Chattel and Prophets: African Americans in Presbyterian Church History

by Eric M. Washington

African-American woman praying in a church pew with other congregants in the backgroundA careful reading of African-American church history reveals that African Americans have a long history in Presbyterianism. Despite the small numbers of African-American Presbyterians relative to the overall numbers of African-American Christians, they must be considered an important population within the broader scope of the African-American church tradition, owing to their beginnings in slavery and their prophetic voices within the Church and American society. This humble work provides a brief sketched history of key events and persons within this African-American Presbyterian church tradition.

In common with African-American experiences of other Christian traditions in America, African-American Presbyterian history began with slavery. The consensus among historians is that the First Great Awakening (1739-1770s) was the period that considerable numbers of African-born and American-born enslaved persons joined churches. Regarding the revivalistic “sects,” late historian Luther P. Jackson included the Presbyterian church along with Methodist and Baptist churches. For an example, he noted one revival under Presbyterian minister Samuel Davies that lasted from 1742-1758 in Hanover County, VA. According to Jackson and others, revivalistic preaching emphasized human depravity and the need of the new birth. Revivalist preachers applied this preaching to European, Native American, and African alike.

In 1801, Chavis was the first ordained African-American minister, and the first missionary commissioned by the General Assembly to work specifically among African-American slaves and free African Americans. He received his ministerial education at Princeton, but it is doubtful that he actually enrolled there. (Interestingly, it is known that Dr. John Witherspoon, president of Princeton, personally directed Chavis’ studies.) From Princeton he went to Lexington, VA and attended Washington College in that city, and he then began his preaching ministry as an itinerant evangelist with the Hanover Presbytery in 1801. In 1805, he returned to North Carolina, where he preached to audiences of both African Americans and whites. From that year until 1831, he served as a missionary-teacher among free African-American children and white children. In the aftermath of the Nat Rebellion in 1831 in Southampton, Virginia, the state of North Carolina stripped Chavis of his privilege to teach and preach.

Read the rest of this post on in all things

Eric Michael Washington is assistant professor of history and director of African and African Diaspora Studies at Calvin College. He is primarily interested in studying the African American church from its development in the late 18th century through the 19th century, and individual Christians, primarily Calvinists. He also has a growing academic interest in the growing “Black and Reformed” movement in North America.

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The blog of the Calvin College History Department
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