By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
The earliest Black churches were a landmark in American Christian history. A law once prohibited Black Americans from meeting in groups for any purpose, including prayer, so the first churches were built around 1800. One church’s foundation has just been uncovered.
In the post-Revolutionary War United States, free and enslaved Christian Black Americans met in secret to pray and spread the Word of God. A law forbidding them from congregating eventually ended and the first Black churches were built. In Colonial Williamsburg, archaeologists have recently confirmed that the foundation of the town’s original First Baptist Church has been unearthed, along with the graves of more than two dozen worshipers.
Nobody knows exactly when the first church was built, though it was listed on tax records in 1818. In his video series America’s Long Struggle against Slavery, Dr. Richard Bell, Associate Professor of History at the University of Maryland, College Park, said that former slave-turned-preacher Richard Allen was instrumental in establishing the free Black churches along the mid-Atlantic.
Trouble at St. George’s
Born into slavery in Philadelphia in 1760, Richard Allen managed to buy his freedom from his former master in 1783, when he was 23 years old. Several years earlier, he had converted to Christianity. After securing his freedom, he dedicated his life to the church. He learned to preach and did so in Delaware, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, but mostly to white congregations.
“As you might expect, preaching to white audiences brought him only limited satisfaction; so in 1786, after three years on the preaching circuit, he jumped at an opportunity to return to Philadelphia, the city of his birth, to take up a position as a regular preacher at St. George’s Church,” Dr. Bell said.
“While his duties at St. George’s would require him to preach to mixed audiences of Black and white Methodist congregations during the daylight hours, he was permitted to preach to all-Black congregations first thing in the morning, at 5 a.m., before anyone else was up.”
Despite the stability and steady income the job brought him, Allen became increasingly frustrated at the conditions that he found to be oppressive. He believed all-Black congregations should be allowed to worship any hour of the day and his employers told him to tone down his charismatic and racially inclusive preaching style.
After a year, Allen and Absolom Jones, the United States’ first Black priest, formed a mutual aid society association called the Free African Society. In exchange for a membership fee of a shilling per month, the Free African Society stepped in to assist sick members, members who couldn’t find work, or to help burial expenses for loved ones.
“For the first time in American history, we see an organization founded and funded by free African Americans,” Dr. Bell said. “What’s more, the name itself, the Free African Society, makes clear that the group is not just a self-help group for working people who might fall on hard times; it’s a political group with a political agenda. As the name suggests, its members are freemen and they plan to remain so.”
Allen’s Society Spreads the Word
According to Dr. Bell, as the Society’s operations expanded, they were able to fund educational, employment, and religious programs “designed to lift its members out of poverty and out of slave-like conditions and into the middle class.” Allen stayed on as a preacher for St. George’s, but the church chose to segregate in 1790 and banish Black worshipers from the ground floor pews to balcony seats during mixed-race sermons. Allen and other Black congregants left and never looked back.
“Within weeks, he had set about building a church of his own: a church he hoped would be the very first church exclusively for African Americans,” Dr. Bell said. “It opened months later, in July 1794, at the intersection of Sixth and Lombard in downtown Philadelphia in a building he’d converted from a blacksmith’s shop. He called it Bethel, which in Hebrew means ‘temple’ or ‘House of God.'”
From 1794 to the time of Allen’s death in 1831, Bethel grew from 100 worshipers to over 3,000. There, he preached against racism and oppression, assuring his congregants that God favors the oppressed and that slavery would one day end.
“Over time then, Mother Bethel [as the church was called] came to embody the ideals of these post-revolutionary Black Founders: It was a black-owned building where their legal freedom was respected; a place where the city’s dark-skinned residents could join in worship and fellowship unmolested and as members of a community,” Dr. Bell said.
This symbol of free Black worship was doubtlessly an inspiration for the founding of other Black churches along the East Coast. Without it, Williamsburg’s newly rediscovered First Baptist Church may have taken many more years to be built, if it were built at all.