African American Churches of Beacon Hill
Between 1805 and 1840, five black churches were organized on the north slope of Beacon Hill. These churches were the spiritual centers of Boston’s 19th century African American community, but they were also central to the political and social lives of black Bostonians. At these churches, faith directly informed action as men and women were sheltered from slave catchers, abolitionists fought to end slavery in America, and physical or material needs were satisfied.
Prior to the formation of independent black churches in Boston, many African Americans – both free and enslaved - attended predominantly white churches. First Church, Second Church, Third Church, First Baptist, King’s Chapel, and Brattle Street Church were the only churches in Boston before 1700. Dozens of known African Americans attended Boston’s Puritan churches and some became members. For example, an African American named Mathew, son of Dorcas, was baptized into the fellowship in 1652. An African American women Jane was admitted as a member of First Church in 1690.
Throughout the 18th century, African Americans were likewise connected to other white churches, including Hollis Street Church (Congregational) and Trinity Church (Anglican). George Middleton was baptized and married at Trinity Church. While many African Americans continued in their connections with these churches, conditions tended to worsen and not improve over time. In earlier periods, slaves and servants probably sat in church with the families they served. After the Revolution and after the end of slavery in Massachusetts in 1783, segregated seating became a more practiced norm. By 1800 the number of African Americans in Boston had increased, as had exclusionary and segregation practices in churches. These factors influenced the establishment of the first independent black churches in Boston
The first African American church in Boston was formed in 1805. The First African Baptist Church was founded under the leadership of Thomas Paul, but in conjunction with the white First and Second Baptist Churches of Boston. They built their meeting house on Smith Court and met there from 1806 to 1898. Read more about this church, and the important political and social events that occurred there, in the African Meeting House section of this website.
The next black church to be founded in Boston was a Methodist Episcopal Church. In the early 1800s, a number of African Americans were attending the Bromfield Street Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1818, this church helped to establish a separate black Methodist church by hiring the Rev. Samuel Snowden. This church became known as the Revere Street Methodist Episcopal Church. They met at various locations until a building was purchased by the New England Methodist Conference on Revere (originally May) Street in 1823. This church moved in 1835 to a larger building on Revere Street. The Rev. Snowden, like the ministers who followed him, was actively engaged in antislavery activities. David Walker, antislavery advocate and author of the Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World and Expressly to the Coloured Citizens of the United States, was also a member of this church. The Revere Street Church building, which was owned by the Bromfield Street Church, was sold in 1903, and the Revere Street Church was left without a place to meet. They moved into a church in the South End in 1911 and again into another building in 1949. This church remains today on Columbus Avenue and is known as the Union United Methodist Church.
The First African Methodists Episcopal Bethel Society of Boston, later known as the Charles Street AME Church, was organized in November 1833 under the leadership of itinerant minister Noah Caldwell Cannon; it was incorporated in 1838. This church grew slowly in its early years, but they purchased a building in 1844 on Anderson Street and remained there until 1876. Read more about this church in the Charles Street Meeting House section of this website.
The Columbus Avenue AME Zion Church, as it is known today, was founded in 1838 when seventeen people withdrew from the Revere Street Methodist Church. They associated themselves with the African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AME Zion) denomination, which was led by African Americans. The Rev. Jehiel C. Beman, their first minister, was appointed at the Annual Conference in 1838. Beman was also a prominent abolitionist. By October 1840, the church had over 140 members and in 1841 they moved into a small chapel on West Center (now Anderson) Street. Eliza A. Gardner, who was a prominent abolitionist leader, was a member of this church for over 75 years. The church moved to North Russell Street in 1866 and to Columbus Avenue in the South End in 1902.
Twelfth Baptist Church was founded in 1840 by a group of 36 individuals, including the Rev. George H. Black, who left the First African Baptist Church (African Meeting House). The reasons for this church division are not clear. Twelfth Baptist struggled for many years until the Rev. Leonard A. Grimes became minister in 1848. Grimes was born free in Virginia and he had worked in Washington D.C. on the Underground Railroad. Before coming to Massachusetts, he served two years in prison in Virginia for helping seven slaves escape to Canada. Unsurprisingly, Twelfth Baptist Church was also known as “The Fugitive Slave Church.” Scores of self-emancipated slaves received aid from Twelfth Baptist Church, and many chose to remain with this congregation. Lewis and Harriet Hayden, Shadrach Minkins, Anthony Burns, Thomas Sims, and John S. Rock were all members of Twelfth Baptist. When Anthony Burns was arrested under the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, Grimes helped organize resistance to his pending deportation to the south. Grimes also led the effort to buy Burns out of slavery after he had been returned to the south. Twelfth Baptist church constructed a building at 43-47 Phillips Street between 1850 and 1855, and they remained there until 1906. A small portion of their second church edifice (built 1895-6) is still visible between modern apartment buildings. A plague on the corner of Grove and Phillips Streets marks the place where Leonard Grimes lived, diagonally across from his church. Grimes remained pastor until his death in 1874. Twelfth Baptist Church relocated to Shawmut Avenue in the South End in 1906 where it remains to this day.
Collins, Leo W. This is Our Church: The Seven Societies of the First Church in Boston, 1630-2005. Published by the Society of the First Church in Boston.
Hayden, Robert C. Faith, Culture, and Leadership: A History of the Black Church in Boston. Boston: Boston Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 1983.
Jacobs, Donald M. ed. Courage and Conscience: Black and White Abolitionists in Boston. Bloomington: Indiana University Press for the Boston Athenauem, 1993.
“Historic Resource Study Boston African American National Historic Site” by Kathryn Grover and Janine V. da Silva
Did You Know?
In 1783, Massachusetts became the first state in the country to officially abolish slavery, after two slaves, Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman and Qwok Walker, successfully sued in separate cases for their freedom.