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Slavery and the Portsmouth Church

Black heritage Worship in New Hampshire

Much of colonial New Hampshire revolved around the church. The status of Portsmouth citizens was defined by their wealth and position in the church community. In her unique study historian Valerie Cunningham examines the role of African-Americans in this complex structure in our colonial Yankee seaport.



MORE Seacoast NH Black History

Much of the Abolitionist movement to end slavery in the North came from church groups. Until now, that is all of the story we have been told. Now Valerie Cunningham brings us face-to-face with the "peculiar institution" in her own hometown during the colonial and revolutionary eras. In this original work she traces the history of slavery in local churches as part of her Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail project. This revealing work brings a new and needed perspective to the religious history of the Port City, of New Hampshire, and of Yankee America. (JDR)

  - Negro Pews & Church Status
  - Withholding the Message & Leisure Time
  - A Separate Christianity for Slaves


Colonial North Church in Portsmouth established 1714In 1745 Joseph Sherburne of Puddle Lane in Portsmouth, NH, a merchant and mariner, owned a pew in the North Church. He also owned two slaves, whom he likely brought to church with him. Tavern-keeper James Stoodley owned pews in North Church for himself and his slaves Frank and Flora. After the Revolution, in 1781, the minister of North Church married Prince Whipple to Dinah Chase, and in 1786 married Peter Warner to Dinah Pearn. The weddings probably occurred in their own or their owners' homes.

Frank, Flora, Prince, Dinah, Peter, Dinah, the unnamed Sherburne slaves, and many other Africans in colonial Portsmouth were in some way associated with one of the town's churches. What was the status of slaves in church context, and how was it expressed? What was the African's understanding of the white man's religion? What was the nature of religion among Africans in Portsmouth, and how did it find expression? Scattered documentary clues in Portsmouth and elsewhere enable interesting speculation.

Status and Seating in Houses of Worship

From the 1600s through the mid 1800s, New Englanders of most denominations were seated in their houses of worship according to social rank, whether by assignment or purchase. This expressed a nearly universal Christian perception of social rank as part of a divinely ordered hierarchy of creation. The highest-ranking pews were close to the pulpit, the lowest furthest from the pulpit. Private pews gave rise to the practice of numbering pews for easy record keeping.

Some pews were set aside as general seating for special groups. Details varied according to town, location, date and circumstances. Variants included reserving seats for adolescents, Native Americans, the poor, widows, the hard-of-hearing, and black people, whether enslaved or free.

These last were called Negro Pews. These pews were sometimes numbered, sometimes labeled "free" or "Negro."

CONTINUE Black Worship, White Status

White Status and Black Worship  (Continued)

Negro Pews in Portsmouth

Queen's Chapel in Portsmouth, now St. John's EpiscopalPortsmouth was no exception to this regional custom. Negro Pews were features of the old North Meetinghouse, which stood on Market Square from 1711 to 1854. This wooden church was three stories high with two balconies. Its main door was on its broad side opening onto Pleasant Street. The pulpit was on the opposite broad side, backing up to Church Street.

The Negro Pews here were high above the front door in the upper balcony on the east wall, as far as possible from the pulpit. From 1750-1771 three people were consecutively appointed to oversee or monitor them. Apparently slave owners had to purchase pew space for their slaves in this church, just as they did for themselves.

Negro pews were probably a feature of the colonial wooden South Church in the South End, and in Queen's Chapel; they continued into the 1807 brick St. John's Church which replaced it. In St. John's they were identified with brass labels engraved "Negro Pews." Further research will probably reveal the custom of labeled pews at Portsmouth's other early houses of worship in keeping with the general New England custom.

Rank, Location, and Meaning

In an hierarchical system which expressed "dignity" in terms of proximity to the pulpit the placement of Negro Pews against the back wall of the balcony (in the upper back balcony at North Church) declared black people's status as the lowest order of a hierarchical white society. This is verified in the occasional white reference to these seats by the degrading term "Niger Heaven".

A few New England churches placed Negro Pews in the side balconies, an highly-visible location typically reserved for adolescents and unmarried young adults, who were often assigned a monitor to watch their behavior. Placing blacks here gave physical expression to the white perception of black people as childlike, untrustworthy, or given to inappropriate behavior. This attitude became an enduring fixture of white culture. It was expressed as recently as the mid-20th-century when the term "boy" was used to exclude grown black, gay or Jewish men from mainstream culture or imply their place at the bottom of society among children.

Free Seats, Negro Pews, and Cultural Ambivalence

From the 1840s to the 1930s New England churches gradually shifted from private pews to free and open seating, giving rise to the term "free church". Old pew numbers and labels were usually left in place.

This transition occurred in a society that was increasingly democratic in its outlook toward white people, but remained racially segregated. The adoption of free seating must have placed black Americans in an ambivalent social position, especially where old "Negro" labels remained in place.

CONTINUE Black Worship, White Status

White Status and Black Worship  (Continued)


Former Baptist Church in POrtsmouth's South End / Richard Haynes photoThe white social complications of seating black people diminished when black churches were established and drew away black people. This happened in Portsmouth in the 1890s when People's Baptist Church was established.

But this did not resolve segregation and hierarchy. Some churches appear gradually to have abandoned the practice, especially as the Quaker and Universalist doctrines of equality of all in the eyes of God became was absorbed into New England's major Protestant denominations.

According to oral tradition, the brass "Negro" labels remained in St. John's until long after the practice of separate seating had lapsed. Their eventual removal signaled the emergence of white embarrassment about past segregation. In the 1950s and '60s Portsmouth's churches became leaders in the Civil Rights movement.

Withholding the Message

From an early date some New Englanders objected to the Christianization of Africans. Their reasons varied. Some felt Africans were not intelligent enough to understand it. Others didn't want to put themselves in the ambiguous position of enslaving baptized Christians. Such owners were highly likely to leave their slaves behind when they went to church.

Tavern-keeper James Stoodley's ownership of a pew for his slaves Frank and Flora in addition to his own pew raises the question of whether all Portsmouth slave owners had to pay if they wanted seats for their slaves. This may merely indicate variable practice from year to year or church to church. If payment was a regular requirement, the absence of Negro pews from the inventories of slave-owners who had pews for themselves may indicate that many Portsmouth slave-owners didn't press church attendance on their slaves. Certainly the number of black people associated with Portsmouth churches rises at the end of the century, when an American-born generation was coming to maturity and increasing numbers of slaves were freed.

Sunday Leisure

In some New England cities many slaves were home unattended on Sundays. This was likely the case for some Portsmouth slaves too. In those other cities slaves spent their Sundays at informal markets, selling and buying produce from the personal garden plots they had negotiated from their owners.

Working, buying and selling on the Sabbath scandalized the pious. Boston's colonial selectmen complained of slaves coming into town on Sundays "with corn, apples, and other fruit of the earth to the great disturbance of the public peace and scandal of our Christian profession".

Such Sabbath markets provided black women an opportunity to exercise their traditional African role of trading. They also allowed unsupervised socializing.

CONTINUE Black Worship, White Status

White Status and Black Worship  (Continued)

A Separate Christianity for Slaves

The preceding is not about religion; it is about expressions of white status and white control of black people. Religion provides a remarkable window into the survival, adaptation, and transformation of African spiritual traditions in the New World, and adjustments of Christianity to these and the institution of slavery.

In the reformed Calvinist tradition, the family patriarch was responsible for the moral education and conduct of his entire household, including wife, children, apprentices, servants, and slaves. His responsibility included church attendance, family prayers, catechism, guidance and admonition. From the beginning in New England Calvinist church control of government and population was weaker than elsewhere in New England, and after the 1690s gradually grew weaker throughout New England. Increasing numbers gave only nominal attention to religion other than attending Sunday services.

Some slave owners required church attendance of their slaves. A few even gave scriptural names to their slaves. Portsmouth examples include Adam Marshall, James Stavers, John-Jack Warner, Peter Warner, Peter Frost, Hannah Langdon, Pharaoh Rogers, Samuel Wentworth, and Rebecca Chase. But overall, scriptural names were not the norm.

When catechizing slaves, masters and clergy alike tended to emphasize scriptural passages dealing with obedience. Whether overtly conscious or unconscious, whites presented Africans with a specially tailored version of Christianity suited to the maintenance of the status quo. As the first local doubts about the legitimacy of slavery were publicly voiced in the 1770s, a letter to the editor in the local newspaper justified slavery with scriptural passages.

Enslaved people received Yankee religion as did all Yankees; through a didactic, rational and dry style, whether Anglican or Calvinist. The principal mode was hour-long sermons, psalms, and the reading of scripture chapters, which the Calvinists augmented with long extemporary prayers. All were delivered from the pulpit twice each Sunday.

Isolated in remote galleries, hidden from view and hearing long droning sermons in complex language, black hearers often responded with little interest. In some towns slaves played quiet games or snacked during church. North Church appointed overseers of the Negro pews to minimize such pastimes.

Copyright © 2006 by Valerie Cunningham and Mark Sammons from the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail. First posted on in 1999. 

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