Wednesday, June 27

The years between 1830 and 1880 witnessed a tremendous growth in Philadelphia's African American population and, with that growth, a corresponding increase in both the number of congregations in the city and their size. In this time, however, Philadelphia's black churches and their members experienced unprecedented racial oppression.

Around 1810, the African American population of the city reached its largest size in relation to the city's total population for anytime in the nineteenth century. In 1800, there were close to 7,000 African Americans in the city, about 8.5% of the total population. These numbers were considerably higher than they had been ten years earlier, when African Americans numbered barely 2,500, a mere 4.5% of the population. By 1810, the African American population reached its proportional peak for the century at close to 11,000, 9.5% of the city's population. These numbers remained high through 1850, when the African American population dipped to slightly below 6% of the city's total population. In the years between 1820 and 1860 the African American population nearly doubled in size, growing from about 12,000 to about 23,000. In comparison to the size of the total population, African Americans saw their strongest numbers in the years between 1800 and 1840, in which they never dropped below 7% of the population and maintained a citizenry of between 8% and 10% of the total population of Philadelphia.

Philadelphia's predominantly white population met this dramatic population growth with marked resistance and frequent violence. Thus, while the years preceding the Civil War in Philadelphia were years of growth in the African American community, they were also years of frustration and disturbance, full of race riots and violent attacks on African American establishments, from which even churches were not spared. White residents of Philadelphia, especially poorer communities that included large groups of recent immigrants, resented black social and economic success and perceived black progress and population growth as a threat. As the black population increased in size relative to the white population in any area of the city, blacks were treated with increasing disdain and violence, often in the form of race riots. Each of the racially motivated riots between 1834 and 1949 resulted in the destruction of at least one building that served as a symbol of African American success.

In the years between 1830 and 1850 there were at least five major racially motivated riots in Philadelphia. A riot broke out in 1831 when black Philadelphians sought to participate in Fourth of July festivities. A three-day tumult in August 1834 left one black church destroyed and another defaced. Three hundred constables and militia were called to quell the violence that forced many African Americans to flee their homes in the city for Attleborough, Bucks County, where they were further pursued. Historian John Runcie argues that successful blacks became “aggression objects” on which working class Irish immigrants could “vent their frustrations and blame their failure to make the American Dream come true,” since the two groups “were competitors for the most menial, unskilled and low paid types of employment available.” He argues further that, “They were involved in a struggle for survival at the lowest level of American society where many of them were confined by their rural backgrounds, lack of training and skills, and by the prejudices of the groups above them.” Thus, when successful blacks were perceived to be flaunting their success, they became victims of jealous rage from less successful whites. When the riots subsided, the city formed a citizen's committee to investigate their cause. Its report claimed that some participants “sought to intimidate the colored people, with intent as it would seem, to induce or compel them to remove from this district.” The attacks on churches, it concluded, were designed to put an end to “the disorderly and noisy manner in which some of the colored congregations indulge, to the annoyance and disturbance of the neighborhood in which such meeting houses are located.”

One of the most famous riots was that of 1838, in which the newly built abolition meeting place, Pennsylvania Hall, was burned to the ground. One of the most important parts of the life of the African American church in Philadelphia had been its active involvement in the abolition movement. Serving as meeting houses for anti-slavery rallies and as secret stops along the Underground Railroad, African American churches were among the most active Philadelphia institutions supporting the abolitionist cause. White sympathizers of the abolitionist cause had offered support and formed the American Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia in December 1833. In 1838 the society constructed an enormous meeting hall at 6th and Haines Street (above Race) named Pennsylvania Hall. Although Philadelphia became a vital center of abolitionist activity, it was far from a safe haven for anti-slavery activists. Abolitionists on their way to meetings at the hall were often harassed and insulted. An angry white mob in 1835 hurled anti-slavery literature into the Delaware River with the city's mayor looking on. In 1838, a violent protest against radical abolitionism arose in the streets of Philadelphia. White supporters of slavery burned Pennsylvania Hall to the ground and then moved on to destroy the Shelter for Colored Orphans at 13th and Callowhill Streets. At least one African American church was burned in the melee.

On August 1, 1842, another riot broke out when at least 1,200 African Americans marched through Philadelphia under the banner of the Moyamensing Temperance Society to celebrate their support for the temperance movement and the anniversary of slavery's abolition in the British Empire. When the marchers reached Fourth and Shippen (Bainbridge) Streets, a mob of angry white (primarily Irish) dissidents set upon them. The riot spread into a nearby black neighborhood where numerous homes were ransacked and several individuals were brutally assaulted. The mob torched Smith's Hall on Lombard Street, the building that had served as an abolitionist headquarters in the absence of Pennsylvania Hall, and then burned nearby Second African Presbyterian Church on St. Mary's Street near 6th Street. The riot stretched into the following morning, and by 6 A.M. the white mob grew to an estimated 1,000. By the end of the day the African American neighborhoods had been decimated, and at least one African American church had been burned to the ground.

Historian Emma Jones Lepsansky has argued convincingly that the growth of the African American church coupled with the increasing relative wealth and size of the black community was directly linked to the violent response of the white population in antebellum Philadelphia. Citing the fact that institutions, such as churches, that signified growing economic progress and “status” in the African American community were singled out as targets for destruction during the riots, Lepsansky argues that Philadelphia's white community feared what it perceived as an ever-increasing black threat of competition for jobs and housing. The development of a wealthy black middle class, including a few extremely wealthy black individuals that could be described as “old money” among the city's ruling elite, threatened the perceived economic security of the growing white population. Though Philadelphia's African American population remained below 10% throughout the antebellum period, its increasing size and dispersion, especially in the years between 1830 and 1850 created a perception of great “black threat” to much of the white working class. This anxiety manifested itself in frequent and destructive race riots throughout the city.

Adding to white frustrations were the increasing “cosmopolitan contacts” of much of the African American population. Many black Philadelphians abandoned their previous attitudes of subservience for a new spirit of independence and equality that seemed troubling to many whites. The growing number of African American social and religious bodies was a sign of increasing feelings of independence, and further compounded white racial fears. Even more troubling to white Philadelphians was the increasing refinement of black social figures and institutions. Well-dressed, educated, and financially stable African Americans that aspired for upward mobility became increasingly common. This fact, combined with the perceived threats of racial amalgamation and job competition, seemed to threaten the established social order.

By the 1830s the African American church was the vital center of black community organization in Philadelphia, providing a place where the city's leading blacks could congregate and create social networks outside the city's white organizational base. The churches further provided places for blacks of all economic backgrounds to feel conformable speaking their minds on contemporary issues and establish contacts that created a sense of unity within specific communities. Hence, during antiblack riots, white rioters attempted to pierce the heart of African American mobility and stability by striking at individual churches. Despite these attempts, however, white rioters succeeded only in destroying church buildings. The spirit of unity and community that propelled Philadelphia's growing black population to its position prior to the riots persisted with increased strength after them, and the church continued its critical position of leadership in social organization.

The first three decades of the nineteenth century saw the greatest growth in African American Baptist and Methodist churches, but other denominations experienced growth as well.

TABLE 1: African American Churches, 1830
Name Denomination Location NS Location EW
St. ThomasEpiscopal5thAdelphi St.
First AfricanPresbyterian7thShippen St.
Second AfricanPresbyterian2ndNorris Alley
First AfricanBaptist8thVine St.
AfricanBaptist13thVine St.
BethelAME6thPine St.
UnionAMEOld York Rd.Coates St.
ZoarMethodist4thBrown St.
WesleyAME Zion5thLombard St.
 AME5thGill's Alley
Source: E. L. Carey and A. Hart, Philadelphia in 1830-1, or A Brief Account of the Various Institutions and Public Objects in the Metropolis Forming A Complete Guide For Strangers and A Useful Compendium for the Inhabitants. (Philadelphia, PA: James Kay, Jun & Co., 1830), 49.

The church that saw the greatest decline in attendance was Philadelphia's oldest African American church, St. Thomas Episcopal. A minor division occurred in 1810 when a few church members began communicating with a Jamaican minister regarding the possibility of his accepting a ministerial position at St. Thomas. The unauthorized action of these members culminated in conflict when the Jamaican, Alexander Cook Summers, arrived in Philadelphia to accept his position. Having no knowledge of his solicitation the church vestrymen refused him. The resulting church division hurt both membership and giving in the first years of the nineteenth century. Another problem arose when Absalom Jones died in 1818 and St. Thomas struggled to find a successor. Still governed by the Episcopal Church of Philadelphia, the vestrymen of St. Thomas struggled to find a candidate that suited both the desires of the African American congregation and the restrictions of the white Episcopal Church officers. The church found one promising candidate, a self-educated preacher from New Haven, Connecticut, especially appealing, but his nomination was rejected by the Episcopal leaders because of his lack of formal education. In the meantime white clergy filled the pulpit and the congregation dwindled. In 1813, St. Thomas boasted a membership of 560, but by 1837 it had shrunk to a mere 250. By 1839 the church had sufficiently recovered so that it was able to remodel its church building with $4,300 in renovations.

In 1820, a dispute over the rights of lay leaders in the government of local Methodist churches led to the development of a new congregation that called itself Wesley Church. Wesley originally met in a house in Cypress Alley and then moved to the home of Asbury Church on St. Mary Street. In July 1820 the congregation purchased a carpenter's shop and constructed its first building on Lombard Street between Fifth and Sixth Streets. The church was officially consecrated on Christmas Eve, 1820, under the leadership of its first pastor, Rev. Joshua Blue. In 1822, the congregation chose to merge with the burgeoning A.M.E. Zion denomination, which had been founded in New York in 1796.

While no antebellum African American congregation in Philadelphia was exclusively upper, middle, or lower class in membership, some churches were more affluent than others. As was the case with white congregations in the city, the Episcopal churches generally garnered wealthier congregates, while evangelical Baptist and Methodist congregations gleaned poorer Christians. The Presbyterian churches were somewhere between them. In 1837, the mean wealth of African American Episcopalians in Philadelphia was $1,255, while Presbyterians averaged $508, Baptists $414, and Methodists $197.

While Baptist and Methodist churches witnessed the greatest growth in membership, several new denominations were born and a few churches emerged within denominations that had been historically underrepresented by African Americans. One example of the emergence of a new African American church in a historically white denomination was Jehu Jones' founding of St. Paul's Lutheran Church in 1832. Jones was born in 1786 in Charleston, South Carolina, the son of a successful black business tailor and business owner who had been born a slave and had bought his freedom. Jones grew up attending Lutheran church services with his family in a predominantly white church in which blacks sat in separate pews. In 1831, when several of the leaders of the African American community in Charleston met to consider emigration to Liberia under the auspices of the American Colonization Society, Jones volunteered to become a missionary to the West African coast. He visited the New York Synod of the Lutheran Church in 1832, where the ministers presiding ordained him missionary to Liberia, but when his plans to depart for Africa fell through the following year, he visited the German Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Pennsylvania at its session in Pottsgrove, PA. The Synod voted to make Jones a missionary to Philadelphia, and he promptly began to work among the growing black population in West Philadelphia. By January 1834, Jones had succeeded in starting a congregation and began seeking a permanent building in which it could meet. As there was no black Lutheran church in the city at the time, Lutherans from around Pennsylvania began to donate funds to his project of building one in West Philadelphia. In June 1834, Jones purchased two adjacent lots on the west side of Quince Street below Spruce for $375 each with a seven-year mortgage. Later the same month, the church laid its cornerstone, which is still visible today, reading “St. Paul's E. L. Church 1834.” When the church building was dedicated two years later, the congregation was $2,000 in debt, and with only ten official members there was little hope of repaying. Despite Jones' pleas, the Synod refused to help. In February 1839, with debts rising and collectors hounding him, Jones was forced to sell the church. He was eventually dismissed by his Synod, which viewed him as a failure, and he retired with his family in Philadelphia, where he died in 1852. Although it has been modified significantly, St. Paul's Lutheran Church's tiny building stands today as a reminder of Jones' attempt at founding a black Lutheran church in Philadelphia. The building is today the home of the Mask and Wig Club at the University of Pennsylvania.

African American churches drew some members from outside of their immediate neighborhoods, but most members lived within a short walk of their house of worship. Thus, the trend in the antebellum period was similar to that of later times; churches were born in the neighborhoods in which their membership lived. In 1837 the vast majority of African Americans in Philadelphia (about 62%) lived in the city proper (the area bordered by Race Street in the north, Cedar or South Street in the south, and the Schulykill and Delaware Rivers on the west and east sides respectively). The second largest number (about 18%) lived in Moyamensing (the area south of South Street, west of Broad Street, and east of the Schuylkill River). Southwark (the area south of South Street, east of Broad, and west of the Delaware River) accounted for about 7% of the city's African American population, and the northern areas (Northern Liberties, Spring Garden and Kensington) accounted for the remainder.

African American churches in Philadelphia followed the population trends of the African American community. By 1849, there were 10 African American churches in the city proper (about 53%), 4 in Moyamensing and Southwark (about 21%), 3 in the northern sections (about 16%) and 2 (about 11%) in newly developing West Philadelphia.

In 1857, there were at least 18 African American churches in Philadelphia. Their names, locations, approximate memberships, founding dates, building square footage, seating capacities, and values are described below:

Source: Rev. William T. Catto, A Semi-Centenary Discourse, delivered in the First African Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, on the fourth Sabbath of May, 1857: With a history of the Church from its Fist Organization; including a brief notice of Rev. John Gloucester, its first pastor, also an appendix containing sketches of all the Colored Churches in Philadelphia. (Philadelphia, PA: Joseph M. Wilson, 1857), 105-111.

The antebellum period was also an age of development in the field of African American musical tradition. The first or second African American church in the United States to purchase and use an organ in church services was St. Thomas Episcopal of Philadelphia in 1828. St. Thomas and Mother Bethel both introduced choirs in the 1840s, and although there was some controversy over the introduction of “note singing' in the A.M.E. denomination, choral gospel music quickly became a vital part of African Methodist churches around the world. The A.M.E. hymnal, originally organized by Richard Allen in 1801, had embraced 64 Christian hymns that ranged from traditional pieces by Charles Wesley and John Newton to simple choruses arranged by Allen himself or members of his congregation, and was used widely by A.M.E. churches around the country. According to late AME minister and church historian Daniel A. Payne, instrumental music was not introduced into AME churches until 1848. Other churches however, especially Episcopal and Presbyterian Churches, which generally had more resources, enjoyed performances and worship accompaniment from organs and orchestras. Hayden's “Creation” was performed in its entirety at First African Presbyterian at 7th and Bainbridge in 1841, and the chorus and 50-piece orchestra were so well received that the concert was repeated for a white church nearby. The leader of the black orchestra was Francis Johnson, a professional black musician who was renowned for his performances in New York and Philadelphia. Classical performances were particularly numerous in the fall and winter, while less formal summer camp meetings, which encouraged sing-alongs and dancing, were more popular during summer months. Camp meetings, which became especially popular during and immediately after the surge of revivalism that accompanied the late-antebellum Second Great Awakening, permitted the singing of “spiritual songs” (Payne called them “corn-field ditties”), which were generally banned from formal Sunday services. When Payne visited a summer camp meeting (or “bush meeting, as he called it), he was appalled by what he saw:

After the sermon, they formed a ring, and with coats off sung, clapped their hands and stamped their feet in a most ridiculous and heathenish way. I requested the pastor to go and stop their dancing. At his request, they stopped their dancing and clapping of hands, but remained singing and rocking their bodies to and fro.
These “Bands” I have had to encounter in many places . . .. He who could sing loudest and longest led the “Band,” having his loins girded and a handkerchief in hand with which he kept time, while his feet resounded on the floor like the drum-sticks of a bass drum. In some places it was the custom to begin these dances after night service and keep it up until midnight, sometimes singing and dancing alternately.

From the end of the Civil War to the turn of the twentieth century, the African American church in Philadelphia experienced continued growth and change. New congregations and denominations were formed as the church responded to the mass migration of African Americans to Philadelphia, coupled with the growth of an exclusive African American middle class.

In the period between 1865 and 1900, the African American population in Philadelphia grew at an unprecedented rate, but this increase had little effect on the relative size of the African American population in relation to the general population of Philadelphia. In 1860, there were approximately 22,000 African Americans in Philadelphia, about 3.9% of the total population of the city. This number was the same in 1870, but the growing European immigrant population in that decade drove the relative size of the African American population to its all-time low, 3.2%. By 1880, the African American population in Philadelphia had leapt to nearly 32,000, 3.74% of the total population. By 1890, the African American population in the city had made its largest jump to date to near 40,000, but still accounted for only 3.76% of the total population.

In 1867, there were approximately 20 black churches in Philadelphia. Bethel A.M.E. was still the largest congregation in the city, and Methodist Churches continued to dominate African American religious life, with more than 9 congregations representing three distinct denominations within the Methodist tradition. The most successful denominations of the period were the Methodists, African Methodists, and the AME Zion Church. Off-shoot churches grew out of Bethel AME, which by 1857 had well over 1,000 members, more than double the membership of any other black congregation in the city. AME Wesleyan Church (later Mt. Olive AME), which was among the first, met in south Philadelphia as early as 1820 at 6th and Hurst, and had an estimated 300 members by 1857. Three AME churches were founded within three years of each other in the 1830s, Mt. Pisgah in 1833, Wesley AME in 1834, and Campbell AME in 1836. Wesley AME Zion was the first church of its denomination in Philadelphia, appearing in 1820, and by 1857 it had an estimated 500 members meeting at 6th and Lombard. Grace African Union Methodist Episcopal was the first of its denomination, appearing in 1830, and the first Congregational Methodist church, named Israel Congregational, emerged around 1850 at 5th and Gaskill. Another AME mission church that would later take the name Zion Chapel AME, was founded in 1852 at 7th and Dickson.

The second black Episcopal Church in Philadelphia also emerged in this period. The Church of the Crucifixion was founded in 1847 at 8th and Bainbridge in an area known for its racial discord. The new church drew some of the poorest blacks in the area, but the modest congregation managed to builds its first place of worship at a cost of $2000, and furnish it with furniture valued at more than $200. For more than half a century St. Thomas had been the only black Episcopal congregation, but the new church grew rapidly and drew a large crowd each Sunday. Congregants braved the walk to church through rough neighborhoods in order to attend. Many men from the congregation were singled out and attacked by idle white men on 8th Street. Another source of turbulence was the nearby volunteer fire department, which was just south of the church on 8th Street and unrelenting in its oppression of black, church-going men. One Sunday in the 1860s, a member named James W. Purnell, was en route to church with his wife, when he was attacked and killed by a group of white men who thought his wife looked white. The commute was dangerous, but there were several draws to the church that made the risk worthwhile. Among the church's special features were its choir and its pipe organ, built by its player, a black musician named Joseph Carter. Despite its rough climate, the Church of the Crucifixion persevered and became one of the city's leading black congregations, helping to organize at least two other Episcopal Churches in the area in the following decades.

MAP 1: African American Churches, 1857

Source: Rev. William T. Catto, A Semi-Centenary Discourse, delivered in the First African Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, on the fourth Sabbath of May, 1857: With a history of the Church from its First Organization; including a brief notice of Rev. John Gloucester, its first pastor, also an appendix containing sketches of all the Colored Churches in Philadelphia. (Philadelphia, PA: Joseph M. Wilson, 1857), 105-111.

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