J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, February 04, 2021

The Records of Congregationalists of Color

Under the project title of “New England’s Hidden Histories,” the Congregational Library and Archives has been digitizing the records of early churches and related documents.

The library has just announced the publication of a finding aid for material across that digitized collection which illuminate the religious lives of people of African and indigenous descent.

The introductory text by Prof. Richard J. Boles of Oklahoma State University explains:
Though historians have long recognized that the early Congregationalists’ missionary impulse led them to establish Native American “praying towns,” and that some Congregational churches included Black, Native, and mixed-race parishioners, including people enslaved by white parishioners and clergy, the experiences of these underrepresented populations have received relatively scant scholarly attention. In fact, the participation of Black and Indigenous people in early American Congregational churches was both significant and longstanding, as were their contributions to Congregationalism as church members, lay preachers, and ordained ministers. . . .

During the colonial era, African Americans and American Indians participated in numerous predominantly-white Congregational churches through baptism, communion, public worship, singing, catechism classes, and other shared religious activities. Their participation was usually in the context of colonization and enslavement or bonded servitude, but some Black and Indigenous peoples had spiritual as well as practical reasons (such as access to education) for affiliating with these churches.

During the widespread religious revivals of the early 1740s, some Narragansett, Pequot, Mohegan, Niantic, Wampanoag, and other Indigenous peoples attended and participated in majority-white Congregational churches. Additionally, many Black people, enslaved and free, affiliated with both evangelical-leaning and more traditional Congregational churches throughout the eighteenth century. The manuscript church records digitized by New England’s Hidden Histories are essential for understanding the religious affiliations of Black and Indigenous peoples because published vital records and nineteenth-century church directories commonly omitted information about eighteenth-century Black and Indian church members.

Partly because they faced prejudice from white Christians, including segregated seating and proscriptions against voting and holding leadership positions, Black and Indigenous people in New England increasingly began to form their own Congregational churches. For example, dozens of Narragansett men and women in the early 1740s joined Joseph Park’s Congregational church in Westerly, Rhode Island, but about 1749, most of them left this church and founded their own congregation under the leadership of Samuel Niles (Narragansett). African Americans slowly grained freedom from slavery in New England after the 1780s, and in the early nineteenth century, they founded Congregational churches in Newport, RI, Portland, ME, and New Haven, CT.
The guide is divided into six categories:
  • Firsthand Writings by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and other people of color), including the Rev. Lemuel Haynes, shown above.
  • BIPOC Churches and Institutions
  • Indigenous-Focused Records
  • BIPOC in Majority-White Church Records
  • Antislavery and Abolitionist Materials
  • Further Reading
These documents have not been transcribed but can be read on the “New England’s Hidden Histories” website.

1 comment:

Andrew Noone said...

Enjoyed that—as a musicologist, I’d also be interested in the musical contribution these particular groups made during services.

The contribution of African-Americans during the Revolutionary period is too often ignored, Crispus Attucks excepted. My book Bathsheba Spooner: A Revolutionary Murder Conspiracy (out next month) includes what is likely the first testimony given by an African-American (Prudence, a tavern maid) in the new nation. Her crucial evidence helped convict all four defendants, who were hanged just over two months later.