Thomas Paul served as a pioneer in the organization and development of the independent African American church. Paul was in the forefront of this movement in the North, and reached out to other congregations who sought similar goals. His missionary work and his desire to improve the conditions of the African American community took him to congregations as far away as Haiti. He opened a way for religious freedom for Boston's black Baptists and the development of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York. Paul used his eloquence as a preacher and teacher of the Gospel to influence the opinions of white congregations in the North and to effect religious freedom for all African Americans.
Thomas Paul was born on September 3, 1773, in Exeter, New Hampshire. The names of his parents and their role in the community are not known. In 1789, at the age of sixteen, Paul converted and was then baptized by the Reverend Mr. Locke, and he began preaching at the age of twenty-eight. He traveled and preached for three years before settling down. In 1804 he made Boston, Massachusetts his home. A year later on May 1, 1805, Paul was ordained at Nottingham West, New Hampshire, and during the same year he married Catherine Water-house. The couple had three children: Susan, Anne Catherine, and Thomas Jr. Catherine Paul and the three Paul offspring became teachers; Susan Paul became an abolitionist and also wrote the first black biography published in the United States.
Organizes Independent Black Churches in Boston and New York
As a clergy in Boston, Paul recognized that African American worshipers had limited participation in church matters. White Baptist churches seated their African American parishioners in the galleries and did not allow them to vote on church affairs. In response to this racism, Paul conducted nondenominational gatherings in Franklin Hall on Nassau Street and in historic Faneuil Hall. These meetings set the foundation for the formation of the first independent African American Baptist church in Boston. On August 8, 1805, twenty-four African American members met in Master Vinal's schoolhouse and formed the congregation known as the First African Church. The white church members' response to the separation of African American members was minimal. Boston's two white Baptist churches assisted the congregation in its early stages and encouraged its growth. Finally, on December 4, 1806, Thomas Paul was installed as pastor of the First African Church, which was later renamed the Joy Baptist Church. The congregation occupied a three-story brick building in Smith Court, near Belknap Street. The church building was dedicated two days after Paul's installation, which marked the creation of the first independent African American church in the North. During his twenty-five years of service to this congregation, Paul baptized over one hundred people, and the church became a charter member of the Boston Baptist Association. The congregation reached 139 members by the time Paul resigned in 1829.
In order to continue to improve the conditions of African Americans Paul traveled to other congregations to preach and support religious freedom. He traveled to New York in 1808 to assist and organize an independent movement that had begun in 1807. African American members of the First Baptist Church on Gold Street asked Paul to come to their aid. While visiting the city between June and September, Paul preached to large congregations and was well received by the many white churches in New York. His competence as a pastor and manager influenced white Baptists' decision regarding the separation of African Americans members from the First Baptist Church on Gold Street. The approval of separation finally came on July 5, 1809. Honorable letters of dismissal were granted to four men and twelve women of the African American membership. This group plus three others became the first independent African American Baptist congregation in New York under the name Abyssinian Baptist Church. Paul returned to Boston and his congregation, leaving the care of the church in the competent hands of Josiah Bishop and other members. This key institution in New York's African American community had a profound impact on both religious and political life in the community.
Missionary Work in Haiti
Paul presented a plan in 1823 to the Baptist Missionary Society of Massachusetts, to improve the moral and religious condition of the people of Haiti. His plan was enthusiastically accepted and he was sent as a missionary for six months. During his stay, President Boyer of the Republic of Haiti gave Paul permission to preach at public gatherings. He successfully reached many through his missionary work, but because of his lack of knowledge regarding French languages his overall success was limited.
- Born in Exeter, New Hampshire on September 3
- Converts and is baptized by Reverend Mr. Locke
- Ordained at Nottingham West, New Hampshire on May 1; marries Catherine Waterhouse
- Installed as pastor of independent African American church, First African Church, Boston, Massachusetts, on December 2
- Organizes independent black church in New York, later known as the Abyssinian Baptist Church
- Performs missionary work in Haiti
- Resigns from First African Church due to poor health
- Dies in Boston, Massachusetts on April 13
The First African Church was an important part of the African American Boston community as it addressed issues and concerns of the day. The church hosted religious and civic activities and presented activists, such as William Lloyd Garrison, the American abolitionist; Maria Stewart, a noted abolitionist and the first American woman to give a public lecture; and other reformers of the day. Controversy erupted in the church in 1835 as a result of David Walker's Appeal in 1829. Walker, a member of Boston's African American Baptist community, advocated armed insurrection as a response to slavery. He also was critical of those churches and clergy who did not take a stronger stance. Paul avoided taking a direct stand on his friend Walker's Appeal. As questions of religious and civic nature became more prevalent, Paul faced differences of opinion over the appropriate degree of church participation. This, along with his noticeable absences on missionary trips and the onset of poor health, set the stage for Paul's resignation, which occurred in 1829. Opinions regarding the degree of participation in political protest and reform and questions regarding whether integration or separation was the most effective position resulted in splitting the church and the formation of the Twelfth Baptist Church in 1840. But by this time, Paul had ceased his involvement in church matters. Thomas Paul died in Boston on April 13, 1831.
Lincoln, C. Eric, and Lawrence H. Mamiya. The Black Church in the African American Experience. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1990.
Sernett, Milton C. African American Religious History: A Documentary Witness. 2nd ed. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1999.
―――――. "Thomas Paul." In American National Biography. Vol. 17. Eds. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Lean'tin L. Bracks