Identifying America's First African-American Seminary Graduate

09 Jun 2024 in

Richard H. Taylor, Congregational Church Historian

Charles Bowles Jr., a pastor in far northern New York near the Saint Lawrence River, is someone I discovered recently while researching pastors of Congregational churches in the Middle Atlantic area before the Civil War. 

To me, he was just one of many names in this area of Yankee New England settlers, until one church's history said, “He was a colored man.” I guess I had assumed something else. And part of me wants to wish that sentence would not be any more surprising than one saying “he had brown eyes.” But that is not the world we live in. And this is a story of a man in a leadership position in what we can assume was a predominantly white community before the Civil War.

As I began researching his name, I found that he graduated from Bangor Theological Seminary in Maine in 1823, and served as a pastor in the Congregational Church in Bridgewater, New Hampshire after graduation before moving to New York. In New York he was pastor of Congregational churches in Hopkinton, South Canton, and West Potsdam. And only one of those references mentioned his race. But there is more history here. Until now, most sources have reported that Theodore Wright, who graduated from Princeton Seminary five or six years later, was the first Black seminary graduate. Now Bowles takes that place. Like many other Congregational ministers in the time of the Plan of Union and the accommodation plan who joined Presbyteries outside of New England while often continuing to pastor Congregational churches, Bowles took Presbyterian standing in 1834. We don't know the exact years he served the three churches mentioned. He also lived in or near Chenango County (farther south) for a few years. We do know he died back up north in Pitcairn, New York, in the fall of 1850.

Dr. Richard Boles, a noted scholar on religion and African-American communities, pointed me to an 1852 biography of Charles Bowles Sr. (1761-1843) a Revolutionary War veteran who was ordained as a Free Will Baptist minister in his mid-fifties, by the time his son was a teenager or older. The father served mostly in Vermont, but in 1837 was invited by his son to come to upstate New York to evangelize to some of the new residents in the frontier wilderness.

We would welcome any more information that might be found about Charles Jr.'s life.

Charles Jr. was one of four known African-American Congregational and Presbyterian ministers before the Civil War who gave their service to predominantly white churches in northern New England and upstate New York.

Lemuel Haynes is the most famous. Also a Revolutionary War veteran, he was ordained in 1785, and served briefly in Connecticut and then in West Rutland, Vermont, for thirty years. He once commented that it took that long for the people to realize he was Black, though he used another word. He then served in Manchester, Vermont; and South Granville, New York.

Alexander L. Twilight was first licensed by the Champlain Presbytery in New York, a Presbytery that was formed with one Presbyterian church and many clergy serving Congregational churches. He was later ordained as a Congregationalist, and served as pastor in Brownington, Vermont, and as the head of a residential high school serving Orleans County.

The third was Samuel R. Ward, who served in South Butler and Cortlandville, New York.

All of them were highly gifted. Haynes was the first African-American to be ordained by any American denomination and the first to receive an honorary degree from a college. Twilight was the first African American to graduate from an American college, and the only one to be elected to a State Legislature before the Civil War. Ward was the first African-American to be the head of a labor organization, and the first to nominated for a national office by an American political party. And now we can add Charles Bowles Jr., the first African-American to graduate from a theological seminary.

What wonderful courageous pioneers they were. For their lives, thanks be to God!


Learn More...

Over some decades I published several directories of Congregational churches. To fill in our histories we need to know the people in those places. A good place to begin is with the names of their pastors. The best places to obtain their names are the annual Congregational Yearbooks that began in 1854, and, before that, the minutes of state general bodies that include similar reports.

In New England we are blessed with much research published over the centuries. A good summary is Emerson Davis' Biographical Sketches of the Congregational Pastors in New England, which the Congregational Library & Archives has posted online. However, Congregationalism outside New England does not have such good sources. So I have been working on putting together lists of our pastors outside New England.

Minutes for the General Association of New York, from its 1834 forming convention do exist, but are not available online. Only one year (1843) is available for purchase.

Other good sources are the American County histories, particularly those published in the twenty-five years after the 1876 American centennial. Sometimes they include lengthy histories of churches, sometimes short articles with names of pastors, sometimes churches are not mentioned.

So I began my search in Samuel W. Durant's 1878 History of Saint Lawrence County New York. There I found Bowles name on a list of pastors of the Congregational Church in Hopkinton, New York, but with no dates. But the history of the church in West Potsdam identified Bowles as the first pastor and mentioned he was “a colored man” (p. 257). Knowing how rare that would be, I went searching for him elsewhere.

The first place I looked was on the Congregational Library & Archives' web posting of Davis. There I found Bowles' service in the Bridgewater, New Hampshire Church, and his graduation and its date from Bangor Seminary. It also indicated he then went to this section of New York, so I knew I had the same person. (The History also indicates that Charles Bowles was the first postmaster in East Pitcairn, New York, beginning January 15, 1850. This could be our pastor, or his son, Charles H. Bowles, who also lived there and later gave the land for a Union Church building.)

Because many Congregationalists in New York became Presbyterians, I also checked Willis Judson Beecher and Mary A. Beecher's 1888 Index of Presbyterian Ministers... It lists all the clergy in the main Presbyterian denomination from 1706 to 1881. There I found Bowles name (under two cross-referenced spellings) and the pages where he could be found from 1834 to 1851 in the Minutes of the General Assemblies (New School). It indicated that the 1851 issue reported on his death. (Unfortunately many of the General Assembly online minutes do not include all the church and clergy listings in the originals.)

When my purchased copy of the 1843 General Association minutes arrived I found that Bowles also served in the South Canton (later Crarys Mill Church) in New York. That Church had been named in the County history book, but no list of pastors was included.

Kyle Roberts put me in touch with Richard Boles who directed me to the book on Charles' father, The Life, Labors and Travels of Elder Charles Bowles of the Free Will Baptist Denomination by Elder John W. Lewis (Watertown, 1852) that is also online. It told how Charles Jr. had encouraged his father to follow him to New York, identifies that Charles Jr. died in Pitcairn in the Fall of 1850, and confirms that his son was still living there.