May 2: Rev. John Gloucester

Our post today comes from the pen of a good friend of the PCA Historical Center, Dr. Barry Waugh. This is an excerpt from a larger article which he wrote for the Historical Center several years ago. It was on this day, May 2nd, in 1822 that the Rev. John Gloucester died. He had for many years ministered effectively as the pastor of the first Presbyterian church organized specifically to serve the free African population in Philadelphia. To keep our post somewhat short, the following portion of the story takes us only through the time of Rev. Gloucester’s ordination:— 

The Reverend John Gloucester and America’s First Presbyterian Church for Africans

by Barry Waugh

John Gloucester’s remarkable story began in Philadelphia as the young United States was between the extended conflict for independence and the soon near catastrophe of the War of 1812. The Presbyterian Church was growing as the nation expanded its borders but its plan had not yet taken into account the free Africans in the rapidly growing northeastern states. Philadelphia was a hub of activity when Archibald Alexander arrived there in May of 1807. His relocation north of the Mason-Dixon Line from his natal Virginia was for the purpose of accepting a call to be the minister of the Third Presbyterian Church. As Rev. Alexander settled into his new location, he was overcome by the conditions of poverty in the outskirts of the great city. He responded by organizing and drafting the constitution for what became known as the Evangelical Society of Philadelphia. The purpose of the organization was to send each of its members out on Sunday evenings, in teams of two, for evangelism among the impoverished. As the work of the Society expanded, the desire to establish an African Presbyterian Church with an African pastor became a key concern as the group sought the “spiritual welfare of the colored population of the city.”

Dr. Alexander’s first choice to undertake the African mission work was John Chavis (1763-1838). Chavis was free-born in Granville County, North Carolina, educated by John Witherspoon at Princeton College, and licensed by the Presbytery of Lexington in Virginia in 1801. He was appointed by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church to be the first African home missionary. Chavis was the obvious choice because he was ready for the African work since he possessed a license to preach. E. T. Thompson notes that he was never an ordained minister and he served the church as a licentiate. Unfortunately, despite having great qualifications, Chavis turned down the opportunity. Alexander and the Evangelical Society returned to the pastoral search process, which was particularly difficult due to the general lack of education among the African community.

At about the same time these events were unfolding in Philadelphia, a candidate was being prepared for the Pennsylvania work in the distant state of Tennessee. John Gloucester, who was known at the time as “Jack,” was converted by God’s grace in Christ through the ministry of the missionary, Gideon Blackburn. It was not an easy mission field due to the often treacherous terrain, but Blackburn had a Daniel Boone constitution that especially suited him for such a physically difficult call. As their relationship grew, Blackburn recognized in Jack a zeal for learning and a thirst for sanctifying growth, so he purchased the young man from his master in 1806. Jack had to leave his wife and children in slavery while he studied with Blackburn.

Once Rev. Blackburn owned Jack, he proceeded to petition the magistrate for Jack’s freedom. Since 1801, the Tennessee legislature had not denied any petitions for manumission, so Blackburn had good reason to believe that his petition would be granted. In August, he presented the petition to the Tennessee Senate. The Senate was reluctant to deal with the case, so the petition was referred to the House of Representatives. The House reciprocated and returned the petition to the Senate. It became evident that the lawmakers did not want to free Jack because they killed the petition at the state level through a parliamentary procedure. Good research has concluded from these events that Blackburn’s petition was denied because it involved a literate black man pursuing the ministry—Jack could potentially become a leader among the slave community and bring instability to the slave system. Having failed with the state government, Blackburn turned to the Blount County Court where he obtained both the manumission and the change of name. Why Blackburn did not pursue manumission through the lesser magistrate in the first place is not clear.

The newly freed and renamed John Gloucester was taken under care as a ministerial student at the October 1806 meeting of the Presbytery of Union. Having the oversight of his presbytery, the young man pursued his education as the first African attending Greeneville College. After a few months of study, Gloucester attended the February 1807 meeting of presbytery to be examined for licensure, but even though he was found to be proficient in English grammar and geography, he was not licensed due to difficulties raised concerning his fulfilling other educational requirements. At this point, Rev. Charles Coffin, who taught at Greeneville College and was its president, intervened for Gloucester by writing to Ashbel Green in Philadelphia, who was a member of the city’s Evangelical Society. Their correspondence led to Gloucester being encouraged to appear at the approaching meeting of the Presbyterian Church General Assembly. Blackburn had already left for the annual meeting because he was the commissioner from the Presbytery of Union, and Gloucester left in April to make the meeting scheduled for May.

When the General Assembly convened in Philadelphia at the First Presbyterian Church, Gideon Blackburn had arrived to take his seat as the commissioner from the Presbytery of Union. Gloucester had made it to Philadelphia and met-up with his mentor, who introduced him to Ashbel Green, J. J. Janeway, and Archibald Alexander, as well as other presbyters. In conjunction with Gloucester’s visit, the Presbytery of Union had sent an overture to the General Assembly concerning his licensure. The Assembly adopted the recommendation of its committee appointed to handle the overture’s disposition and referred the question of Gloucester’s licensure to the Presbytery of Philadelphia. Referral to the Philadelphia Presbytery indicates that the mechanism had been engaged by the ministerial leadership of the Evangelical Society to bring Gloucester to the city for the African mission work. The presbytery meeting took place the next month, and Philadelphia Presbytery referred the licensure back to the Presbytery of Union believing that it was more qualified as the court of immediate jurisdiction to complete the licensure process with John. Though the licensure issue was referred, Gloucester’s path to missions with the free Africans had begun.

The financial support of John Gloucester and the funds needed to build a church worship facility were supplied from several sources. John’s salary was paid for three months by the Evangelical Society and the remainder of his financial stipend was to be collected from other sources. One source was missionary funding from the General Assembly, which provided three months of support each year from 1810 through 1819. His work was given amounts varying from twenty to one hundred sixty dollars each year. Private donors, presbytery and synod missionary funds, donations from the Africans themselves, and individual churches may have contributed to the remaining finances needed for his salary. The mission was blessed with a growing congregation, which meant that street corner meetings and temporary facilities needed to be replaced with an adequate building for worship. In July of 1809, the Evangelical Society agreed to “provide a house for present use,” and it sought subscriptions to buy property and erect “a house of worship.” A flyer was published to advertise the African mission and raise funds to support a work for “a reformation among the blacks of this place.” According to some historical opinions, many of the newly freed Africans entering Philadelphia were contributing to disorder in the city because of their lack of education, little if any trade skills, lack of money, and no direction or guidance.

As the slavery issue became more heated in later years, some political and intellectual leaders believed that immediate emancipation would result in a large, impoverished, and unskilled population of free blacks that would be too much for the nation to handle—Philadelphia’s experience at the time of Gloucester’s ministry exemplifies this analysis. The flyer appealed for the cause of the free blacks and concluded “that the African race is not inferior to the inhabitants of the other quarters of the world, either in the natural endowments of the understanding or the heart,” and they needed evangelism just as any other race or nationality. The flyer notes further that there were already many free Blacks who were Presbyterian and that they found it “inconvenient and unpleasant … to attend the houses of worship frequented by the white people.” The Evangelical Society separated the races for worship and worked toward constructing a worship facility dedicated to the Africans and pastored by John Gloucester. Though the African worshippers may have felt that it was “inconvenient and unpleasant” to worship with the whites, one can only speculate as to how the face of American Presbyterianism might have been changed if the Evangelical Society had taught and led the congregation to a racially united worship service within an existing Philadelphia congregation.

Raising the funds for the African Presbyterian Church building was a difficult process, however in October the Evangelical Society met to consider purchasing land for the church. Gloucester was present at the meeting and “was satisfied with the Resolution” that budgeted fourteen hundred dollars for the land. The work of fund raising continued into the Fall of 1810 when the Evangelical Society located a property, which was described as “three lots on Seventh Street in the District of Southwark, between South and Fitzwater Streets, together yielding” a nearly square lot of just under six thousand square feet. The projected cost for a building was five thousand dollars, but the amount of money pledged at that time was roughly twenty two hundred dollars. The money-in-hand was enhanced by a one hundred dollar contribution from Philadelphia’s Dr. Benjamin Rush, whose name was heard nearly as often as the other famous Philadelphia Benjamin. As the reality of the difficult task of raising the money set in, the plan was modified to construct a smaller building at an estimated cost of 3851.21, or nearly 55,000.00 in today’s money.

Up to this point, Gloucester’s ministry had been accomplished as a licentiate, but the long and difficult road to ordination came to an end when he was examined by the Presbytery of Union, meeting at Baker’s Creek, on April 30, 1810. As was most appropriate, his mentor Gideon Blackburn was the moderator of that meeting. Presbytery instructed the new minister to move from Tennessee and unite with the Philadelphia Presbytery. The instruction to relocate to Philadelphia is a bit misleading because John had been active in the African mission in Pennsylvania for some time. Rev. Gloucester’s transfer of membership was delayed a bit because he was not received into the Philadelphia Presbytery until April of the following year.

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