Beacon Street Diary blog

NEHH Collections Highlight: Portland, Maine. Abyssinian Church

by Jules Thomson, Assistant Archivist / NEHH Publication

Improving access to resources is the perennial mission of librarians and archivists, and to that end the Congregational Library & Archives has been working on expanding our finding guide for records relating to Black, Indigenous, and other people of color within our 17th-19th century collections, particularly those digitized as part of New England's Hidden Histories. (The new guide is in review and will be made available shortly). While collating and describing these records, many of them added only recently to NEHH, I've personally gained more insight into the shifting contexts of church attendence by people of color in colonial and antebellum America. In particular, I have been struck by the major social and religious changes pursuant to slavery's abolition in New England after the 1780s, including the splitting off of congregants of color to form their own religious communities in the wake of discrimination and sidelining within majority-white churches.

A prime example of this trend was the formation of the Abyssinian Church and Religious Society in Portland, Maine - the Abyssinian was one of six Black Congregational churches founded prior to the Civil War (along with the Dixwell Avenue Church in New Haven, CT, the Talcott Street Church in Hartford, CT, the African Union Congregational Church in Newport, RI, the Second Church of Pittsfield, MA, and the Black church in Springfield, MA). The Abyssinian Church was organized by disaffected parishioners of the Second Congregational Church in Portland, whose majority-white congregation had relegated Black members to segregated balcony seating as well as general hostility and racial animus.

We know that congregants suffered these inequities because six Black members of the Second Church (Christopher Christian Manuel, Reuben Ruby, Caleb Jonson, Clement Thomson, Job L. Wentworth, and John Siggs) wrote a letter of complaint to the local Eastern Argus newspaper in 1826 in which they described the ill treatment. Two years later in 1828, these six signatories along with sixteen other disaffected members petitioned the State Legislature for permission to incorporate their own religious society. The state granted the request, allowing for the formation of the Abyssinian Religious Society. Other congregants of color from the area soon joined with the new Society, including a delegation from the Fourth Congregational Church in Portland. This merger expanded the organization into the Abyssinian Congregational Church and Society.

Besides being an exemplar of the context in which it was founded, the Abyssinian Church and Society was a historical juggernaut in its own right, acting as a cultural nexus for the Black community in Maine for many decades. It hosted worship and revivals, abolition and temperance meetings, several local societies, and a school for Portland's Black children until integration in 1856. Lectures and concerts were also commonplace, though the church meeting minutes include an amusing prohibition against attending "dancing theaters and sirkices [sic]" - perhaps indicating that such jollity was rife amidst the congregation.

The church hosted some of the foremost abolitionists in the country such as Frederick Douglas and William Lloyd Garrison, and was also one of the most northerly stops on the Underground Railroad, assisting refugees' passage into Canada. In the aftermath of the Civil War, famed abolitionist James W. C. Pennington served for three years as pastor of the church.

Local benefactor Reuben Ruby looms large in the history of the Abyssinian. He provided the land upon which the meeting house was to be built, was central to its founding and administration, and facilitated the organization's role in the Underground Railroad. Mr. Ruby worked directly with William Lloyd Garrison, and supported the start of Freedom's Journal, the first Black newspaper in the United States. He was well known in Portland, partly because he was owner and operator of two "hack stands", horse-drawn taxi ranks. Ruby's son William played a crucial role in alerting the city to Portland's Great Fire of 1866, and in protecting the meeting house from ruin; he fittingly went on to captain the local fire department in addition to other civic roles.

The Abyssinian Church closed its doors in the early 20th century, partly due to the tragic wreck of the steamship Portland in November of 1898, in which seventeen of the church's male parishioners died. Most of the remaining congregation became members of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, now known as the Green Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church. The former meeting house on Newbury Street was subsequently converted to tenement housing and fell into disrepair, but a process of restoration began in the late 1990s, and the building has now been added to the National Register of Historic Places.

The Abyssinian Church and Society record books are the only records from a pre-Civil War Black Congregational church which are viewable online. They have been made available in cooperation with our partners at the Maine Historical Society and the Digital Ark Corporation, and with generous support from the Council on Library and Information Resources via their Digitizing Hidden Collections grant.