The First African Presbyterian Church was officially established in May 1807, or at least the work of organizing the congregation commenced. By June 1807 twenty-two persons – nine men and thirteen women – were organized in the church. In William Catto’s history of the First African Church published in 1857, he informs us that only four Presbyterian churches existed in Philadelphia the year prior, in 1806, and there were no more than 1,000 members. Not only was this the first African American church in Philadelphia, it was also the first in America. Although the church was established in 1807, it was in the unconventional sense – they did not yet have a building.
|Rev. John Gloucester, first pastor of the First African Presbyterian Church, painted by J. Robinson; Engraved by B. Tanner & W.R. Jones. Philadelphia: Published by J. How, August 1st 1823. Courtesy of the Library Company, Graphics Collection.|
William Catto states that at the beginning of the 19th century conversation began “among a few colored people in Philadelphia whose preferences were Presbyterian, of raising a Presbyterian Church.” (Catto, 64) They realized that this would be no small effort, in part because there were so few Presbyterians in Philadelphia, but they were determined that their smallness in number would not discourage them. William Catto affirms that this small number of African Americans had no reason to leave their existing congregations due to ill treatment based on their color. He furthermore asserts that, “Presbyterians are remarkable for their regard to each other, without respect to distinctions – it is a characteristic of God’s people.” (Catto 19)
The people heading the effort had zeal and energy, but they needed a leader, and they found him in a former slave named John Gloucester. This man’s freedom was purchased by Rev. Gideon Blackburn of Tennessee, so that he could be educated and confirmed minister. In all written accounts John Gloucester is portrayed as a passionate, educated, and pious man. The story of his missionary work is an intriguing one and perhaps only rightly told anecdotally by William Catto:
“He [John Gloucester] first commenced his missionary efforts by preaching in private houses; but such were the number of people that attended his ministry, that in a very short time no private house could be found to contain the people that flocked to hear him expound God’s Word…The result of this success led to street preaching. He notified the people that, at least in clear weather, he should preach at the corner of Seventh and Shippen (formerly Bainbridge) Streets; and, when the weather was not favorable, he had obtained the use of a school-house near by .” (Catto 26)
Thus originated the organization of the First African Church, and a few years later, in 1810, the cornerstone of their new church building was laid at Seventh and Shippen (currently Bainbridge) Streets. The church was officially dedicated May 31, 1811.
|1798 Map of Philadelphia, published by William Russel Birch. Courtesy of the Library Company, Graphics Collection.||First African Presbyterian Church, east side of Seventh Street, watercolor by Benjamin Ridgway Evans, 1884. Courtesy of the Library Company, Graphics Collection.|
The building was an architecturally modest two-story brick structure. Catto notes: “It is true that the building was not in any way remarkable for architectural taste; it was a plain brick, sixty feet long by thirty-three feet wide, without any ornament about it either inside or out, but in this respect the people did what they could…(Catto 58)” By the 1854, the interior was deemed “dull and somber.” Following the trends of other churches in the city and the belief that remodeled churches were more popular places to worship, the church planned for a renovation of the interior. And according to Catto: “Philadelphia, it is well known, by all who are acquainted with the fact, contains a colored population of intelligence and wealth as can be found in any city in the Union, and possessed of considerable taste.”(Catto 98) Another reason to remodel was due to insufficient ventilation and lighting. Records indicate that the remodeling cost $1,422 to improve the church and was dedicated on May 7, 1854.
Since its establishment at Seventh and Shippen Streets the church has relocated at least five times. In the most recent locations, the First African Church has merged with other organizations for a variety of reasons, including financial hardship and decrease in attendance.
The following timeline charts the church’s move westward.
Corner of 7th and Shippen (presently Bainbridge) Streets and private houses
7th and Shippen (presently Bainbridge) Streets
Worshipped in a hall on Lombard Street near Broad Street
17th and Fitzwater Streets
18th and Christian Streets
42nd Street and Girard Avenue
|First African Presbyterian Church at 17th and Moyamensing Streets. Image published in William P. White, The Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, 1895, courtesy of PAB.||First African Presbyterian Church at 42nd Street and Girard Avenue, photograph taken December 11, 2005 by Jamie Barbaccia.|
It is evident from the timeline and from the patterns of growth in Philadelphia that as the population moved westward, so did the church. The patterns of growth in South Philadelphia, however, are mostly in response to settlement of different ethnic groups such as the Italians and Jews. As these minorities moved into South Philadelphia the African American population was pushed further west. The Jewish neighborhoods were amassed along the Delaware River in an area known as Southwark. The Italians were even more concentrated in South Philadelphia, settling immediately to the west of the Jewish district. According Fredric Miller, more than other ethnic groups, the living situation for African Americans was dictated by discrimination and segregation. Beginning in the early part of the 20th Century, blacks gradually moved from South Philadelphia into lower North Philadelphia and northern West Philadelphia (Miller 32,33).
References for research on First African Presbyterian Church:
Catto, William T. A Semi-Centenary Discourse, Delivered in the First African Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, on the Fourth Sabbath of May, 1857: With A History of the Church from Its First Organization. Philadelphia: Joseph M. Wilson, 1857.
Hammonds, Kenneth A. Historical Directory of Presbyterian Churches and Presbyteries of Greater Philadelphia: Related to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and its Antecedents 1690-1990. Philadelphia: Presbyterian Historical Society, 1993.
Miller, Fredric M., et al. Still Philadelphia: A Photographic History, 1890-1940. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1983.
White, William P. The Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. A Camera and Pen Sketch of Each Presbyterian Church and Institution in the City. Philadelphia: Allen, Lane & Scott, 1895.
“14th Annual Meeting of Presbyterian Council of Ministers and Laymen”. Pamphlet, 1907.
Click here to continue reading about Minority and Immigrant Presbyterian Churches in Philadelphia.