First African Presbyterian Church (Philadelphia, Pa.)
Records, 1809-1989
Finding Aid to Record Group 314
3.42 cu. ft.

Presbyterian Historical Society
425 Lombard St.
Philadelphia, PA 19147-1516

RESTRICTIONS ON ACCESS

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ADMINISTRATIVE HISTORY

First African Presbyterian Church, founded in 1807, was the first black Presbyterian congregation in the United States. In 1809, First African became a chartered organization. Many of its pastors have been central figures in the history of black Presbyterians.

John Gloucester, a slave and noted preacher born in Tennessee in 1776, arrived in Philadelphia in 1807. His appearance coincided with the search by the Evangelical Society of Philadelphia for a black pastor to lead the black Presbyterian congregation for which it was trying to collect sufficient funds to build a church. While waiting for his freedom and for the funds to materialize, Gloucester began to gather a congregation and to preach in a house on Gaskill Street. His congregation quickly grew too large for the house and he moved it outdoors to the corner of 7th and Shippen (now Bainbridge) Streets, where the First African Presbyterian Church was built and dedicated in May of 1811. Gloucester preached his first official sermons to a congregation of 123 people, including Cato Freeman, James Prosser, Jacob Craig, and Quommany Clarkson. Gloucester served the church until his death in 1822. John Gardner and various supply ministers succeeded him.

In 1859, the congregation called the Rev. Jonathan C. Gibbs. He remained pastor until 1865. R. B. Johns succeeded Gibbs, leaving First African in 1879.

In 1879, the congregation met and agreed to move to a more convenient location. The building at 7th and Shippen was sold and until 1891 services were held in temporary spaces at 16th and Lombard Streets. In the early 1890s, the congregation moved to its new house of worship at 17th and Fitzwater Streets.

From the departure of Johns until 1900, First African was served by a succession of short-term pastors. At that time a call was extended to the Rev. John W. Lee, who remained with First African until 1917. In addition to fulfilling his pastoral responsibilities, he conducted a tent ministry in South Philadelphia and began the first vacation Bible school for black children. In 1917, he was appointed field secretary of the Board of Home Missions. He was succeeded by Charles S. Freeman, who left First African in 1928. During Freeman's tenure, the membership of the church grew to over 500 people.

After the difficult years of the Depression, the congregation prospered again under the leadership of Sudor Q. Mitchell, who became the first African American to serve as a member of the Board of Foreign Missions. In 1943, the congregation moved again, this time to the old Tabor Presbyterian Church building at 18th and Christian Streets. After Mitchell's departure in 1947, the congregation called Shelton B. Waters to the pulpit. Waters presided over the congregation's move to 42nd Street and Girard Avenue in 1957; despite extensive renovations, the old Tabor Church building had been declared unsafe.

Waters left First African in 1969 to take an executive position at the synod level. Kermit E. Overton, who had served in Africa as a fraternal worker, succeeded him. He became the leader of Black Presbyterians United and was a founder of the journals Periscope and Periscope 2. During the 1970s and 1980s, he served as Philadelphia Presbytery moderator and held important posts within the synod and the General Assembly.

SCOPE AND CONTENT NOTE

This collection documents First African Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, from 1809 to 1989, and primarily consists of minutes, registers, and financial records. Included as well are the original charter and a photostatic copy, several annual reports, historical sketches and notes, and a few photographic images of some of the church's various buildings.

The collection is arranged as follows:

    SERIES I: CHARTER, 1809

    SERIES II: MINUTES, 1895-1989

    SERIES III: REGISTERS, 1872-1968

    SERIES IV: FINANCIAL RECORDS, 1901-1919, 1952-1960

    SERIES V: ANNUAL REPORTS, 1963-1972

    SERIES VI: HISTORICAL SKETCHES AND NOTES, 1910, ca. 1947

    SERIES VII: PHOTOGRAPHIC IMAGES, 1895

NOTES TO THE RESEARCHER

Because of its size, the original charter of the First African Presbyterian Church is housed in the map case. It can be retrieved with its call number, Map Case 27:17. This collection includes a photostatic copy for the convenience of researchers and the protection of the original.

The Ladies' Gloucester Memorial Society minutes for Sept. 1910-May 1925 and the Treasurer's account book for 1901-1919 are in fragile condition and should not be photo duplicated.

Related collections include RG 313, records of the Evangelical Society of Philadelphia.

Researchers should also consult the Presbyterian Historical Society catalog for published histories and other holdings.

Miscellaneous correspondence and accounts, 1832-1846, and bulletins of the First African Presbyterian Church are housed at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Collection processed and finding aid prepared: September 1992
Stephanie Muntone, Processing Archivist

Materials added, collection reprocessed, and finding aid revised: May 2006
Bill Brock, Collection Management Archivist

Box	Folder	Description
1	1	Finding Aid to Record Group 314

		SERIES I:  CHARTER, 1809

	2	Charter (Photostat), 1809

		SERIES II:  MINUTES, 1895-1989

	3	Session, Sept. 1910-March 1926
	4	Session, April 1926-April 1937
	5	Session, June 1937-Jan.1954
	6	Session, Feb. 1954-Jan. 1960
	7	Congregation, 1907-1919* 
	8	Congregation, 1922-1925
	9	Congregation, 1943-1944*
	** two volumes currently back in custody of congregation
	10	Trustees, 1914-1920
	11	Trustees, Dec. 1955-1971
	12	Deacons, April 1953-April 1956
	13	Deacons, June 1956-Sept. 1963
	14	Deacons, Nov. 1963-May 1974

2	1	Ladies Gloucester Memorial Society, Sept. 1910-May 1925
	2	Gloucester Memorial Society, June 1948-1950
	3	Gloucester Memorial Society, 1959-1962
	4	Ladies Junior Auxiliary/Ladies Auxiliary to the Board of Trustees, Oct. 1913-1915, 1918, 1920, 1922-1954
	5	Deaconess Society/Deaconess Board, Jan. 1918-March-June 1930
	6	Deaconess Board, Jan.-Dec.1930-1950
	7	Missionary Society, Dec. 1932-March 1941
	8	Missionary Society, April 1941-1954
	9	Missionary Society/Womens Association, 1955-1989
	10	Christian Endeavor Union, 1895-1897, 1900-1903
		(loose related material includes an 1899 letter; several completed pledge cards, 1903-1904, n.d.; a March 8, 1904 note from the Prayer Meeting Committee; 
and an undated Philadelphia Christian Endeavor Union bulletin) 11 Sunday School, 1896-1904, June 1924 12 Sesquicentennial Steering Committee, 1956-1957 SERIES III: REGISTERS, 1872-1968 3 1 Register of members, 1872-1948 2 Register of members, 1917-1927; baptisms, 1912-1946; and deaths, 1918-1952 3 Register of deceased members, 1918-1956 4 Register of members, baptisms, marriages, and deaths, 1949-1968 SERIES IV: FINANCIAL RECORDS, 1901-1919, 1952-1960 4 1 Treasurer's account book, 1901-1919 2 Account book for giving, March 1910-March 1912 3 Account book for free will and envelope giving, Jan. 4, Nov 1913-Feb. 1919 4 Account book for giving, 1918 5 1 Account book for weekly offerings, membership listed by envelope number, [1953-1954?] 2 Account book for weekly offerings, membership listed by envelope number, 1955-1956 (includes 1954-1955 Trustees attendance) 3 Account book for weekly offerings, membership listed by envelope number, 1957 6 1 Account book for weekly offerings, membership listed by envelope number, book 1 of 2, 1958-1960 2 Account book for weekly offerings, membership listed by envelope number, book 2 of 2, 1958-1960 3 Organization account book, 1952-Jan. 1, 1957 SERIES V: ANNUAL REPORTS, 1963-1972 7 1 Annual Reports of Christian Education, 1963-1964, 1966 Annual Reports for Boards and Agencies, 1968-1969 Annual Report for Boards, Agencies and Judicatories, 1970 Congregation Annual Reports, 1971-1972 SERIES VI: HISTORICAL SKETCHES AND NOTES, 1910, ca. 1947 2 Newspaper sketch (by R. L. Lucas, Church Secretary), 1910 Historical notes and sketch (compiled by Hester Lee Porter, Church Historian), ca.1947 SERIES VII: PHOTOGRAPHIC IMAGES, 1895 3 Photograph, negative, and three duplicate slides of an undated drawing of the church building on 7th Street below Shippen (now Bainbridge) Street Photographic print (from a copy of Wm. P. White's 1895 publication, The Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia) with negative of the church building at 17th and Fitzwater Streets 7 3 Negative of the church building at 42nd Street and Girard Avenue, n.d.