The African-American constituency of the Presbyterian Church dates from the 1730s, when the Reverend Samuel Davies began to evangelize slaves of Scotch-Irish Presbyterian immigrants in the Valley of Virginia. Davies reported instructing and baptizing 150 slaves in 1757. Unlike the Baptists and Methodists, American Presbyterians failed to attract large numbers of blacks in either the South or the North. At the end of the nineteenth century there were fewer than 30,000 African Americans in the northern and southern Presbyterian churches combined. These two major branches of Presbyterianism had split in 1861 over the Civil War, but they finally closed ranks in 1983. The black minority has grown slowly. By 1990 it was reported that only 2.47 percent, or 64,841 of the almost three-million-member reunited Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (PCUSA) were African Americans.
Reputedly, Presbyterian slaves were well instructed in the rudiments of Christianity. Many were taught to read and recite the creed and passages of the Bible by their owners. The emphasis of Puritan Presbyterians on a trained clergy and a literate laity had the effect of exposing black Presbyterians to pious learning as indispensable for Christian discipleship. The Presbyterians, however, were slow to oppose slavery. The issue was first raised in 1774 at a meeting of the Synod of New York and Philadelphia, but no action was taken. In 1787 the synod approved the ultimate goal of abolition; however, successive deliverances of the General Assembly induced the practice of Presbyterians to condemn slavery in principle while warning local judicatories not to interfere with the civil order.
The first black Presbyterian preacher was John Chavis, who was born in Granville County, North Carolina, in 1763. From 1801 to 1808 he served as a missionary to slaves in Virginia and opened a school that was patronized by many leading white families. The first African-American pastor was John Gloucester, who was manumitted by Gideon Blackburn, a Tennessee missionary, to preach the gospel. In 1807 Gloucester was permitted by the Presbytery of Philadelphia to organize the First African Presbyterian Church, which competed with Richard Allen's Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church for members from the burgeoning black community of South Philadelphia. Gloucester's three sons entered the Presbyterian ministry. Jeremiah organized the Second African Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia in 1824, James organized Siloam Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn in 1847, and Stephen served the Lombard Central Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia. Among the earliest black congregations in the North were Shiloh Presbyterian Church in New York City (organized in 1822 as First Colored Presbyterian Church) and Washington Street in Reading, Pennsylvania (1823). The first black Presbyterian congregation in the South was Beaufort-Salem Presbyterian Church, organized in Sheldon, North Carolina in 1828. The Ladson Presbyterian Church of Columbia, South Carolina (1828), was first governed by white elders and named after the white minister who was its first pastor. The slaves of the members of the First Presbyterian Church of Macon, Georgia, organized the Washington Avenue Church of that city in 1838.
After the Civil War, blacks spurned the southern branch of the church, the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS), and rallied to the northern PCUSA missionaries following the Union armies. Many became members of the northern church. Fewer than 4,000 blacks remained in the southern church, which tried to organize them into an independent Afro-American Presbyterian Church in 1874. That effort was abandoned in 1916 because of poor support from whites. During Reconstruction the northern church launched a mission to attract and minister to the recently freed people. By 1882 its Board of Missions for Freedmen sponsored two universities, Lincoln University, near Oxford, Pennsylvania, and Biddle University (later Johnson C. Smith) in Charlotte, North Carolina, as well as two colleges, five boarding schools, and 138 parochial schools. Following the Presbyterian tradition of educational excellence, these institutions made a signal contribution far beyond the ranks of the black constituency. Until the church's Board of National Missions phased it out in the twentieth century, this remarkable educational system enrolled 19,166 students and 494 teachers. At its peak the board supervised 438 churches and missions, 388 schools, 272 ministers, and 27,916 communicants.
Black Presbyterians caucused for greater recognition and freedom as early as 1859, when their ministers began meeting with black Congregational clergy in Philadelphia. Prior to the Civil War, Samuel Cornish, Theodore Wright, Henry Highland Garnet, and J. W. C. Pennington, all Presbyterian clergy, were leading black abolitionists. Lucy Craft Laney, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister and born a slave, founded the Haines Normal Institute in Augusta, Georgia, in 1867. In 1891 Daniel J. Sanders became the first black president of J. C. Smith University. Blacks in the northern church became more assertive, establishing the Afro-American Presbyterian Council in 1894. The purpose was to create more fellowship among themselves in an overwhelming white church, and to gain greater influence in the boards and agencies of the denomination. At the turn of the century, outspoken black pastors like Francis J. Grimké of the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., and Matthew Anderson of Berean in Philadelphia consistently fought racism in the church and the proposed mergers of the northern church with the PCUS and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, both with lingering Confederate allegiances.
Pressure from the African-American constituency moved the northern church to begin elevating blacks to key positions. In 1938 Albert B. McCoy became the first black executive of the Unit of Work for Colored People. Charles W. Talley was appointed field representative of the Atlantic Synod in 1945. During this period, George Lake Imes became the field representative for Negro Work in the North and West. He was followed by Robert Pierre Johnson, who served as associate stated clerk of the General Assembly in 1972. Jesse Belmont Barber, Frank T. Wilson, Emily V. Gibbes, Elo Henderson, Mildred Atris, Rachel Adams, and Bryant George were among the black men and women who served in prominent executive positions after World War II.
Lawrence W. Bottoms was an executive of the PCUS prior to his election in 1974 as its first black moderator. The PCUS began to respond to civil rights agitation after 1969. Under Bottoms's leadership in new church development in black communities, and with the rising militancy of a newly formed Black Leadership Caucus, African-American membership in the southern church doubled to about 8,000 before the 1983 merger with the United Presbyterian Church (which was formed by the union of PCUSA and the United Presbyterian Church of North America in 1958).
Northern black Presbyterians figured prominently in the civil rights program of the National Council of Churches during the 1960s. The Afro-American Presbyterian Council of 1894 went through several reincarnations and finally developed into the Concerned Presbyterians in 1963 and Black Presbyterians United in 1968. The former caucus, with white allies, enabled the election of the controversial pastor of St. Augustine Presbyterian Church in the Bronx, Edler G. Hawkins, as the first black moderator of the United Presbyterian Church in 1964. This group was also a major factor in the creation of the Commission on Religion and Race, which steered the church through the 1960s and played a leading role in the Black Manifesto call for slavery reparations in 1969 and the Angela Davis crisis of 1971. Gayraud S. Wilmore, a professor at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, J. Metz Rollins, a pastor and civil rights activist in Tallahassee, and Robert Stone, a New York City pastor, were chosen to head this unprecedented commitment of the church to the struggle led by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Since the union, Asian, Hispanic, and Native-American minorities have played a larger role in the church's program in racial and intercultural affairs. African Americans, however, came together across regional lines in 1983 to form a National Black Presbyterian Caucus, which continues to monitor church policy and practice in the field of racial and ethnic relations.
Brown, Karen V., and Phyllis M. Felton, eds. African American Presbyterian Clergywomen: The First Twenty-Five Years. Louisville, Ky.: Witherspoon Press, 2001.
Murray, Andrew W. Presbyterians and the Negro: A History. Philadelphia: Presbyterian Historical Society, 1966.
Swift, David E. Black Prophets of Justice: Activist Clergy Before the Civil War. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.
Wilmore, Gayraud S. Black and Presbyterian: The Heritage and the Hope. Philadelphia: Geneva Press, 1983.
gayraud s. wilmore (1996)