave on a plantation near Charleston, South Carolina, Grimké was the son of a slave-owner of French Huguenot descent, and a slave of European and African descent. Francis and his brother Archibald gained their freedom after the War, and went on to study at Lincoln University, graduating there in 1870, and then Francis studied at Princeton Theological Seminary, where he graduated in 1878. He became the pastor of the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC, and was also a co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). His Meditations on Preaching is available here.

  • James William Charles Pennington (1807-1870) - Born on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Pennington escaped from slavery at the age of 18 and traveled north with the help of the Underground Railroad. Under the influence of the Rev. Samuel H. Cox, by the grace of God, Pennington was converted to Christ. He studied at Yale, and was eventually ordained to the ministry. He traveled much in Europe, and was the first person of African descent to be awarded a Doctor of Divinity degree by any European university at the University of Heidelberg in 1849. A leading black abolitionist of his day, he was opposed to African colonization efforts. His popular autobiographical account is titled The Fugitive Blacksmith; or, Events in the History of James W.C. Pennington, Pastor of a Presbyterian Church, New York, Formerly a Slave in the State of Maryland, United States (1850).

  • William Henry Sheppard (1865-1927) - Born in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia at Waynesboro, Sheppard studied at the Hampton Institute under Booker T. Washington, and at the Tuscaloosa Theological Institute (now Stillman College). He was ordained as a minister in the Southern Presbyterian Church (PCUS) in 1888. After a brief stint as a pastor in Atlanta, he volunteered to serve as a pioneer missionary in the Congo Free State of Africa, where he would serve with Samuel N. Lapsley and William M. Morrison. With Morrison, Sheppard did much to expose the atrocities of the Belgians in the Congo. Both men were sued for libel against the Kasai Rubber Company, and both were acquitted. Mark Twain mentioned Sheppard by name and referred to Sheppard’s account of the atrocities in King Leopold's Soliloquy (1905). Sheppard’s collection of Kuba art remains on display today at Hampton University Museum. He also wrote poetry.

  • Theodore Sedgwick Wright (1797-1847) - Born free in Providence, Rhode Island, Wright was the first African-American to attend any US theological seminary (Princeton). He later wrote about the racism he experienced there. After graduating, he served as pastor of the First Colored Presbyterian Church in New York City for the rest of his life. He wrote for William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator, and co-edited Freedom’s Journal with Samuel Cornish (see below). He was a founding member of the American Anti-Slavery Society and American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society.

In the past year, we have added more 19th-20th century African-American Presbyterians who are very much worth getting to know.

  • James Ralston Amos (1824-1864) - Amos, and his brother Thomas Henry, both graduated from what is now known as Lincoln University in Pennsylvania under the supervision of the Rev. John Dickey, and were ordained by the New Castle Presbytery in 1859 to serve as some of the first black American missionaries in Liberia.

  • Thomas Henry Amos (1826-1869)- See above. Cheryl Renée Gooch has written a valuable study of the lives of both brothers titled On Africa's Lands: The Forgotten Stories of Two Lincoln-Educated Missionaries in Liberia (2014).

  • Samuel Cornish (1795-1858) - Born free in Delaware, Cornish later founded the First Colored Presbyterian Church in New York City. He later served as the pastor at the First African Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, and Emmanuel Church in New York City. He co-edited Freedom’s Journal with Theodore S. Wright (see above), and with him was a founding member of the American Anti-Slavery Society.

  • Samuel Jackson Fisher (1847-1928) - Born in Ohio, Fisher went on to study at Hamilton College, graduating in 1867, and at Auburn Theological Seminary (1870). He would later receive two doctorates in divinity. Ordained in 1870, he served as pastor of the Presbyterian church in Swissvale, Pennsylvania from 1870 to 1905. A leading African-American Presbyterian minister in his day, he also served as a long-time member of the faculty of Chatham University (then known as the Pennsylvania College for Women; served as President of the Presbyterian Board of Missions to the Freedmen; and who authored many articles, as well as a volume of poetry dedicated to his deceased wife: The Romance of Pittsburgh or Under Three Flags, and Other Poems.

  • William Henderson Franklin (1852-1935) - Franklin was a respected Presbyterian minister and educator who was both the founder and president of Swift College in Rogersville, Tennessee. He and his wife are buried on the campus. He was also the first moderator of the East Tennessee Synod.

  • James Newton Gloucester (1810-1890) - The son of John Gloucester, Sr., James also became a Presbyterian minister and abolitionist. He founded the Siloam Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn, New York in 1849, and later in life also served as a physician.

  • Stephen Henry Gloucester (1802-1850) - The son of John Gloucester, Sr., Stephen also became a Presbyterian minister and was active on the Underground Railroad. He founded the Lombard Street Central Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia.

  • Amos Herring (1793-1873) - Born as a slave in North Carolina, Herring moved to Augusta County, Virginia as a child, where he came under the ministry of the Old Stone (Presbyterian) Church. After gaining his freedom at the age of 26, he took his family and emigrated to Liberia in 1833 under the auspices of the American Colonization Society. He became pastor at the Presbyterian Mission in Monrovia and was esteemed so highly that in 1847 he served as a delegate to the 1847 Constitutional Convention, where he signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. In 1871, after the departure of the Liberian President, Herring was one of three men appointed to a executive committee which took charge of the government.

  • Joseph Winthrop Holley (1874-1958) - Born in South Carolina to former slaves, Holley studied at the Phillips Andover Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. In preparation for the ministry, he finished his education at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. He served as pastor at the Washington Avenue Presbyterian Church in Macon, Georgia, and also founded the Albany (Georgia) Bible and Manual Training Institute (later known as Albany State University.

  • Lewis Johnston, Jr. - Born in Pennsylvania, Johnston was raised in the Covenanter (RPCNA) Church under the ministry of the Rev. Thomas Sproull. He served the Union army briefly, was educated at Geneva College, and at the Allegheny Theological Seminary, after which he was ordained sine titulo on October 14, 1874 — the first black minister ordained in the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America. He organized the RP church at Selma, Alabama, where he ministered alongside his father and ruling elder, Lewis Johnston, Sr. The younger Johnston also founded what was originally Geneva Academy, and later named Knox Academy in Selma.

  • Armistead Miller (1830-1865) - North Carolina-born as a slave, Miller was emancipated and went to Africa as a boy. He returned and was theologically trained at Ashmun Institute, Oxford, Pennsylvania. In 1859, he was ordained to the ministry by the New Castle Presbytery. He served as the pastor of the Mount Coffee Church in Liberia until his death in 1865.

  • James M. Priest (1819-1883) - Born a slave in Kentucky, Priest’s owner, Jane A. Meaux, educated and emancipated him, sending him to Africa to evaluate the condition of former slaves there. Upon his return, he received theological training and became a Presbyterian missionary. He emigrated to Liberia in 1843 under the auspices of the American Colonization Society. He served as Vice-President of Liberia from 1864 to 1868, and later, as a Justice on the Liberian Supreme Court.

  • William Drew Robeson I (1844-1918) - Born a slave in North Carolina, Robeson escaped at the age of 15 with the help of the Underground Railroad to freedom in Pennsylvania. He served the Union army as a laborer, and then studied at Lincoln University. He served as pastor of the Witherspoon Presbyterian Church in Princeton, New Jersey from 1880 to 1901. He was forced to resign, yet in his farewell sermon on January 27, 1901, he told his congregation without recriminations, "As I review the past, and think upon many scenes, my heart is full of love.... Do not be discouraged, do not think your past work is in vain." He and his wife are buried at Princeton Cemetery. He was the father of the famous artist and social activist Paul Robeson.

  • Betsey Stockton (1798-1865) - Stockton was born into slavery, and served the household of Ashbel Green, Presbyterian minister and later the president of the College of New Jersey (Princeton). He emancipated her around 1817 or 1818. In 1822, she traveled by ship to Hawaii (then known as the Sandwich Islands) with Charles Samuel Stewart, where she was appointed to serve at Lahaina, Maui as the first single African-American female missionary from North America. Her missonary journal was reprinted by Ashbel Green in The Christian Advocate.

We intend to keep building on our efforts to illustrate the many contributions of 18th-20th century African-Americans to Presbyterianism. This is a rich heritage to be remembered and explored in the 21st century. We also intend to highlight later this week, DV, African-American Presbyterians contributions to the building of a new nation on a different continent. Stay tuned!

What Samuel Stanhope Smith had to say about Phillis Wheatley

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While most famous for authoring the 1776 Declaration of Independence and its eloquent articulation of the principles of freedom for all, U.S. President Thomas Jefferson is also well known for his public position that African Americans were intellectually inferior to White Americans. He made his views known in Notes on Virginia (1785).

One example of this is his critique of the famous African American poet Phillis Wheatley. She composed a tribute to George Whitefield, thoughts on the Providence of God, and a poem about being brought to America from Africa, among other notable verses. But Thomas Jefferson only gave her credit for her sincere religious beliefs.

Religion indeed has produced a Phillis Whately; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism. The heroes of the Dunciad are to her, as Hercules to the author of that poem….I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments of both body and mind.

The reader will note Jefferson’s equivocal credit of authorship to her volume of poems (Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, 1773). It was actually necessary for local civil and religious authorities to investigate whether she, as an African American slave, had the ability to write the poems ascribed to her. They concluded that she indeed the poet that she claimed to be, and their written testimony was included by the publisher in the preface to her book. But questions about her ability to skillfully write poetry lingered in the minds of some - precisely because she was an African American.

In 1787, the first to refute this argument by Jefferson about the supposed intellectual inferiority of African Americans in general, and Phillis Wheatley specifically, was Samuel Stanhope Smith in his Essay on the Causes of the Variety of Complexion and Figure in the Human Species (2nd ed. 1810).

In 2019, it seems anachronistic to acknowledge not only Phillis Wheatley’s ability as a poet, but also the equality of African Americans with White Americans on an intellectual basis. But in 1787, it was noteworthy for Smith to publicly challenge Jefferson’s views.

These remarks upon the genius of the African negro appear to me to have so little foundation in true philosophy that few observations will be necessary to refute them…. The poems of Phillis Whately, a poor African slave, taught to read by the indulgent piety of her master, are spoken of with infinite contempt. But I will demand of Mr. Jefferson, or any other man who is acquainted with American planters, how many of those masters could have written poems equal to those of Phillis Whately?

Smith argued in his Essay for the doctrine of “[t]he unity of the human race, notwithstanding the diversity of colour, and form under which it appears in different portions of the globe.” In his view, differences between the peoples of different parts of the world should be understood as reflecting the conditions in which they lived. It should be understood by the modern reader of his Essay that Smith’s defense of the unity of all mankind regardless of skin color, though remarkable for its day, contains expressions which were dismissive of African culture.

Like Jefferson, Smith was a slaveholder. He was more moderate in his aim of gradual emancipation for slaves than his friend “Father” David Rice, who strived to ban slavery at the beginning of Kentucky’s statehood in 1792 — although Rice too was a slaveholder. Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia also advocated the colonization of Africa by freed slaves; Smith’s own ideas on the subject helped lead to the creation of the African Colonization Society in 1816 - a project that was controversial among white and black American Presbyterians and others.

Few American Presbyterians of that era were consistent in their principles and practices regarding opposition to slavery — George Bourne, and Alexander McLeod and the RPCNA were notable exceptions. Bourne, in his 1816 volume The Book and Slavery Irreconcilable, notes the contradiction represented by Samuel Stanhope Smith:

Dr. Smith exemplifies the difficulties, which a man must surmount, who endeavors to combine truth with error, and rectitude of principle with corruption of practice.

Yet, Smith’s defense of Phillis Wheatley was an important public statement of his position that African Americans are not “inferior” to whites. Wheatley, who was emancipated the same year that her poems were first published, once wrote a letter to Native American Presbyterian minister Samson Occom, in which she spoke of the universal love of freedom.

…in every human Breast, God has implanted a Principle, which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance; and by the Leave of our modern Egyptians I will assert, that the same Principle lives in us. God grant Deliverance in his own Way and Time, and get him honour upon all those whose Avarice impels them to countenance and help forward tile Calamities of their fellow Creatures. (Published in The Connecticut Gazette, March 11, 1774)

We may credit Samuel Stanhope Smith with defending the unity of mankind against the charge that African Americans were “inferior,” and using the example of Phillis Wheatley to demonstrate this, while yet decrying that this defense was ever needed, and also decrying Smith’s own inconsistencies regarding slavery.

What did a 19th century African-American think of Presbyterianism's relationship to African-Americans?

Matthew Anderson entered Princeton Theological Seminary in 1874, and was the first black student to reside in the main seminary building. He became the pastor of Berean Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, PA, and in 1897 he wrote Presbyterianism: Its Relation to the Negro. As the 21st century church seeks gospel peace and harmony among various ethnicities, this book would be an interesting and important source from which to learn how our heritage has thought through these issues in years gone by.

In the preface to his work, Anderson remarks, "We have always thought, and we believe rightly, that the Presbyterian Church has an important mission to perform among the colored people of the United States. The doctrines held by the church are the best calculated to correct the peculiar faults of the Negro, his legacy from slavery, and thus give him that independence and decision of character necessary to enable him to act nobly and well his part as a man and a citizen of our great republic" (7-8). In spite of what from our vantage point could be viewed as a paternalistic tone from Anderson toward his own people, yet his conviction is sound: the Presbyterian Church does indeed have a great and important mission to perform among - and the doctrines of our church are best calculated to correct the faults of - white, black, brown and every other color of skin under the sun. 

Ed. note: This post was originally published on July 8, 2017, and has been only slightly edited.

What Did a 19th Century African-American Think of Presbyterianism's Relationship to African-Americans?

Matthew Anderson entered Princeton Theological Seminary in 1874, and was the first black student to reside in the main seminary building. He became the pastor of Berean Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, PA, and in 1897 he wrote Presbyterianism: Its Relation to the Negro. As the 21st century church seeks gospel peace and harmony among various ethnicities, this book would be an interesting and important source from which to learn how our heritage has thought through these issues in years gone by.

In the preface to his work, Anderson remarks, "We have always thought, and we believe rightly, that the Presbyterian Church has an important mission to perform among the colored people of the United States. The doctrines held by the church are the best calculated to correct the peculiar faults of the Negro, his legacy from slavery, and thus give him that independence and decision of character necessary to enable him to act nobly and well his part as a man and a citizen of our great republic" (7-8). In spite of what from our vantage point could be viewed as a paternalistic tone from Anderson toward his own people, yet his conviction is sound: the Presbyterian Church does indeed have a great and important mission to perform among - and the doctrines of our church are best calculated to correct the faults of - white, black, brown and every other color of skin under the sun.