We continue today the second portion of Barry Waugh’s account of the Rev. John Gloucester, pastor of the first African American Presbyterian church on U.S. soil. Rev. Gloucester died on May 2, 1822. Mr. Waugh regularly posts on his own blog at Presbyterians of the Past.
The Reverend John Gloucester and America’s First Presbyterian Church for Africans
While Rev. Gloucester was ministering in Philadelphia and struggling to complete his ordination requirements, he was also working to free his wife, Rhoda, and their four children, James, Jeremiah, Stephen and Mary, who were still in Tennessee. Some of his time was spent raising funds, but considerable assistance came from his friends and supporters. Concerned people in Philadelphia were able to raise five hundred dollars towards the mercy mission. Benjamin Rush arranged opportunities for Gloucester to preach in Princeton, New Jersey, where more assistance was obtained. The combined efforts raised fifteen-hundred dollars—over twenty thousand dollars in today’s money—so that John could purchase the freedom of his own wife and their children. John had to return to Tennessee to complete the manumission process, so during his absence, the Evangelical Society arranged pulpit supplies for his church for the three months of his absence. The supplies included Archibald Alexander, J. J. Janeway, George Potts, and William Green. When John returned to Philadelphia with his family, the African mission congregation sent a note to Dr. Alexander expressing their gratitude for the supply ministers who served during John’s extended absence. The covenant family that had been divided by slavery had been reunited through the generosity and concern of many.
The year that John Gloucester was ordained was also significant for the church building program. Rev. George Potts led a special service in the fall when the corner stone was laid to begin construction, and when the facility was completed a service of dedication was held on May 31, 1811. Dr. Archibald Alexander, who had been a driving force for the organization of an African Presbyterian church, preached the dedication sermon. William Catto comments that the building was not remarkable, but was a simple brick building sixty feet long by thirty three feet wide “without any ornament about it.” The walls enclosed a room with four rows of pews, each of which had seventeen benches, and a balcony on three of the four walls giving a total capacity of over six hundred people. This building served the congregation until it moved to a new location in the city later in the nineteenth century.
John Gloucester was a popular preacher in Philadelphia and he had a busy and fruitful ministry. Dr. Rush often attended the African Church’s services because he enjoyed hearing the African minister preach. Not only could he preach, but he could sing as well. He would often go to the corner of Seventh and Shippen Streets, near the church property, and start singing hymns. When a crowd gathered, he would stop his singing and begin preaching from his Bible. He was a faithful visitor of his congregation as well as other people who were not associated with his congregation. Knowing the importance of education, he established a school for children with the financial help of Samuel Mills. John continued in his labors until he contracted consumption—tuberculosis—and became so weak that he could no longer preach. He sent a letter, dated June 1820, to the Philadelphia Presbytery requesting supplies for his pulpit due to his poor health. The Reverend John Gloucester died on May 2, 1822. He died a young man in his forty sixth year. At the time of his death, his congregation had grown to over three hundred members.
The African congregation turned to an old friend to assist them with their worship services until a minister could be called. Ashbel Green returned to Philadelphia after having resigned the presidency of Princeton College in the fall of 1822. He had returned to become the editor of the newspaper, The Presbyterian. Green had preached to Africans in Princeton and now he supplied the pulpit on Sunday afternoons for about two-and-a-half years while a pastor was sought. He continued to edit the periodical for twelve years and during this time he intermittently worshiped, preached, and administered the sacraments for the Africans. He commented that at one service in January of 1835, “we had at our communion table today, communicants from the four quarters of the world,” including an East Indian that he had baptized. Ashbel Green continued to minister to the Africans and the last sermon of his life was preached to a black congregation in Princeton.
The Evangelical Society of Philadelphia had initiated the work that led to the African Presbyterian Church, but the involvement of the judicatories entered the picture as John Gloucester became a candidate for the ministry. Some of the doctrinal views of Blackburn and Coffin in Tennessee differed from those of Alexander, Green, and Janeway in Philadelphia, but they were able to come together for the good of the Gospel and John Gloucester’s ministry with the African mission. The Philadelphia African missionary work exemplifies the essential principle of Presbyterian polity that the elders are in an organic relationship for the common good of the Presbyterian Church. The driving force behind the presbyters’ efforts for the free Africans was the proclamation of the Gospel of sovereign grace as delimited by Scripture and the Westminster Standards in the context of a Presbyterian congregation.
In some ways, though, the relationship of John Gloucester and the First African Church to the Presbyterian judicatories was unusual. Rev. Gloucester, according to Catto, never received a call from the congregation to be its minister, and he was never installed as their pastor. The reason given by the denominational leaders for this unusual arrangement was the tenuous nature of the church finances. Even though Rev. Gloucester had an unusual relationship with the African congregation, he was a participating presbyter in the church courts. At the 1817 General Assembly, Rev. Gloucester was an alternate commissioner who participated in the deliberations when Rev. George C. Potts had to resign his seat. Since the meeting would have incorporated commissioners from different areas of the nation, one might wonder about the thoughts of the presbyters as Commissioner Gloucester took his seat. In 1828 the death of Gloucester is listed with the deaths of other ministers who died during the preceding year, but there is no reason given as to why it took six years to record his passing.
The account of the life and labors of Rev. Gloucester presents a truly remarkable picture of a man who overcame his personal educational limitations, persevered as a freeman to buy his family’s liberty, and followed the call of God to be a missionary minister in Pennsylvania. But he was not alone, because when the times were toughest his Presbyterian brethren and other friends in Philadelphia and the nation pitched in with time and finances to assist his ministry. He had to persevere through extended periods of a divided covenant household as he worked in Philadelphia with his family still in slavery in Tennessee. It seems that he had some difficulty achieving the educational requirements for a Presbyterian minister, but he worked and traveled back-and-forth from Philadelphia to Tennessee to fulfill the necessary licensure and ordination requirements. His submission and patience exhibit his convictions as a Presbyterian dedicated to the denomination’s polity and doctrine. Building programs are always a difficult time for a minister, but John Gloucester worked through that trying time of “fund raising” and with the assistance of friends and the Presbyterian Church, the building was completed. Though he struggled in his ministry, the blessings of God’s covenant faithfulness can be seen in his family. His sons, Stephen, James and Jeremiah became Presbyterian ministers. Jeremiah became the founding pastor of the Second African Presbyterian Church in 1824, Stephen’s ministerial labors led to the founding of the Central Presbyterian Church in 1844, and James’s ministerial work led to the organization of the Siloam Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn, New York in 1849. Though the Presbyterians that are most respected from history are often teachers in educational institutions, pastors of large urban churches, or writers of books and articles, John Gloucester was a struggling and persistent hero worthy of remembrance and respect.
This year marks the bicentennial of the founding of the first church in America dedicated to African American Presbyterians and this anniversary should lead to reflection upon the history of black people in Presbyterianism. Two hundred years of black Presbyterianism have seen some less than stellar periods no matter the area of the country, whether it was antebellum segregation into different buildings, segregation into sections of the same building, or total exclusion of Africans from some churches. In the years following the Civil War (or War Between the States, if you prefer), a crucial decision for black Presbyterians was made when the Presbyterian Church in the United States voted to have separate churches for the races. Presbyterians should learn from the past. Paul is clear, in Galatians 3:28, that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Paul’s admonition deals with racial, economic, and sexual identities. James adds that there is to be no respect of persons in the church’s worship so that one group may have a seat of glory and another a lesser seat (2:1-4). In Acts 6:1ff, the Apostles were confronted with a racial conflict. Luke tells us that there was “a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected” when food was distributed. The response to this issue was the office of deacon, and the deacons were to objectively and equitably minister to the widows; the apostles did not respond by separating the Greeks from the Hebrews and making racially distinct groups. Racial prejudice is a perpetual issue for the church and society, but sanctification requires the Christian as an individual and the church as a whole to set aside the sin of prejudice and pursue righteousness. Righteousness recognizes that there are no minorities in the Kingdom of God, there are no separate theologies nor congregations for racial groups, and there must not be a disassociated Presbyterianism that denies its racial connectionalism as an element of its connectional polity.