The Origins of the Black Protestant Tradition in America

The recent publication of David Hackett Fischer’s African Founders introduced prominent Early Republic African-American clergymen to the reading public. The book’s cover features Absolom Jones, a prominent Episcopal rector of a Black congregation in Philadelphia. Born enslaved, Jones was the first person of color ordained in the Episcopal Church, and a pioneer anti-slavery reformer. In 1794, he and others founded the African Episcopal Church of St Thomas. [1]

The stated aims of St Thomas’ parish founders were thoroughly Protestant and Episcopal, while also explicitly concerned about the social conditions of free Blacks and enslaved Blacks in the North and South. Jones, his vestry, and his parishioners believed that through the various attempts they “made to promote our design,” God had marked “out our ways with blessings.” Grace and divine assistance from God encouraged them and had led “our white friends and brethren” to open their hearts and “to encourage us to arise out of the dust and shake ourselves, and throw off that servile fear, that the habit of oppression and bondage trained us up in.” In meekness and fear the parish desired “to walk in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free. That following peace with all men, we may have our fruit unto holiness, and in the end, everlasting life.” They did this “in order the more fully to accomplish the good purposes of God’s will, and organize ourselves for the purpose of promoting the saving health of all, but more particularly our relatives, the people of color.”

The stated aim of creating a parish specifically wedded to the spiritual aims and concerns of Black parishioners indicated that in the Early Republic there was an explicitly Black Protestant tradition, but that did not entail a departure from orthodox Protestant doctrine, nor did it imply that Jones and his parishioners believed they could change liturgies, formularies, or other hallmarks of Episcopal churchmanship for socio-cultural expediency. “All our ecclesiastical affairs,” St Thomas Church declared, “are committed to the rule and authority of the Protestant Episcopal Church, to be by the Bishop and other officers of said Church and their successors regulated as occasion may require.” The church insisted that their mission necessitated “always” that “the general doctrines, and principles of worship of said church, shall continue as now professed in the same, and understood to be the rule or government of the same.” They also “provided further, that we and our successors shall always retain within ourselves the power of choosing our minister and assistant minister, duly qualified to officiate according to the established rules and discipline of said church.”

Jones’ ministry was not predicated on the creation of a theologically innovative religious culture for Philadelphia’s people of color. The point was, in fact, to take Protestant religion to Blacks. Jones and his vestry were hardly progressives or indifferent to Protestant understanding of natural law and Protestant moral framework. Jones and fellow minister Richard Allen acted as they did “from a love to the people of their complexion whom they beheld with sorrow, because of their irreligious and uncivilized state.” Addressing Black concerns about injustice remained a specific purpose of their ministry. They also urged moral improvement on those under their care, admonishing parishioners to live “an orderly and sober life, in order to support one another in sickness, and for the benefit of their widows and fatherless children.”[2]

The Black Protestant tradition’s prevalence in Nineteenth Century America deserves rediscovery. It is helpful to distinguish men like Jones and later figures like Francis Grimke from Twentieth Century Black theologians; while their aims might have been similar, the earlier generation’s relationship to theology at large places obstacles narrative historical continuity, much in the same way the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversy makes narrative historical continuity difficult to maintain among the histories of majority-white churches. There does, however, seem to have been a distinct Black Protestant tradition that remained self-consciously and purposefully theologically orthodox, and that alone makes further inquiry in to men like Jones important.

[1] David Hackett Fischer, African Founders: How Enslaved People Expanded American Ideals (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2022), 256.

[2] William Douglass, Annals of the First African Church, in the United States of America (Philadelphia: King & Baird, 1862), 15, 94.


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