In this episode of Illuminating the Unseen, Jaimie examines how Episcopal churches in the northern United States, including Old North Church, responded to slavery and anti-Black racism between 1830 and 1865. Jaimie invites viewers to consider this guiding question: “How do civic institutions, like churches, become places that exercise control over marginalized people?”
See below for the video, primary sources, and episode transcript!
Welcome to Illuminating the Unseen! I am Jaimie Crumley, the Research Fellow at Old North Illuminated. Today’s video is about how northern Episcopal Churches, including Old North, participated in anti-slavery discourse in the antebellum and Civil War eras. The word antebellum refers to the period before a war. In United States history, the term antebellum typically refers to the period before the American Civil War. In this video, I will concentrate on how Episcopal churches in the North responded to slavery and anti-Black racism between 1830 and 1865.1 As always, images of my primary sources will appear on the screen during this video. Please visit our website for a full transcript of this video and images of the sources.
During today’s video, the guiding question for you to consider is, “How do civic institutions, like churches, become places that exercise control over marginalized people?” As we have discussed in previous videos, from the colonial period, the Episcopal Church in North America was a pro-slavery denomination that actively participated in subordinating African and Indigenous peoples. Ironically, the early leaders of the Episcopal church in North America used theology both to justify the subordination of African and Native peoples and to insist that despite their subordinate status, they must be converted to Christianity.
The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, the Church of England’s missionary organization, was the most successful missionary organization of the eighteenth century. Therefore, by the beginning of the nineteenth century, many African and Indigenous peoples throughout North America had been exposed to Episcopal doctrine, and some were active in Episcopal churches.2 In the 1790s in Philadelphia, two ministers of African descent, Rev. Absalom Jones and Rev. Richard Allen, formed churches. These churches primarily served free people of African descent, most of whom were emancipated after the American Revolution. Jones and Allen’s theologies adhered to the Methodist and Episcopal traditions. They rooted their new Black-led spiritual organization in the doctrine of both.3
In white Episcopal Churches, Black communicants endured anti-Black racism, such as being physically pulled away from the altar while they were kneeling in prayer. They longed for a religious community that maintained the familiar structure of the Episcopal church and allowed them to take pride in their African identities. Therefore, after 1790, Black people began to leave white-led Episcopal congregations in large numbers. While African Methodist Episcopal churches reflected a long history of hybridity in religion in early America, they hold the unique position of being the first denomination to be formally established in the United States that derived from a historically white English theological tradition but centered the experiences of African-descended people.4 African Methodist Episcopal churches remain active today.
Under Allen’s leadership, Black people, including one Black woman named Jarena Lee, became ordained leaders.5 These ordained ministers supported the free Black community that began to form in large numbers in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century North. Although Black-led churches were technically independent, the congregations often struggled to achieve financial autonomy. Therefore, they depended on the benevolence of white Episcopalians to secure places to worship and sufficient funds to compensate their ministers and other leaders. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, most Northern Episcopalians no longer held people of African descent as enslaved laborers. Although most white Northern Episcopalians were no longer enslavers, they remained openly anti-Black. They also maintained their relationship with the pro-slavery Episcopal churches in the South.
Black-led Episcopal churches’ struggle to maintain financial autonomy brought forty-year-old Rev. William Levington, minister of the African Episcopal Society in Baltimore, Maryland, to Old North in July of 1833. The short notice on your screen appeared in the Boston-based abolitionist newspaper The Liberator on Saturday, July 27, 1833. The following Sunday at 7:30 pm, Levington would give a speech at Old North. Levington contacted the Episcopal churches in Boston because he needed help. He had incurred a small debt because his congregation had not yet paid off their building. They used their building for worship and as a school for Black children.
When Levington came to Boston, he was hosted by the three Episcopal parishes in Boston, St. Paul’s, Trinity, and Christ Church (the official name of the Old North Church). St. Paul’s was active in Black history once again eleven years later when, in 1844, the church hosted the ordination of Rev. Alexander Crummell. Crummell was the third person of African descent to be ordained to the priesthood in the Protestant Episcopal Church. Crummell faced an uphill battle to his ordination. In 1839, he was rejected from New York’s General Theological Seminary because of his race. Because of the rejection, he pursued his theological education in England.6
Crummell’s journey illuminates the struggle that Black Episcopalians faced when they prepared themselves to provide pastoral leadership to other Black Episcopalians. No doubt, Levington had endured a similar journey. He was only welcome at Old North because of the endorsement he received from the three Episcopal ministers in Boston and Rev. Dr. Asa Eaton, the former rector of Old North and the Episcopal Church’s Domestic Missionary in Boston. The four ministers stated that they believed Levington to be a “prudent and pious man.”
My theory is that the summer 1833 evening program at Old North points to the church’s Christian charitable spirit, not to the earnest commitment of Boston’s white Episcopalians to serving Black children in the upper south. I believe this for two primary reasons. First, we learn about Levington through a newspaper, not through Old North’s records. In the church’s defense, the vestry records from 1802-1851 have not survived. Therefore, I cannot say what the vestry thought of the visit. However, the church’s pew proprietor records from 1833 do not mention Levington or his visit.7 The silence within the record might imply apathy. Second, if we look again at the notice in The Liberator, we see something troubling. The first paragraph says, “The galleries will be appropriated to people of color.” Although the guest that night was a man of color who visited to seek support for children of color, any people of color in attendance were to gather in segregated seating. We learn a lot about the shortcomings of the abolitionist movement from this statement. In 1833, one of the nation’s leading abolitionist newspapers encouraged their readership to attend an event at a venue that displayed the overtly bigoted practice of enforced racial segregation.
Four years after Levington’s visit, The Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society met. They sought to know which houses of worship in Boston would allow the New England Anti-Slavery Society to hold their annual meeting within their walls. They wrote to leaders of every Christian denomination in Boston and published the responses in The Liberator on May 26, 1837. Rev. Eleazer Mather Porter Wells of the Episcopal City Mission of Boston responded to the query on behalf of Episcopalians. In his note, Wells explained that after Episcopal churches were consecrated by the bishop, they were only to be used for religious purposes. He stated that although the anti-slavery cause was benevolent, it was political. No political group could meet in an Episcopal church. However, he agreed to share the request with the churches if the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society wanted to proceed. Wells’ response offers one reason why the nineteenth-century Episcopal Church never took a firm stance about slavery. Perhaps the ministers believed that abolition was not a spiritual cause. The church’s narrow understanding of what constituted a religious cause indicates that Levington was only welcome at Old North because the church understood the cause of religious education, regardless of the student’s race, to be spiritual.
Let’s skip ahead almost thirty years to March of 1865 when the Massachusetts Episcopal Society for the Religious Instruction of Freedmen held its first annual meeting at Trinity Church in Boston. Freedman was a term that was commonly used in the antebellum and Civil War eras to refer to newly-emancipated people of African descent. As more Black people gained their freedom through the nineteenth century, white Americans wondered how to contend with the realities of free Black people. They feared that Black people would not work unless they were forced to do so. If they did not work, they would become dependent upon government support. Therefore, some white Americans and free Black people advocated for colonization programs. Colonization sent free Black people out of the United States. Most went to Liberia, where they formed a Black-led colony. Other white Americans wanted Black people to be legally free but remain a subordinate social class. This group introduced laws and customs that regulated private and public aspects of free Black people’s lives. Some Christian organizations even created manuals to teach free Black people how to behave.8
The 1865 meeting of Massachusetts Episcopalians indicates their interest in maintaining Black people as members of the Protestant Episcopal Church and providing them with adequate religious education. In his comments at the gathering, politician and philanthropist the Honorable Robert C. Winthrop remembered a testimony he heard from landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead. During his travels in the southern states, Olmstead, who was not an Episcopalian, asserted that the Episcopal Church would be the most effective for helping Black people. He said, “if they are left entirely free to take what part they please, they become disorderly, and the victims of a purely animal excitement; and if they have no part to take, their interest flags: so that the system of the Episcopal Church, as a happy medium between two extremes, is especially adapted to their needs.” Winthrop believed Olmstead’s testimony to have been “certainly impartial.”
After the Civil War, the white-led Episcopal Church, other white-led organizations, and some organizations led by Black elites worked to determine how the early years of Black freedom ought to unfold. The conversation about the future of Black freedom was a conversation that continued well into the twentieth century. However, by the middle of the twentieth century, the character of the conversation changed forever. Highly educated Black ministers and laypeople vocally protested white supremacy in churches and other institutions. The actions of these mid-twentieth-century leaders continue to shape the Black liberation struggle.
Thank you for watching this video! You can see other Illuminating the Unseen videos at www.oldnorth.com/itu. How do you interpret the documents we have discussed today? What do these sources reveal about how social institutions, like churches, exercise power over marginalized people? What are your ideas about how Old North and other Boston-area churches responded to slavery in the antebellum period? Does their stance on what was the most pressing political concern of their time surprise you? Please share your thoughts as a comment beneath this video or email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. For a comprehensive study of Episcopalians and Race from 1865-1970 see Gardiner H. Shattuck, Episcopalians and Race: Civil War to Civil Rights, Religion in the South (Lexington, Ky: Univ. Press of Kentucky, 2003).
2. For more about Jones, see https://episcopalarchives.org/church-awakens/exhibits/show/leadership/clergy/jones; for Allen, https://rediscovering-black-history.blogs.archives.gov/2021/06/09/richard-allen/. For more about Allen’s (and Jones’) separation from the Methodist church: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/godinamerica/people/richard-allen.html#:~:text=Allen’s%20friend%20and%20collaborator%20Absalom,in%20an%20old%20blacksmith’s%20shop.
3. On Methodism and its spread in North America, see https://www.britannica.com/topic/Methodism/America. To learn more specifically about the African Methodist Episcopal Church, see https://www.britannica.com/topic/African-Methodist-Episcopal-Church
4. Comprehensive coverage of 1790s Philadelphia and Black people’s experiences within it is in Gary B. Nash, Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia’s Black Community, 1720 – 1840, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard Univ. Press, 1988).
5. Ashley Boggan Dreff, “Jarena Lee: First Black Female Preacher in the A.M.E. Church,” The United Methodist Church, accessed April 6, 2023, https://www.umc.org/en/content/jarena-lee-first-black-female-preacher-in-the-ame-church.
6. “Crummell, Alexander (1819-1898) | History of Missiology,” accessed April 7, 2023, https://www.bu.edu/missiology/missionary-biography/c-d/crummell-alexander-1819-1898/.
7. Church proprietors were those who had purchased a pew in the church and paid taxes to maintain it. Pew proprietors held regular meetings, usually in January and on the Monday after Easter, to discuss the temporal affairs of the church.
8. Saidiya V. Hartman, “The Burdened Individuality of Freedom,” in Scenes of Subjection Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 115–24.