WILLIAMSBURG — On Sunday, April 25, congregants of Williamsburg’s Historic First Baptist Church will join others in the faith community, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources (VDHR), and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation to honor Nation Builder Gowan Pamphlet.
“This has been a long and emotional journey for the members of the Historic First Baptist Church in Williamsburg as we continue to uncover the history of one of the oldest African American churches in the nation,” said Connie Matthews Harshaw, president of Historic First Baptist Church’s Let Freedom Ring Foundation.
Who was Gowan Pamphlet?
Sometime before 1779, Gowan Pamphlet was enslaved by Jane Vobe, the widowed keeper of King’s Arms Tavern. Passionate about his Baptist faith, Pamphlet received permission from his then-owner to become an ordained minister in 1772. At the time of his ordination, Pamphlet is said to have been the only black preacher of any Christian denomination in the American colonies.
Inspired by a movement of religious revival called “The Great Awakening,” Pamphlet preached a message of equality throughout the American Revolution. During this time, he founded First Baptist Church, which grew to have a congregation of 500 members.
Pamphlet and his young congregation faced immeasurable odds, including laws prohibiting large groups of African Americans from gathering and religious harassment that continued even after the 1786 Statute for Religious Freedom ended state-sponsored religion in Virginia.
In 1783, a local Baptist organization attempted to bar Pamphlet from preaching because of the color of his skin. However, Pamphlet prevailed and, ten years later, he was granted his freedom and his congregation was admitted to the Dover Baptist Association. In 1805, Pamphlet is recorded as having owned land in both Williamsburg and James City County.
Gowan Pamphlet died sometime between October 1807 and March 1809. However, due to lack of record keeping during that time, the actual date is unknown.
The marker dedication
Historic First Baptist Church continues to thrive as one of the oldest African American congregations in the United States. To honor their founder, the church set out to commission and dedicate a Historic Highway Marker through VDHR.
“The story of this preacher and its early members is an important story that has not been told,” said Harshaw.
The sign will be installed at the intersection of Scotland and N. Nassau streets in Williamsburg, opposite from Matthew Whaley Elementary School, 301 Scotland St. The ceremony will take place at 2:00 p.m. this Sunday, April 25.
Historic First Baptist Church asks that attendees wear face masks and practice social distancing. Chairs will be spaced 6 to 8 feet apart in compliance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the Virginia Department of Health’s COVID-19 guidelines.
The ceremony will include Rev. James Ingram, a Colonial Williamsburg actor and living history interpreter, who will portray Gowan Pamphlet during the event. Also in attendance will be Rev. Dr. Reginald F. Davis, pastor of Historic First Baptist Church, and Liz Montgomery, chairwoman of First Baptist Church History Ministry.
For more information, please visit the website for the Historic First Baptist Church in Williamsburg.
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