Trinity’s archives helping shed new light on a number of old topics, including the development of African-American congregations and institutions in the early nineteenth century. An important figure in both the Diocese of New York and the abolition movement was Peter Williams, Jr., the second African-American ordained in the Episcopal Church and the first in the Diocese of New York.
Peter Williams, Jr. was born around 1786. His father, Peter Williams, Sr., was born into slavery but freed in 1784. Williams, Sr. was one of several the founders of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church of New York City. Williams, Jr. eventually became involved with the African Episcopal Catechetical Institution, which petitioned Trinity Church for help in forming and purchasing land for what became St. Philip’s African Church. St. Philip’s was consecrated in 1819. Bishop Hobart ordained Williams, Jr. deacon in 1820 and priest in 1826. Williams, Jr. was a leading abolitionist and ardent supporter of the education of African-Americans. He died in New York City on October 17, 1840.
Peter Williams, Jr., wrote this letter, dated November 17, 1817, in his position as catechist of the African Episcopal Catechistical Institution. In it, he and other members of the Institution request Trinity’s help in acquiring a land for church and an Episcopal school. As Williams, Jr. mentions, at the time Trinity was deluged with similar requests for assistance.
Image of the 1817 letter.
“The Petition of Peter Williams, Jnr, Lewis Francis, Andrew Rankins, John Kent, Thomas Zabriskie, John Beas, John Marander, and William Pate, managers of the African Episcopal Catechetical Institution, in the City of New York, humbly Sheweth, that the attendants of the meetings under their charge having become so numerous, that the room which they occupy, though the most commodious they could hire, is not sufficiently large to contain them; and having reason to fear that it will not be to be rented much longer; feel an earnest desire to erect a place, which may better answer the purposes of the Institution, and may serve also as an Episcopal School for the instruction of coloured youth:that for this purpose they have drawn up a subscription, which the Right Reverend Bishop of Diocese having patronized by his subscription and recommendation, they hope, though the times are rather unpropitious for such charities, will be so far successfull [sic] as to raise a sum adequate to the building of such a place: provided they could obtain from the Corporation of Trinity church the grant of a piece of ground to erect it on. Your petitioners, knowing that the appeals to the bounty of your venerable & justly esteemed board, are very numerous and extensive, would not make this application were it not a case of urgent necessity. Being poor men themselves, and the congregation in whose behalf they act, though considerable in numbers, being also poor, though they feel disposed to give liberally according to their circumstances, they cannot hope to raise enough... They would appeal to the Right Reverend Gentlemen who presides over your board, and to all the Episcopal Clergy in the city for a Testimony of the order in which their meetings have been conducted, of the disposition which they have manifested to conform in all things to the rites & ceremonies of the church; and of the prospects they have in providing a convenient place, of receiving to the Church the attachment of a large number of coloured persons. On the other hand, it is most evident that if some such arrangement is not soon made there will be a great falling off in that class of Episcopalians.
Your petitioners have to lament, that within the compass of their knowledge, some hundreds have already left the church, whom they have reason to believe, would not have done so had some such provision been made for their accommodation. And as heads of families they feel the more anxious for it to be made, lest their children should also be led to Depart from that form of worship, and those doctrines, which they believe to be most scriptural and most conducive to the interests of true religion.
In making this address to your benevolence your petitioners would think it highly presumptous [sic], to designate any particular part of the city as being preferable for such a building. They would leave this matter entirely at the disposal of your honorable body, persuaded if their petition should be granted the spot selected would suit their purposes, and bind them in duty ever to pray for your happiness & prosperity.
Signed in behalf of the Board of
Managers of the African Episcopal
Peter Williams, Jr. Catechist
New York, November 17th, 1817”
The Vestry notes from December 8, 1817, record that the letter was received:
“…and an application from Peter Williams Junr and others Managers of the african Episcopal Catechetical Institution in the City of New York for the grant of a Lot of Ground as a Scite for the building they propose to erect for the accommodation of that Institution was also read and referred to the Comptroller, Mr Bayard, Mr Jones Mr Sherred & Mr McFarlan…”
Nine years later, Williams, Jr. writes again. In the intervening years, St. Philip’s was constructed and consecrated and after a long waiting period, Williams, Jr. had been ordained. The following letter, in which he requests additional financial and legal support for St. Philip’s, shines light on the attitudes of the city’s African-American community at the time.
Note: “two lots on Christie Street” refers to is land Trinity helped “the African Society” purchase after the closing of the African Burial Ground in 1795. The land was intended as a burial ground and space on which a church for African-Americans would one day be built. The transfer of ownership of the land to the church was delayed by legal technicalities and Williams, Jr. is requesting Trinity’s help with this matter.
Image of the 1826 letter.
”To the Rector, Wardens and Vestrymen of Trinity Church, in the City of New York
The petition of the Rector, Wardens and Vestrymen of St. Philip’s Church in the city of New York, humbly sheweth, that in the building of their Church, they were under the necessity of incurring a debt of nearly three thousand Dollars, that to discharge this debt, and meet the incidental and current expences of their Church, they have pursued a system of rigid economy, and used every means they could devise, to raise sufficient money for these purposes from the congregation connected with them, but that notwithstanding all their efforts, their debt has been on the increase,from their not having paid their minister the amount of salary ($800 per annum) stipulated to be paid him. In this grievous state of their affairs (while struggling for their existence, as a religious corporation, under the almost certain prospect that they must perish, unless God in his good providence, would incline the hearts of your venerable body to extend towards them further help) the seven years expired for which you had generously agreed to pay $270 per annum rent, for the lots on which the Church is erected, and the holder of the lease called upon your petitioners for payment. Being unable to meet his demand, they requested of him a delay until they could make a new application to you on the subject, which he assented to.
Your Petitioners therefore pray that your venerable body, would be graciously pleased to help them in their difficulties, by granting them such assistance as would enable them to pay their ground rent, and otherwise to support the Church, to which they have the strongest reasons to be attached. Their annual income does not ordinarily exceed $1000, their expences including ground rent and interest amounts to about $1600. Could your venerable body extend your liberality so far as the making up this deficiency, your petitioners would feel themselves under an additional debt of gratitude towards you, which it would be equally their duty and their pleasure to acknowledge, and you would have the satisfaction of doing much towards the promotion of our holy religion among the unhappy race of Africans. The experience of your petitioners warrants them in saying that the establishment of their Church has done much good among their brethren, and that the prospects of its future usefulness are greatly brightened. They can scarcely imagine a greater evil that could befal [sic] the coloured people of this city than the failure of their Church, and cannot but hope that your venerable body will renew towards them your former liberality. Your Petitioners would also solicit your aid in obtaining possession of two lots of ground in Christie Street, which were purchased by the African Society many years since for a burial ground for coloured persons, and with a view of erecting thereon at some future period an Episcopal Church. This Society was originally composed of about thirty coloured Episcopalians, but has become so diminished in numbers, by the decease of its members, that there are but five remaining. The deed of the ground was drawn in favour of the Corporation of the City to be held in trust by them, they having passed a resolution to transfer it to the said Society, whenever it should become incorporated as a religious body. As the members of this Society were at first all Episcopalians, and as all the survivors are members of St. Philips Church, and two of them Vestrymen of the same application has been made to the Corporation aforesaid, to transfer it to out Church, but has been refused in consequence of an informality in the deed, which disables them from making the transfer without a special act of the state legislature. The reasons which induce your Petitioners to solicit your aid in this matter, are that your venerable body were the largest donors of the amount paid for the ground, and that several of the leading members of the City Corporation, have declared your cooperation necessary to the obtaining of it by your petitioners. Your Petitioners beg that their necessities will be admitted as an excuse for their presenting themselves in this manner before you, and that such relief will be granted them as the support of their Church requires, and your Petitioners as in duty bound will ever pray.
Peter Williams, Rector
New York Nov. 8th 1826 Lewis Francis Wardens
Samuel Chas [?]
William Hutson Peter Vogelsang
Saml Ennals John Marander, sen
Boston Cromwell Thomas Lipkins
Thomas Zabriskie Jr. Thomas Sobrioeo Jnr. [?]”
Author: Trinity Wall Street Communications
Created: March 18, 2009
Trinity Wall Street has played a pivotal role in the religious and civic life of the city and nation since its founding in 1697. This blog will answer readers’ questions and provide a glimpse into the fascinating and provocative history of the parish.