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, the Talcott Street Church in Hartford, the African Union Congregational Church in Newport, the Abyssinian Church in Portland, ME, the Second Church of Pittsfield, MA, and the Black church in Springfield. 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. We hope soon to also offer digitized records from the Talcott Street Church and the African Union Congregational Church of Newport.
Native Americans in New England maintained their own churches in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, sometimes in cooperation with a white missionary and sometimes completely 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, Mass., at Mashpee, Mass., Stockbridge, Mass., Mohegan, Conn., Farmington, Conn., near Charlestown, R.I., 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
Natick was the location of the first of fourteen Indian praying towns, and both white and Indian 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 a Native American 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 Native 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 Native Americans in the church, many of whom had anglicized names.3
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 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
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, edited by Laura J. Murray (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998); William Apess, On Our Own Ground: The Complete Writings of William Apess, a Pequot, edited by Barry O'Connell (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992); Edward E. Andrews, Native Apostles: Black and Indian Missionaries in the British Atlantic World (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013).
3 Jean M. O’Brien, Dispossession by Degrees: Indian Land and Identity in Natick, Massachusetts, 1650–1790 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).
4 H.H. Price and Gerald E. Talbot, Maine's Visible Black History: The First Chronicle of Its People (Gardiner, Maine: Tilbury House Publishers, 2006), 143-148.