Dragon downspouts on the cupola of Old South Church in Boston


Middle Passage Sunday - In Memoriam

August 23, 2015
Remembering Our Ancestors
  • Rev. Nancy S. Taylor

“If the Atlantic were to dry up, it would reveal a scattered pathway of human bones, African bones, marking the various routes of the Middle Passage.” - John Henrik Clark, Historian

This morning we gathered to remember, to name, and honor those early members of this church,
who in the 1600’s and the 1700’s arrived here via the Middle Passage https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Middle_Passage, who survived the ordeal; those who, by virtue of their membership in this church, are family to us: our great, great, great Grannies and Grandpas. These our all of our ancestors for in the church, water is thicker than blood. The waters of baptism are thicker than blood.

To my knowledge these early African members of Old South Church have never before been recognized as a group, wept over, asked pardon of, eulogized or memorialized as we did on Sunday.

We know too little about them. What parts of Africa from which they were stolen. What each was doing the day, the hour, the minute he or she was kidnapped. We don’t know if Thomas had ticklish feet. Of if Cato was a fabulous artist or a great leader. We don’t know Scipio’s real name, the one his mother gave him. We don’t know anything about Philisia’s family: whether she had children home in Africa, or here, or whether her children survived childhood, or whether any of us are her blood descendants. We know too little.

But we know somethings. We know for a fact that each one suffered confinement and chains, perishing cold and sweltering heat, profound grief, poverty and untold indignities. We know they were terrorized and dehumanized. We know they were treated as things, commodities. We know that in their post-African lives there was precious little comfort and terrible hardship.

We also know this: Puritans did not bestow church membership easily or lightly. Which means that these African members knew their Bible. They knew, for instance, the story of Exodus in which God, through Moses, demands that Pharaoh free the enslaved Israelites. They knew this foundational story in which the Divine Heart is revealed. A story in which it is revealed that the Divine Heart abhors slavery, despises it. And more: the story reveals that the God of Love will do harm, will wreak terrible havoc upon, and cause great and terrible suffering, to those who dare enslave others.

It is little wonder that the earliest known Black abolitionists in this country hailed from Puritan Massachusetts. Little wonder that African members of Old South Church (our own grannies and grandpas) were at the heart of the Black abolitionist movement. No wonder that African members like Phillis Wheatley who was steeped in scripture, took it upon herself to reformulate Puritan religious ideas into a clear, erudite, biblically informed and searing critique of slavery.

In her poetry Phillis Wheatley warned that America would fail in the revolutionary wars of the 1770’s if it continued to enslave Africans. The practice of slavery, she asserted, was depraved and loathsome to God. And woe to and pox upon any people who practiced it! For look what happened, she pointed, to the Egyptians.

A word about Old South Church’s records. The names, as you seem them printed below, are exactly as they were hand-written and entered into our ancient ledgers. Each name followed by a period. Each with the date of membership or baptism. (I have simply lifted from the complete records only the names of African members, identifiable by the lack of a last name.)

While Old South Church’s records are excellent—better than the records of most churches—they are, nevertheless imperfect. There are gaps. In one instance, thirty years with no records at all. In another case, during the Siege of Boston when British Dragoons occupied and desecrated our Meetinghouse, there is a full ten-to-eleven year gap.

So these names printed below do not represent all of our African members… but most. As you read through the names, you might ask their pardon for the sufferings inflicted upon them and say a prayer for the peaceful repose of their souls. Our African grannies and grandpas:

March 2, 1696 Lydia.
July 30, 1710 Sarah.
December 16, 1711 Margaret.
February 1, 1718 Thomas.
February 26, 1720 Jane.
July 7, 1728 Maria.
August 20, 1738 James.
September 16, 1739 Rose.
March 1, 1740 Scipio.
Ann. (a free negro)
April 26, 1741 Cornwall.
July 18, 1742 Thomas.
September 9, 1742 Simon.
May 19, 1745 Dinah.
November 29, 1748 Julia.
June 16, 1745 Flora.
April 18, 1756 Bristol.
August 8, 1756 Deborah.
October 26, 1760 Newton.
August 18, 1771 Phillis.
January 5, 1772 David.
September 12, 1773 Moses.
July 2, 1775 Peter.
January 23, 1775 Robert.
September 26, 1790 Deborah Sewell. (a free person)
February 5, 1797 Quickly Oliver. (a free person)

December 7, 1718 Toby.
December 24, 1721 Mingo.
March 18, 1721 Pompey.
May 19, 1723 Worcester.
February 28, 1724 Elizabeth.
November 21, 1725 Towerhill
June 5, 1726 Cornwall.
July 24, 1726 Deborah.
February 14, 1726 Argalus.
May 7, 1727 Maria.
September 3, 1727 Brill.
January 13, 1728-8 Sarah.
May 11, 1735 Richard.
August 8, 1736 Scipio.
March 9, 1739-40 Phillis.
November 23, 1740 Simon
February 22, 1740-1 Ann.
April 12, 1741 Maria.
May 24, 1741 Julia.
October 11, 1741 Scipio.
January 24, 1741-2 Thomas.
January 31, 1741-2 Pompey.
March 14, 1741-2 Dinah.
May 16, 1742 Lucy.
September 12, 1742 Dinah.
June 12, 1743 Cato.
October 7, 1744 Baker.
June 15, 1745 Scipio.
December 15, 1751 Flora.
June 7, 1752 Patience.
September 9, 1753 Bristol.
October 21, 1753 Venus.
January 18, 1756 Lucas.
January 25, 1756 Juba.
May 9, 1756 Dinah.
October 3, 1756 Hagar.
January 21, 1764 Fidelia.
June 1, 1767 Peter.

For further reading: