A Church Built on Racism
Many of the early members of St. Peter’s Church were influential Philadelphians—merchants, lawyers, generals, politicians. Many were also slaveholders. St. Peter’s Church was built and financed in large part by these early members, whose wealth was directly or indirectly connected to slavery.
Early church members Robert Morris and Thomas Willing were engaged in the slave trade. Other members held slaves, including John Cadwalader, Samuel Powel, and Benjamin Chew, the patriarch of one of the largest slave-holding families in Philadelphia. Chew kept enslaved Africans at his elegant townhouse on South Third Street, at his country estate, Cliveden, in Germantown, and on his vast plantations in Maryland.
Many African Americans, both free and enslaved, were baptized at St. Peter’s, especially during the time of the Great Awakening. While the Anglican clergy were happy to welcome to Christianity people whom they saw as heathens, they were also concerned that a message of liberation might cause problems for their many slave-holding parishioners. Enslaved people were brought to church to learn about being obedient servants, not to consider the ideal of freedom.
One of the enslaved people who attended St. Peter’s Church was Absalom Jones. After the sale of his mother and six siblings in 1762, Jones was brought to Philadelphia by Benjamin Wynkoop, a St. Peter’s member. Jones eventually bought his freedom and attended St. George’s Methodist Church in Old City. It was there he got to know Richard Allen, a former enslaved African of St. Peter’s member Benjamin Chew. Jones and Allen founded the Free African Society in 1787, a benevolent organization that provided religious services and aid to free Africans.
In 1792, Jones and Allen were among a group of black members of St. George’s who were told they had to move to the new segregated section of the gallery. They walked out en masse. Jones later was ordained as the first African American Episcopal priest and became rector of the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas. Allen went on to found the African Methodist Episcopal Church at Sixth and Lombard Streets.
A Divided Congregation
As the Civil War approached, St. Peter’s parishioners were divided with conflicting philosophies, personal alliances, and political sympathies. Parishioner and vestryman Sidney George Fisher was a prodigious writer; one of his publications was The Laws of Race, published in 1860. Fisher wrote:
“The white race must of necessity, by reason of its superiority, govern the negro whenever the two live together….[The negro] makes no spontaneous moral or intellectual progress, whether a slave or free…. He must therefore be governed, guided, cared for; and slavery which gives him a governor and caretaker does not oppress, but elevates him.…We therefore maintain slavery, not because we do not love liberty, but because we believe the negro unfit for it.”
Many parishioners had Southern family members or business connections and agreed with Fisher’s vehement tract. Alzono Potter, then bishop of Pennsylvania, did not speak out against the evils of slavery, and instead tried to encourage harmony within the church. St. Peter’s Church remained divided, numbers of parishioners dwindled, and there was even talk of closing the church.
This history is an excerpt from St. Peter’s Church: Faith in Action for 250 Years, a book written by Cordelia Frances Biddle, Elizabeth S. Browne, and Alan J. Heavens, with Charles P. Peitz, editor.