Delaware and Delawareans played key roles in the development of independent black churches in the United States. Absalom Jones (1746-1818), Richard Allen (1760-1831), and Peter Spencer (1782-1843), who emerged from slavery, along with Samuel Cornish (1795-1858), born to free parents, preached the Gospel and founded churches where blacks could worship freely. They spearheaded the first protests for black liberation and empowerment. Their activities for racial uplift and black self-determination formed the first link in a chain of struggle that has extended from the early 1800s to Martin Luther King, Jr., and beyond.
Absalom Jones, 1810 by Raphaelle Peale (1774-1825)
Oil on paper mounted to board, 30 x 25 in.
Courtesy of Delaware Art Museum, Gift of Absalom Jones School, 1971
Born a slave in Sussex County in 1746, Absalom Jones was the property of the Wynkoop family. In 1762 his owner moved to Philadelphia, taking Jones with him but selling his mother and siblings. Jones worked in his master’s store by day and, with his master’s permission, attended a school for blacks at night. Absalom Jones purchased his freedom in 1784. Even after he became a free man, he continued to work for his former master.
In 1787 Jones, with Richard Allen and others, founded the Free African Society in Philadelphia to meet the social, educational, and religious needs of blacks. He and others in the Free African Society began to build a church exclusively for blacks in 1791 so that they could worship without discrimination. In 1792, Jones, Allen, and other blacks walked out of St. George’s Methodist Church rather than sit in the balcony, as they had been ordered.
The new church, completed in 1794, affiliated with the Episcopal Church as the African Episcopal Church of Saint Thomas. Absalom Jones, the church’s leader, was ordained a deacon in 1795 and a priest in 1804. He was the first black priest in the Episcopal Church in the United States and served St. Thomas faithfully until his death in 1818.
African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas: http://www.aecst.org/ajones.htm
Courtesy of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University
Richard Allen was born the slave of Benjamin Chew in either Pennsylvania or Delaware. He was sold, with his family, to Stokely Sturgis of the Dover area around 1768. Young Richard Allen attended Methodist meetings and became a Christian. After his owner became a Methodist, he allowed Allen to purchase his freedom.
After becoming free in 1780, Allen worked various jobs while preaching to both blacks and whites in Delaware and surrounding areas. He and Harry Hosier were the only black preachers at the Christmas Conference in Baltimore in 1784 where the Methodist Episcopal Church was organized.
By 1786 Allen had arrived in Philadelphia, where he organized a prayer meeting for blacks. In 1787, he, Absalom Jones, and others founded the Free African Society. Many blacks worshiped at predominantly white St. George’s Methodist Church. In time, Allen and others became aware that they were not truly welcome. In 1792, when ordered to takes seats in the balcony, they walked out of the church.
Allen founded Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1794. In 1816, he and representatives of other black Methodists churches met in Philadelphia to organize the African Methodist Episcopal denomination. Richard Allen served as its first bishop.
Richard Allen’s autobiography: http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/allen/allen.html
Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church: http://www.motherbethel.org/
Peter Spencer, Courtesy of anonymous lender
Born in slavery in Kent County, Maryland, Peter Spencer moved to Wilmington in the 1790s. He soon united with Africans who worshipped at Asbury Methodist Episcopal Church, a predominantly white congregation. In 1805, he and other Africans left Asbury because of discrimination and started Ezion Methodist Episcopal Church within the predominantly white Methodist Episcopal Conference. Further discrimination at Ezion led Spencer and William Anderson to found the Union Church of Africans, an all-black denomination, in Wilmington in 1813. Spencer also started the August Quarterly, now the oldest continuously celebrated African American festival in the United States. He became widely known in Delaware as a church and community organizer, preacher, pastor, teacher, and anti-slavery activist. The Delaware State Journal spoke of him as "faithful to all his obligations, and upright and prompt in all his dealings" (August 1, 1843).
Reverend Samuel Cornish
Steel engraving by F. Kearney, 1825
Neg. no. 74637, Courtesy of Collection of the New-York Historical Society
The son of free blacks, Samuel Cornish grew up in Sussex County. By 1815, he lived in Philadelphia, where he studied for the Presbyterian ministry. In 1819, he served as a missionary to slaves on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Cornish moved to New York City in 1821 and founded the New Demeter Street Presbyterian Church, the city’s first black church of that denomination. Cornish served the church until 1828.
Cornish began his career in journalism in 1827, when he and John Russworm founded Freedom’s Journal, the first black newspaper in the United States. Cornish served as editor of Rights for All and the Colored American, which he edited until 1839. As an editor, Cornish promoted the achievements of blacks and the importance of hard work, education, and thrift, and spoke out against colonization.
Cornish also continued his ordained ministry, serving churches in Philadelphia, Newark, N.J., and New York City.