Chattel and Prophets: African Americans in Presbyterian Church History

May 19, 2017

A 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.1 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.2 Regarding the revivalistic “sects,” late historian Luther P. Jackson included the Presbyterian church along with Methodist and Baptist churches.3 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.4

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.5 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.6 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.7

Throughout the late 18th century and into the early 19th century, Presbyterians welcomed Northern African Americans and encouraged them to participate fully in the government of the church, even serving as moderators of presbyteries. An impressive group of African-American Presbyterian ministers such as John Gloucester, Theodore Wright, J. W. C. Pennington, Henry Highland Garnet, and Samuel Cornish emerged during the 19th century. Out of this group, Henry Highland Garnet was arguably the most important figure. As an abolitionist, Garnet gave his most famous address to his invisible audience of slaves in Buffalo, New York, in 1843. At one point in the speech, Garnet skillfully combined Christian duty and radical defiance in urging his slave audience to resist slavery. He exclaimed:

The divine commandments you are in duty bound to reverence and obey. If you do not obey them, you will surely meet with the displeasure of the Almighty. He requires you to love him supremely, and your neighbor as yourself—to keep the Sabbath day holy—to search the Scriptures—and bring up your children with respect for his laws, and to worship no other God but him. But slavery sets all these at nought, and hurls defiance in the face of Jehovah.8

This powerful address earned this Presbyterian minister a permanent place in African-American history.

Into the 20th century, African-American Presbyterians continued to provide that prophetic vision both at home and abroad. On the foreign field, William Sheppard and his wife Lucy Gantt Sheppard served courageously in the Congo Free State. George Sheppard, a missionary of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) shook up the world in 1903-1904 when he provided evidence of atrocities committed by the Congo Free State against Africans.9 Upon returning to the United States, the Sheppards would have successful ministries at Grace Presbyterian Church in Louisville from 1912 until George’s death in 1927.10 Though her husband pastored Grace, Lucy Sheppard would choose to labor as a social worker in Louisville from 1918-1935. In her own right, Lucy Sheppard has received recognition as one of the greatest women missionaries in the Presbyterian Church in America.11

Another African-American Presbyterian stalwart was Francis Grimke, long-time pastor of Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, D. C. (1878-1885, 1889-1925). Grimke’s stance against racial prejudice has been well-noted: in one instance, Grimke wrote a strong letter condemning the perpetuation of racial prejudice and racial segregation in home missions work by Presbyterians. In 1918, he wrote: “Until evangelism clearly recognizes the evil of racial prejudice, and includes it among the sins to be repented of in bringing men into the church of God, it is a mockery, a mere sham, utterly unworthy of the Christian church.”12

During the 1930s and well into the 1970s, yet another minister by the name of Lawrence Bottoms upheld a sense of racial dignity and Presbyterian statesmanship. Hailing from Selma, Alabama, he was reared and ordained in the Reformed Presbyterian Church before accepting the call to Grace Presbyterian Church (PCUS) in Louisville in 1938. Bottoms remained a minister in the PCUS and would serve as the first African-American moderator of the church in 1974. In his work as one of the few African-American ministers in the PCUS, Bottoms used his wisdom to impress upon the church that conservative theology was no barrier against issues of social justice. He stated,

I was sure about my theology. I was also aware of the fact that the church was not living up to its theology and felt that it was my responsibility as a minister not to minister primarily on behalf of myself, but to minister to whites also who had to really learn an identity. This was an exciting experience particularly with a church which constantly talked about a conservative theology. I found it important to be able to interpret conservative theology that would force people inevitably into social action.13

Here, I conclude this sketch history of African Americans in Presbyterianism. There are certain features that vitally connect this history with the broader African-American Church tradition. African-American Presbyterians such as James Gloucester, J. W. C. Pennington, and Henry Highland Garnet saw no distinction between their work as ministers of the Word and Sacrament in a majority white church and their engagement with African-American communities. This prophetic edge continued into the 20th century with figures like Francis Grimke and Lawrence Bottoms. For these leaders, adherence to the Westminster Standards was no barrier against robust commitment to trials and challenges faced by African Americans.

About the Author
  • Eric Michael Washington is associate professor of History at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also directs the Africa and African Diaspora Studies Minor program. His research interests are African and African Diaspora intellectual and cultural history.

  1. Gayraud Wilmore, Black and Presbyterian: The Heritage and the Hope. Revised and Enlarged (Louisville, KY: Witherspoon Press, 1998), 55-56. Wilmore argues that African-American Presbyterians belong within the African-American church tradition because of a shared communal history and even a contemporary shared experience of socioeconomic conditions in local churches. 

  2. See for example, Carter G. Woodson, The History of the Negro Church. Second edition (Washington, DC: The Associated Publishers, 1945), Chapter 2, 20ff; Albert J. Raboteau, Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1978), 128ff. 

  3. Luther P. Jackson, “Negro Religious Development in Virginia,“ Journal of Negro History 16, No. 2 April 1931: 168-239, 171; Raboteau, Slave Religion, 129-130. 

  4. Jackson, “Negro Religious Development in Virginia,” 171-172. See also Raboteau, Slave Religion, 132. 

  5. Andrew Murray, Presbyterians and the Negro–A History (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian Historical Society), 53. 

  6. Woodson, The History of the Negro Church, 58-59; Murray, Presbyterians and the Negro, 53; John Hope Franklin, The Free Negro in North Carolina 1790-1860 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1971), 170, 177. 

  7. Murray, Presbyterians and the Negro, 54; 

  8. Henry Highland Garnet, “An Address to the Slaves of the United States of America, Buffalo, N. Y., 1843,” in “Let Your Motto Be Resistance”: The Life and Thought of Henry Highland Garnet by Earl Ofari, 147-148. 

  9. See among other works, William Phipps, William Sheppard: Congo’s African American Livingstone (Louisville, KY: Geneva Press, 2002), Chapter 5. 

  10. See Phipps, William Sheppard, 1, 3, 5, 9, 15, 176, 189. 

  11. Phipps, William Sheppard, 186-187. 

  12. Murray, Presbyterianism and the Negro, 185. 

  13. R. Douglas Breckenridge and Lawrence W. Bottoms, “Lawrence W. Bottoms: The Church, Black Presbyterians and Personhood,” Journal of Presbyterian History. Vol. 56, No. 1 (Spring 1978): 47-60, 56. 

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  1. Professor Washington,
    Thank you for the message of faithfulness of the Presbyterian Church. Continue to tell this story of harmony until it becomes reality in the CRC and the nation. God bless your work.