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BLACK & INDIGENOUS RESEARCH GUIDE

Explore records of Black and Indigenous people in early New England Congregational churches.

This Research Guide was created in 2021 by Dr. Richard J. Boles, Department of History, Oklahoma State University.

New England’s Hidden Histories is pleased to highlight a number of records relating to Black and Indigenous people in early New England Congregational churches. Though historians have long recognized that the early Congregationalists’ missionary impulse led them to establish Native American “praying towns,” and that some Congregational churches included Black, Indigenous, and mixed-race parishioners, including people enslaved by white parishioners and clergy, the experiences of these underrepresented populations have received relatively scant scholarly attention. In fact, the participation of Black and Indigenous people in early American Congregational churches was both significant and longstanding, as were their contributions to Congregationalism as church members, lay preachers, and ordained ministers.

New England’s Hidden Histories, whose larger mission is to digitize, transcribe, and make accessible online New England’s earliest Congregational manuscript church records, is the first and only scholarly project to gather systematically and make available online records pertaining to the the experiences of Black, Indigenous, and other peoples of color in these early Congregational churches. Highlights of our growing collection include records from Black churches, including those of the Abyssinian Church of Portland, Maine, manuscript records from Natick, MA, the only documents known to survive from a church that was simultaneously Indigenous and English Congregationalist, the only known relation of faith written in the hand of an enslaved person, and many other exceptionally scarce and valuable documents. NEHH has transcribed many of these manuscripts. For information on and contextualization of the specific documents in our collections, please see the multi-part research guide below.   

 

Interracial and Separate Churches

During the colonial era, Black and Indigenous people participated in numerous predominantly-white Congregational churches through baptism, communion, public worship, singing, catechism classes, and other shared religious activities. Their participation was usually in the context of colonization and enslavement or bonded servitude, but some Black and Indigenous peoples had spiritual as well as practical reasons (such as access to education) for affiliating with these churches.1

During the widespread religious revivals of the early 1740s, some Narragansett, Pequot, Mohegan, Niantic, Wampanoag, and other Indigenous peoples attended and participated in majority-white Congregational churches. Additionally, many Black people, enslaved and free, affiliated with both evangelical-leaning and more traditional Congregational churches throughout the eighteenth century. The manuscript church records digitized by New England’s Hidden Histories are essential for understanding the religious affiliations of Black and Indigenous peoples because published vital records and nineteenth-century church directories commonly omitted information about eighteenth-century Black and Indigenous church members.2

Partly because they faced prejudice from white Christians, including segregated seating and proscriptions against voting and holding leadership positions, Black and Indigenous people in New England increasingly began to form their own Congregational churches. For example, dozens of Narragansett men and women in the early 1740s joined Joseph Park’s Congregational church in Westerly, Rhode Island, but about 1749, most of them left this church and founded their own congregation under the leadership of Samuel Niles (Narragansett). Black people slowly gained freedom from slavery in New England after the 1780s, and in the early nineteenth century, they founded Congregational churches in Newport, RI, Portland, ME, and New Haven, CT.3

 

Documenting Slavery and Abolitionism

Early records related to Congregational churches, organizations, and individuals are rich sources for studying not only the religious lives of Black and Indigenous peoples but also for social, political, gender, and economic histories. Along with probate records, court documents, personal papers, and occasional censuses, the records listed here provide important sources for understanding abolitionist movements and the prevalence and experiences of enslavement in New England.4

In 1754, an enslaved man named Greenwich, who attended the Separate Congregational Church in Canterbury, CT, made an early public statement against slavery in New England. During the era of the American Revolution, other Black people used religious ideas likely gained from participation in Congregational churches to call for the abolition of slavery, including Rev. Lemuel Haynes (1753-1833) before he was ordained as the first Black Congregational minister.5

Some white Congregationalists, including Rev. Samuel Hopkins (1721-1803), eventually joined these Black Christians in calling for emancipation and an end to the international slave trade. The records in these collections help explain how legal slavery gradually ended in New England. After a several decade hiatus, some white Congregational churches and Christians rejoined northern Black people to fight against the expansion of slavery into western territories and to fight for the abolition of southern slavery. The Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society, formed in 1834 and whose records have been digitized, is an example of this trend.6

 

Indigenous Congregationalists

Congregational churches were founded for and sometimes by Indigenous people in Massachusetts during the seventeenth century, and other Indigenous-led churches flourished starting in the 1750s in southern New England. Puritan minister John Eliot (c. 1604-1690) helped to establish “Praying Towns” for Christian Indigenous peoples in Massachusetts, and Thomas Mayhew Jr., Peter Folger, and Richard Bourne helped establish churches among the Wampanoag on Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod.7

Dozens of Wampanoag and other Indigenous people received religious training from English colonists and became missionaries and pastors to their own peoples. They helped Eliot translate the Christian scriptures into the Eastern Algonquian Wôpanâak language (Mamusse wunneetu-panatamwe Up-Biblum God) and created a rich array of Wôpanâak language sermons and devotional materials.8

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (and sometimes continuing to the present), Wampanoag, Narragansett, Pequot, Mohegan, and Montaukett communities maintained their own Congregational, Baptist, or ecumenical congregations. Congregational churches and associations continued to sponsor Indigenous and white school teachers, missionaries, and ministers in these communities, including the Rev. Gideon Hawley in Mashpee, Massachusetts.9

 

Notes  
1 Richard J. Boles, Dividing the Faith: The Rise of Segregated Churches in the Early American North (New York: New York University Press, 2020); John Wood Sweet, Bodies Politic: Negotiating Race in the American North, 1730–1830 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003); Richard A. Bailey, Race and Redemption in Puritan New England (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).   
2 Lise Breen notes that the published Gloucester Vital Record do not include several enslaved people who are clearly listed in the First Parish Church records. Other published church records and directories from the nineteenth century likewise omitted the racial labels found in the original church records. Old South (Third) Church in Boston did not racially identify its historic Black church members on lists printed in 1833, 1841, or 1883.   
3 Linford D. Fisher, The Indian Great Awakening: Religion and the Shaping of Native Cultures in Early America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); Boles, Dividing the Faith.   
4 Jared R. Hardesty, Unfreedom: Slavery and Dependence in Eighteenth-Century Boston (New York: New York University Press, 2016).   
5 Erik R. Seeman, "'Justise Must Take Plase': Three African Americans Speak of Religion in Eighteenth-Century New England,” William and Mary Quarterly 56, no. 2, (Apr., 1999): 393-414; Christopher Cameron, To Plead Our Own Cause: African Americans in Massachusetts and the Making of the Antislavery Movement (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2014); John Saillant, Black Puritan, Black Republican: The Life and Thought of Lemuel Haynes, 1753-1833 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).   
6 Joseph Conforti, “Samuel Hopkins and the Revolutionary Antislavery Movement,” Rhode Island History 38, no. 2 (May 1979); Kenneth P. Minkema and Harry S. Stout, “The Edwardsean Tradition and the Antislavery Debate, 1740–1865,” Journal of American History 92, no. 1 (June 2005): 47–74.   
7 Richard W. Cogley, John Eliot’s Mission to the Indians before King Philip’s War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999); David J. Silverman, Faith and Boundaries: Colonists, Christianity, and Community among the Wampanoag Indians (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005).   
8 Edward E. Andrews, Native Apostles: Black and Indian Missionaries in the British Atlantic World (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013); Cogley, John Eliot’s Mission.   
9 Fisher, Indian Great Awakening; Andrews, Native Apostles; Jean M. O’Brien, Dispossession by Degrees: Indian Land and Identity in Natick, Massachusetts, 1650–1790 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

Using this Guide

This multi-part research guide is designed to facilitate the identification of early archival sources in the CLA's collections that relate to Black and Indigenous people within the Congregational milieu. All records date from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. For the most part, these records are digitized and available to view online, but in some cases supplemental physical-only records in the CLA's collections are also included.

Note: Materials in these records contain outdated and harmful language.

Firsthand Writings by BIPOC

Colonial-era and early-nineteenth-century materials written by Black and Indigenous people have rarely survived and were rarely collected in deliberate ways by libraries and institutional archives before the twentieth century. Sometimes restricted access to literacy, attempted erasures, and ambivalence to understanding their point of views were part of the systematic oppression that Black and Indigenous people faced in New England and elsewhere. These facts make the availability of these firsthand writings by Congregational clergy and laypeople all the more significant.

Note: Materials in these records contain outdated and harmful language.

 

  • Writings by BIPOC Clergy

    Rev. Lemuel Haynes

    Rev. Lemuel Haynes (1753–1833) is often described as America’s first fully ordained Black minister. Ordained in 1785, he served as pastor at several Congregational churches, including Torrington, CT, West Parish Church of Rutland, VT (now West Rutland's United Church of Christ), Manchester, VT, and the Congregational Church in South Granville, NY. An inquisitive student, soldier of the American Revolution, and early abolitionist, Haynes preached in support of equality for Black Americans across New England and New York. His preaching was well-regarded by numerous Trinitarian or Orthodox Congregational Ministers. Middlebury College granted Haynes an honorary master of arts in 1804. His sermon, Universal salvation, a very ancient doctrine, first preached in 1805, was a popular rebuttal to Universalist doctrines and was published in numerous editions. Rev. Timothy Cooley published a biography of Haynes in 1837. 
     

    Manchester, Vt. First Church Records
    Much of the first manuscript record book of the First Church of Manchester, VT was written by Rev. Haynes, specifically the portions dating from 1818-1822. 

    Granville, Mass. Congregational Church Records
    While serving in Rutland, VT Haynes wrote a series of letters to Rev. Timothy Cooley, the pastor of the above Granville church, primarily discussing ministry and local current events. One of these items is a reply to his daughter Electa updating her on family and friends at the end of her school year. Also included is Haynes's handwritten epitaph.

    Bennington, Vt. First Church Records
    These records include items of correspondence received from Rev. Lemuel Haynes while he was minister at Manchester, VT. They include a manuscript sermon on the nature of repentance (first preached 1801), and a signed letter, dated 1806, to Rev. Elihu Smith of Castleton regarding a difficulty in the Congregational Church at West Rutland. Also included are an engraved portrait of Rev. Haynes and a short biographical sketch.

  • Writings by BIPOC Church Members

    Alice/Else Anthony

    The Middleboro, MA First Church records contain a disciplinary confession from parishioner Alice Anthony (d. 1790). Also referred to as Else, she is identified in other documents as an Indigenous woman from the local Namasket/Pokanoket band of the Wampanoag people. She was admitted as a member of the First Church of Middleboro on January 24, 1742 and produced her confession many years later, on June 6, 1783. Though the document was probably written with the assistance of the local minister, it is the only document of its kind known to exist. In the confession Anthony apologizes for "the scandalous sin of intemperance" and for staying away from public worship, and asks the congregation to receive her back into the church and to pray for her.

     

    Catharine Brown

    Catharine Brown was born sometime around 1800 to John and Sarah Webber Brown. Her family was part of the Creek-Path Cherokee community. Having already begun to learn English, Catharine joined the Brainerd School in 1817. In 1820, she began teaching at the Creek Path Mission but soon returned home to care for her parents following the death of her brother, John. She remained with her family and soon started to also get sick. She died on July 18th, 1823. The Catharine Brown papers contain ten letters written by Catharine, a copy of her diary, and 14 notes and letters from various people discussing Catharine and her legacy. The 25 items in the collection are available in PDF format.

     

    Phillis/Philesh Cogswell

    Phillis or Philesh Cogswell was, like Flora/Flory (see entry below), a member of the evangelical Fourth Church of Ipswich (The "new" Chebacco church). She was enslaved in the household of Jonathan Cogswell. Phillis/Philesh initially began attending church during the revivals of the 1740s, but she had never become a full member and felt her piety decline over the years. Her decision not to join a church changed with the onset of the Seacoast Revivals of the 1760s. On April 22, 1764 she submitted a formalized relation of faith to the congregation as part of the process of seeking full membership. While large parts of the document adhere to standard phrasing, there are also individual biographical details from her life. Other records relating to Phillis/Philesh include her personal signature, suggesting an ability to write, which was extremely unusual for an enslaved person and for women in general at the time. Following her application, she was baptized into the Fourth Church of Ipswich as a full member in May or June of 1764. Other contemporary records relate that Cogswell had been manumitted from slavery by 1785. For further information please see Erik R. Seeman's article "'Justise Must Take Plase': Three African Americans Speak of Religion in Eighteenth-Century New England."

     

    Flora/Flory

    The Fourth Church in Ipswich, also known as the "new" Chebacco church or the Separatist Church, was formed by "New Light" revivalists during the First Great Awakening of the 1730s-40s. The evangelical church counted four enslaved persons among its first twenty-two full members. One of these was a woman named Flora or Flory, enslaved by Thomas Choate of Ipswich. On July 23, 1749 she addressed a formalized confession of sins to the congregation. In the written record of the confession, she requests forgiveness for largely undefined transgressions, and expresses regret that her flaws could have negatively impacted the revival movement. Specific phrasings within the document suggest that she may have engaged in lay preaching during the midcentury religious revivals. For further information please see Erik R. Seeman's article "'Justise Must Take Plase': Three African Americans Speak of Religion in Eighteenth-Century New England."

     

    Anna Wright

    The Middleboro, MA records include a relation of faith submitted by Anna Wright, Cuffee/Cuffy Wright's wife, racially identified in other records as Black. This formal document records Anna's spiritual biography in accordance with Congregational conventions of the time. She produced the relation when seeking full membership to the Middleboro First Church in 1796, 23 years after her husband had been admitted.

     

    Cuffee/Cuffy Wright

    Cuffee/Cuffy Wright was enslaved by Rev. Sylvanus Conant, minister of the Congregational Church in Middleboro, MA, and is referred to elsewhere as "Cuffy the African." He sought membership in the same church by submitting a formal relation of faith document in 1773 in which he detailed his spiritual journey. Cuffee/Cuffy's relation is the only such document discovered thus far that was written in the enslaved person’s own hand. The grammar, spelling, and syntax of the document vary at times, but thematically it adheres to the Calvinist theology and praxis of eighteenth-century Congregationalism. For further information, please see James F. Cooper's article "Cuffee’s ‘Relation’: A Faithful Slave Speaks Through the Project for the Preservation of Congregational Church Records." 

BIPOC Churches and Institutions

Only six Black Congregational churches were established in New England prior to the Civil War: the Dixwell Avenue Church in New Haven, CT, the Talcott Street Church in Hartford, CT, the African Union Congregational Church in Newport, RI, the Abyssinian Church in Portland, ME, the Second Church of Pittsfield, MA, and the Black church in Springfield, MA. New England’s Hidden Histories is pleased to make available online, in cooperation with the Maine Historical Society, the records of the Abyssinian Church of Portland, which have been both digitized and transcribed.

Indigenous peoples in New England maintained their own churches in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, sometimes in cooperation with a white missionary and sometimes independent of white influence or oversight. Some of the seventeenth-century congregants were known as "praying Indians" and the towns in which they came to reside were referred to as "praying towns." During the eighteenth century, predominantly Indigenous churches existed on Martha’s Vineyard, near Sandwich or Bourne, MA; at Mashpee, MA; Stockbridge, MA; Mohegan, CT; Farmington, CT; near Charlestown, RI; and at Montauk, Long Island, but few written records from these congregations are extant. Writings of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Indigenous ministers are slightly more prevalent. A single page of a marriage register for the years 1749-1771 has survived, written by the Gay Head congregation’s minister Zachary Hossueit (Wampanoag).1 The writings of Samson Occom (Mohegan), Joseph Johnson (Mohegan), William Apess (Pequot), records of missionary organizations, and the journals of Gideon Hawley are valuable sources of information about these Indigenous churches.2

Note: Materials in these records contain outdated and harmful language.


 

Natick, Mass. First Church

Natick was the location of the first of fourteen Indigenous praying towns, and both white and Indigenous ministers led this congregation between 1660 and 1719. A new Congregational church was organized in Natick in 1729 by the white minister Oliver Peabody, who was employed by the New England Company missionary society. The First Church in Natick was, before approximately 1800, simultaneously an Indigenous and English congregation. There were also a sizeable minority of congregants who were identified as Black in the earliest church registers, as well as increasing numbers of white members. Natick Indigenous people faced numerous challenges, including the deadly forced removals to Deer Island in 1675 during King Philip's War and the loss of political control of the town, but the Indigenous presence in this town and church persisted in the eighteenth century. The first volume of records includes a list of “those Indians that have Dyed from among us,” which can be used as an index to track the activities of Indigenous people in the church, many of whom had anglicized names.3

 

Portland, Maine. Abyssinian Church

The Abyssinian Church in Portland, ME was formed after Black parishioners of the Second Congregational Church in Portland petitioned the state Legislature for their own church in 1828. They had suffered discrimination at the hands of the majority-white congregation. The newly formed church was an important center for the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad. The church and society record books of the Abyssinian are currently the only records of a pre-Civil War Black Congregational church available online, and may be the only online digitized records of an antebellum Black church of any denomination.4

 

Notes  
1 Ives Goddard and Kathleen Joan Bragdon, Native Writings in Massachusett, two volumes (American Philosophical Society, 1988), 1:66-73.  
2 Samson Occom, The Collected Writings of Samson Occom, Mohegan, edited by Joanna Brooks (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); Joseph Johnson, To Do Good to My Indian Brethren: The Writings of Joseph Johnson, 1751-1776, ed. Laura J. Murray (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998); William Apess, On Our Own Ground: The Complete Writings of William Apess, a Pequot, ed. Barry O'Connell (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992); Edward E. Andrews, Native Apostles: Black and Indian Missionaries in the British Atlantic World (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013).  
3 Jean M. O’Brien, Dispossession by Degrees: Indian Land and Identity in Natick, Massachusetts, 1650–1790 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997).  
4 H.H. Price and Gerald E. Talbot, Maine's Visible Black History: The First Chronicle of Its People (Gardiner, ME: Tilbury House Publishers, 2006), 143-8.

Indigenous-Focused Records

The collections below have been divided into two categories: personal papers and manuscripts relating to Indigenous peoples, and materials written in Indigenous languages.

Note: Materials in these records contain outdated and harmful language.

 

  • Personal Papers and Manuscript Records

    Hawley, Gideon. Missionary Journals

    Minister and missionary Gideon Hawley worked for the Society for Propagating the Gospel among the Indians under the supervision of Jonathan Edwards. In 1754, Rev. Hawley accepted a position from the Society to establish a mission among the Six Nations (Haudenosaunee) on the Susquehanna, near the contemporary town of Windsor, New York. With the arrival of the Seven Years’ War, Hawley returned to Boston and accepted a commission as chaplain to Colonel Richard Gridley's regiment. In 1758, he was selected as minister by a community of approximately 300 Mashpee living in Mashpee, Massachusetts. These digital collections consist of four consecutive journal volumes spanning 1754-1806, covering Rev. Hawley's travels through Mohawk country, the Six Nations, and his ministry in Mashpee. In addition to correspondence and journals, the records include a table of "Indian statistics" and a 1756 map of Onohoguage villages in New York. These diaries contain a significant amount of material about the conditions at Mashpee and some individuals in that community.

     

    Homes, William. Diary

    References to the Wampanoags of Martha's Vineyard are frequent in the Diary of the Rev. William Homes, a teacher and minister in Chillmark, MA. Rev. Homes' own church, the Congregational Church in Chillmark, was located approximately two miles from a separate Wampanoag church of Chillmark. In the absence of records from the Wampanoag church, Rev. Homes' diary provides some insights into its history.

  • Indigenous Language Materials

    Mamusse wunneetu-panatamwe Up-Biblum God

    Also known as the "Eliot Indian Bible," this Wôpanâak-language translation of the Geneva bible was created for missionary purposes by bilingual Indigenous translators and Rev. John Eliot. The Bible, which was the first to be produced in North America, was first published solely as the New Testament in 1661; a full version followed in 1663. As part of the Corporation for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England, Eliot and others had already translated catechisms, the Gospel of Matthew, Genesis, and Psalms into the Massachusett language in the 1650s. Mamusse wunneetu-panatamwe Up-Biblum God is written in a phoneticized version of Wôpanâak, an Eastern Algonquian language of the Wampanoag homelands which extends through present-day Massachusetts. Rev. Eliot achieved his translations after many years spent learning the language, with the assistance of Native interpreters Cockenoe (Montaukett), John Sassamon (Massachusett), Job Nesuton (Nipmuc), and James Printer (Nipmuc). Versions of this resource have already been digitized by the Internet Archive. The Congregational Library also physically holds a 2nd edition printed in 1680.

BIPOC in Majority-White Church Records

This section is designed to facilitate finding of congregants and clergy of color in majority-white Congregational church and association/consociation records, including those who are solely identified in member rolls, baptisms, marriages, and death records. Various terms were commonly used to identify BIPOC church members or applicants within these records, including "negro," "mulatto," "Indian," "black," "colored," "people of colour," and "col'd."

In addition to these vital-statistical records, there are also Congregational association records from North Hartford which include several references to Black abolitionist minister Rev. James W. C. Pennington (1807–1870). There is also a rare reference to a slavery transaction within both the church and parish record books of the First Church in York, Maine from the 1730s.

Note: Materials in these records contain outdated and harmful language.

 

Antislavery and Abolitionist Materials

These resources include the digitized manuscript record books of the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society, as well as a listing of short-form print materials relating to abolitionist societies which are physically available at the Congregational Library & Archives. These include publications by local and national abolitionist organizations, society minutes and convention proceedings, and copies of lectures and sermons delivered by and for these associations. Some of these records contain references to the "colonization" movement, which sought to relocate both free and emancipated African Americans to West Africa, controversial even at the time for its segregationist ideology. The catalog records for these collections serve as a preliminary starting point for research, but more materials are available in the library collections and, in many cases, are also available online as works in the public domain.

Note: Materials in these records contain outdated and harmful language.

 

Further Reading

The following bibliography includes three sections: (1) links to online articles, (2) catalog links to published materials physically available at the Congregational Library, and (3) other volumes available elsewhere. These resources are intended to provide additional context for each of the sections in this research guide.