John Gloucester [1776-1822] was the first African American to become an ordained Presbyterian minister in the United States. Born into slavery in Tennessee in the year 1776, he was able to relocate to Philadelphia in 1807. His preaching ministry began there in a house on Gaskill Street, and as his ministry bore fruit, the growing congregation later moved to the corner of 7th and Shippen [or what is now Bainbridge] Streets in Philadelphia. It was at this location that the First African Presbyterian Church was built and dedicated in May of 1811.
Our post today is drawn from the account provided by the Rev. William T. Catto, in his Semi-Centenary Discourse, delivered in The First African Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia… (1857).
How the Good Man Dies
Of Mr. Glouchester’s subsequent labors in the Church, I have not much to record. His failing health, which for some time gave unmistakable evidence that his day of pilgrimage was wellnigh spent, gave no small uneasiness to his flock and anxiety to friends. Consumption had settled fairly upon him, and making a wreck of the once strong man. It was a heart-rending sight to behold the faithful venerable pastor, wasting away gradually but surely for the tomb; it was crushing to behold him, in the strength of manhood, weakened and wasted away by the destroyer, and no possibility of escape.
To him, however, it was a very little matter to decay and die; but his anxiety lay in another direction—it was towards his Church—the people, the object of all his anxieties, these lay near his heart; to them, during the latter part of his life, he gave the remaining energies of his mind, without much regard to anything else; hence his petition to his presbytery on the 27th June, 1820, stating his weakened condition and failing health, and requesting supplies for the pulpit, and also, knowing that the day of his stay on earth was wellnigh over, why, one year before he died, he took the occasion to address a letter to presbytery, dated April 18, 1821, recommending his son Jeremiah as a candidate for the Gospel ministry.
Previous to this, however, Mr. Gloucester, through the concurrence of the Church, had brought forward Samuel Cornnish and Benjamin Hughes to presbytery, to be received under their care as candidates for the ministry; and, from what I have gathered from the Minutes of Presbytery, these young men sustained themselves creditably in the parts of trial assigned to them by presbytery, from time to time as they were examined. In this, also, Mr. Gloucester’s qualities for perception were conspicuous. It will be perceived that his vision was not circumscribed within the narrow limits of his own immediate wants or interests; he was, as I have once before stated, a man of extensive observation; he threw his furtive glance far away into the future, and contemplated the Presbyterian Church, in the States of the Union, rising in the distance as in miniature, and still later looming up in greater magnitude, until he fully recognized its swelling proportions, from every point of view, spreading out and extending itself far and wide. Hence, as can easily be perceived, he took the timely precaution to have prepared the proper material in these young candidates for the ministry, in due time to supply the growing wants of these rising churches; and it is mainly to him and to this First African Presbyterian Church that the now respectable number of Presbyterian church in this land are supplied with ministers.
It pleased the great Head of the Church to remove Mr. Gloucester from his earthly toils and labors, on the 2d day of May, 1822, in the 46th year of his age. This solemn even was expected, from the known nature of his disease, and though it shrouded the hearts of his people and friends in mourning and sorrow, still they were prepared for the sad announcement; in fact, he himself, though feeble and weak, daily exhorted them to resignation to the will of God. I need not inform the reader of the gloom that his death cast over the community where he was known, and he was extensively known to the religious community; they all felt that not only a great man had fallen that day in Israel, but a father, a light in the church, a shining light was extinguished.
His death was a peaceful one, full of hope; it might, perhaps, more properly be said that he fell asleep in Jesus. Could it be otherwise? His life was Christ-like, that was his life to be like Christ; for this he lived, for this he labored. I close the life of this devoted servant of God by a remark or two. That there were other colored men in Philadelphia laboring for the religious elevation of their people, is known, but if there ever was a man in Philadelphia of Mr. Gloucester’s position, whose upright and Christian walk and general character, considered from every point of view, that won for him the respect and esteem of the great and good men of his day, that man was Mr. Gloucester.