Text by Prof. Richard J. Boles, Department of History, Oklahoma State University. Webpages created and organized by Jules Thomson, Associate Archivist, The Congregational Library & Archives.
New England’s Hidden Histories is pleased to highlight a number of records relating to Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC) 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, Native, 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 secure, archive, 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 Native American 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 finding aid below.
Interracial and Separate Churches
During the colonial era, African Americans and American Indians 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 Indian 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). African Americans slowly grained 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 African Americans 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 African American 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 African Americans 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
Congregational churches were founded for and sometimes by Indigenous people in Massachusetts during the seventeenth century, and other Indian-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 Indians 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 Anglo-American school teachers, missionaries, and ministers in these communities, including the Rev. Gideon Hawley in Mashpee, Massachusetts.9
Using this Guide
This multi-part finding guide is designed to facilitate the identification of early archival sources in the CLA's collections that relate to Black, Indigenous, and other people of color within the Congregational milieue. 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.
Sources are subdivided into 6 categories:
- Firsthand Writings by BIPOC
- BIPOC Churches and Institutions
- Indigenous-Focused Records
- BIPOC in Majority-White Church Records
- Antislavery and Abolitionist Materials
- Further Reading
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, Ohio: 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: Harvard University Press, 1999); David J. Silverman, Faith and Boundaries: Colonists, Christianity, and Community among the Wampanoag Indians (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
8 Edward E. Andrews, Native Apostles: Black and Indian Missionaries in the British Atlantic World (Cambridge: 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: Cambridge University Press, 1997).
Please note: New England’s Hidden Histories, and this initiative within it, are works in progress. We are actively seeking out more primary source material relative to the early Congregational experience of BIPOC. New England’s Hidden histories is formally partnered with most of the largest historical repositories in New England, and hopes to add further resources to this section. Please check back regularly, and contact us with any suggestions concerning relevant primary source material.
These digital resources have been made possible in part by the Council on Library and Information Resources, through a Digitizing Hidden Collections grant.
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this resource do not necessarily represent those of the Council on Library and Information Resources.
The New England's Hidden Histories Program has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Democracy demands wisdom.
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this program, do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.