In the first official episode of Illuminating the Unseen, Jaimie explores the Church of England’s views on Black and Indigenous people in the American colonies during the early days of the Old North Church. Jaimie looks at a 1754 sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Timothy Cutler, the church’s first and longest-serving rector. Cutler’s words reveal a great deal about the status of people of color in colonial Boston.
See below for the video, primary source, and episode transcript!
Welcome back to Illuminating the Unseen. Today’s video is the first in a five-part series about Indigenous and Black people’s experiences with the Old North Church in the British Colonial Period.1 I am Jaimie Crumley, the Research Fellow at the Old North Foundation.
Church records reveal that from the early days of this church, Indigenous peoples and people of African descent were baptized, married, and buried here. It is no surprise they were here because the Church of England zealously worked to convert people, especially white European people, to the faith. While converting white Europeans was the church’s primary concern, the Church of England actively worked to convert Indigenous and African peoples. During the British colonial period, Rev. Dr. Timothy Cutler, the church’s first rector,2 unreservedly participated in the work of conversion.
The Church of England was unpopular in colonial Massachusetts. Many of the religionists in seventeenth and eighteenth-century New England had fled religious persecution from the Church of England. When they came to Massachusetts, they were happy to leave the English established church behind.3 Ironically, by the early eighteenth century they created a new established church in the colonies. Most New Englanders were active members of Congregational churches that functioned as the center of spiritual, social, and political life. While membership in the Church of England increased in Massachusetts by the early 1700s, it remained an outsider Christian group that was viewed with suspicion by many people in the colony.
When Timothy Cutler left his prestigious position as the President of Yale College, then a Congregational school, because his conscience would no longer allow him to serve as a minister in the Congregational Church, he sought ordination within the Church of England. At the time, the Church of England had no governing body that allowed them to ordain ministers in the British colonies, and Cutler traveled to London to be ordained.4 After his ordination, he was appointed to the Old North Church as its missionary.
Our primary source for this video is Cutler’s 1754 sermon from a gathering of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. His entire sermon is a rich document for us to examine. However, we will focus on three sections where Cutler talks about converting Indigenous and Black people to the Episcopal Church. You will see images of excerpts from the sermon on the screen. These images are also available on our website for you to view later. These photos were taken at the Massachusetts Historical Society here in Boston. I am omitting some of the racialized terms that Cutler used in his sermon and replacing them with more contemporary language when I read the direct quotes from the document. However, I have not redacted the original document. Some of the words in Cutler’s sermon might be upsetting. However, engaging with the language of the time helps us better understand the past.
Let’s begin by discussing the paragraph in the middle of page 15. Cutler indicated that there was a recent increase in the number of people in the colonies. He wrote that the number of Black inhabitants had increased to 350,000. He also discussed what types of people lived in the colonies. He stated that most inhabitants were white planters and merchants whom he called the masters. Another group in the colonies was white servants, including people who served voluntarily and people who were transported to the colonies as prisoners. The inhabitants of the colonies also included Indigenous people whom he described as servants and Black people who he said were “slaves for life.” Cutler believed all these groups, except for the Indigenous peoples, needed help from the Church of England. Although he identified Indigenous peoples as the land’s original inhabitants, he claimed they were living “mostly upon the back of our colonies, but who are considerably diminished in our neighborhood.”
The social hierarchy that Cutler lays out indicates that race was the primary social divider in the colonies in the early eighteenth century. Although there were white servants and prisoners in the British colonies, only Black people could be bound for life. Cutler also acknowledged that Indigenous people continued to live in the British colonies. However, he framed Indigenous peoples as a group that relied on the colonies to survive. His words indicate that as early as 1754, religionists were excusing their violence against Indigenous peoples. Cutler’s passive language about their diminishing numbers reveals that he believed British colonists bore no responsibility for Indigenous peoples’ hardships.
Now let’s turn our attention to another section of the sermon. This paragraph on page 16 is long, so please feel free to keep reading onto page 17 after you watch this video. Cutler writes, “the conversion of individuals, or of these families may be and hath been effected; but the conversion of their tribes is very difficult.” He explains that it is challenging to convert tribes because “they lie in wait to deceive.” This paragraph is revealing. It demonstrates that missionaries believed Indigenous peoples were ungovernable. However, it also indicates that despite their best efforts to undermine Indigenous sovereignty, the English learned that Indigenous peoples demanded respect. They were the land’s original inhabitants, and they had cultural traditions which they continued to honor. Although, as I will discuss in an upcoming video, some Indigenous peoples were baptized at Old North in the British colonial period, on the whole, they rejected the church’s unwanted Evangelistic intrusions into their lives.
Let’s look at one more section on pages 18 and 19. Page 18 is blurry, but if you zoom in on the image on our website, it is more readable. In this paragraph, Cutler expresses grief over the violence of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but on page 19, he writes that enslaved people were “very little, if anything worse in their outward condition by their change from their own country; and if we do our duty towards them, they may be much bettered in their minds.” He told his listeners that it was “a vulgar error” to believe that enslaved people must be freed from slavery if converted. He insisted that they must be converted because “if these unhappy wretches could be induced to submit their hearts to the influence of Christianity, great security and advantage must arise to their masters from its principles; which would calm their revengeful, and soften their sullen spirits.” Cutler’s words reveal a nationalist ideology that placed the entire continent of Africa on a lesser status than the British colonies. He conceded that the trans-Atlantic slave trade was horrible, but he also paternalistically believed that being enslaved in the colonies was better than living free on the African continent. His words point to the paradox of Christian conversions in the British colonies. Even as Indigenous and Black people worked to conform to the social expectations of British America, they remained the social underclass.
Because Cutler maintained that conversion would not make enslaved people free, Old North members incorporated Black enslaved people into their spiritual lives. Unfortunately, we have none of the extant writings of any Black people, free or enslaved, who were part of this church during the British colonial era. Therefore, we are left to speculate about their spirituality.
Cutler’s sermon provides an opportunity to understand how Indigenous and Black people became part of the Episcopal Church here in Boston and throughout the British colonies before the Revolution. Since we do not have any extant writings by Indigenous or Black people who were part of this congregation in the colonial period, we cannot know for sure what their relationship was to the church.
If you ask me, Cutler’s words indicate that every non-elite white, Indigenous, and Black convert was nothing more than a number intended to assert the church’s authority in the British colonies at a time when the Church of England had less authority than some of the other Christian groups in the colonies. What are your thoughts about the excerpts from Cutler’s 1754 sermon? Please share your ideas and questions as a comment under the video or by contacting me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Massachusetts was a colony of the British Empire from 1630-1775.
2. In the Episcopal Church, a rector is a member of the clergy who provides leadership to the congregation. Cutler was the rector from 1723-1765.
3. Some New Englanders feared the Church of England, which celebrated Feast Days and was linked to national authority, was too much like the Catholic Church. Leaving the Church of England represented a way to have a sense of political and spiritual autonomy.
4. In 1786, Samuel Seabury became the first Bishop of the newly constituted Protestant Episcopal Church in America. That year, Seabury conducted the first confirmation ever held in Boston to great opposition from other Protestant Christians in the city.