Presbyterians of the Past

John Gloucester, 1776-1822

Philadelphia was a hub of activity when Archibald Alexander arrived in May 1807. His relocation from Virginia was to accept a call to the Third Presbyterian Church (Old Pine Street). As he settled into his new situation he was overcome by the poverty in The City of Brotherly Love. He responded by organizing and drafting the constitution for what became known as the Evangelical Society. The purpose of the organization was to send each of its members out on Sunday evenings in teams of two for evangelism among the impoverished. As the work of the Society expanded, the establishment of an African church with a black pastor became a key concern.

After a failed attempt to convince John Chavis (1763-1838) to accept a call, Alexander and the Evangelical Society returned to the search process which was made particularly difficult due to the general lack of education among the Africans. The issue of appropriate education for Presbyterian clergy was and would continue to be a key issue. In the case of the enslaved and freemen who had been prohibited to learn how to read, theological study was particularly difficult.

At about the same time the Evangelical Society was seeking a pastor there was a candidate being prepared in Tennessee for the church in Pennsylvania. A man born into slavery in 1776 named Jack had been converted through the ministry of the Presbyterian Church missionary, Gideon Blackburn. Blackburn was having a fruitful ministry to the Cherokees and others in the hills and mountains of eastern Tennessee. He was particularly suited for the locale and its ruggedness because he had a frontiersman way about him. As their friendship grew Blackburn recognized in Jack a zeal for learning and the Bible, so he purchased him from his master in 1806. It must have been a difficult decision for Jack because the purchase would leave his wife and children in bondage, but there was the hope of future freedom for the whole family. Rev. Blackburn proceeded to petition the Tennessee state government to free Jack. However, his efforts with the state failed, so Blackburn turned to the Blount County Court where he obtained manumission and Jack became John Gloucester.

The newly freed John was taken under care as a ministerial student during the October 1806 meeting of the Presbytery of Union. With the oversight of his presbytery, John pursued his education in nearby Greeneville College. After a few months of study, Gloucester attended the February 1807 meeting of his presbytery to be examined for licensure. Even though he was found to be proficient in English grammar and geography, he was not licensed due to concern about his grasp of other subjects. At this point, the president of Greeneville College, Rev. Charles Coffin, intervened for Gloucester by writing to Ashbel Green in Philadelphia, who, like Archibald Alexander, was a member of the Evangelical Society. Their correspondence led to Gloucester being invited to attend the impending meeting of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA).

When the presbyters gathered for the assembly in Philadelphia at the First Presbyterian Church, Gideon Blackburn introduced Gloucester to Ashbel Green, J. J. Janeway, Archibald Alexander, and others. In conjunction with Gloucester’s visit, the Presbytery of Union had submitted an overture to the General Assembly concerning his licensure. The Assembly adopted its committee’s recommendation to refer the question to the Presbytery of Philadelphia. The presbytery meeting took place the next month, but Philadelphia Presbytery referred the licensure issue back to the Presbytery of Union believing that it was more qualified to complete the licensing process. Even though the licensure issue had been referred, John Gloucester’s path to ministry in Philadelphia had begun.

Financial support for Gloucester’s ministry was supplied from several sources. His salary was paid for three months each year by the Evangelical Society and the funds for the remainder of each year were supplied by other entities. A stipend was provided by the PCUSA General Assembly, which gave three months of support for ten years beginning in 1810. Private donors, presbytery and synod missionary funds, donations from the congregants themselves, and gifts from individual churches contributed to the remaining funds needed.

The mission was blessed with a growing congregation which meant that street corner meetings and temporary facilities needed to be replaced with a proper church building. In July of 1809 the Evangelical Society agreed to “provide a house for present use,” and it sought subscriptions to buy property and erect the facility. A flyer was published to advertise the African mission and raise funds to support a work for “a reformation among the blacks of this place.” The flyer commented that there were already many free Africans who were Presbyterians and that they found it “inconvenient and unpleasant…to attend the houses of worship frequented by the white people.” Whether or not these words express the thoughts of the Africans or the perception of their thoughts by the composers of the flyer is unclear.

Raising the funds for the African Presbyterian Church building was a difficult process, but in October, the Evangelical Society was able to meet for consideration of a plan to purchase land. John Gloucester was present at the meeting and was satisfied with the Resolution that budgeted fourteen hundred dollars for a site. The work of fund raising continued into the fall of 1810 when the Evangelical Society located a property that was described as “three lots on Seventh Street in the District of Southwark, between South and Fitzwater Streets, together yielding” a nearly square lot of just under six thousand square feet. The projected cost for construction of a sanctuary was five thousand dollars, but the amount of money pledged at the time was just about twenty-two hundred. As the reality of the difficult task of raising money set in, the plan was modified to construct a smaller building in order to reduce the cost to about four-thousand dollars.

Up to this point, Gloucester had been ministering as a licentiate, but the long road to ordination came to an end when he was examined by the Presbytery of Union during its meeting at Baker’s Creek, April 30, 1810. It was appropriate that Gloucester’s mentor, Gideon Blackburn, was the moderator of the meeting. Presbytery instructed Rev. Gloucester to move from Tennessee and unite with the Philadelphia Presbytery. The instruction to relocate to Philadelphia is a bit misleading because he had been active in the African mission in Pennsylvania for some time. Rev. Gloucester’s transfer of membership was delayed a bit because he was not received into the Philadelphia Presbytery until April of the following year.

As John Gloucester settled into ministry in Philadelphia he was also working to free his wife, Rhoda, and their four children, James, Jeremiah, Stephen and Mary still in Tennessee. Some of his time was spent raising funds from the general Philadelphia community, but considerable assistance came from church members and friends. Dr. Benjamin Rush arranged for Gloucester to preach some in Princeton where he was able to raise some money. The combined efforts raised fifteen-hundred dollars—roughly twenty thousand dollars in today’s money—so that John could purchase freedom for his wife and their children. He had to return to Tennessee to complete the process, so during his absence the Evangelical Society arranged pulpit supplies for his congregation.

The year that John Gloucester was ordained was also significant for the church building program. Rev. George Potts led a special service in the fall when the corner stone was set for the foundation. When the church was completed there was a dedication service held on May 31, 1811. Archibald Alexander preached the sermon. William Catto comments that the building was not remarkable; it was a simple brick building sixty feet long by thirty-three feet wide “without any ornament about it.” The walls enclosed a room with four rows of pews, each of which had seventeen benches, and a balcony on three of the four walls giving a total capacity of over six hundred people. The building served the congregation until it moved to a new location in the city later in the century.

John Gloucester was a popular preacher in Philadelphia not only among members of First African but also those from other churches. Dr. Benjamin Rush often attended services in the African Church because he enjoyed listening to Gloucester’s sermons. Not only could John preach, but he could sing as well. He sometimes went to the corner of Seventh and Shippen Streets and started singing hymns. When a crowd gathered to listen he ended his singing and began preaching from his Bible. He faithfully visited the members of his congregation as well as others who needed help. Knowing the importance of schooling and his own difficult road to achieving an education he spearheaded efforts to establish a school for children.

John continued in his labors until he contracted consumption and became so weak that he could no longer minister. He sent a letter dated June 1820 to the Philadelphia Presbytery requesting supplies for his pulpit due to his declining health. John Gloucester passed away on May 2, 1822. He died a young man in his forty sixth year. At the time of his passing the First African congregation had grown to over three hundred members.

In some ways, the relationship of John Gloucester and the First African Church to the Presbyterian judicatories was unusual. Rev. Gloucester, according to Catto, never received a call from the congregation to be its minister and he was never installed its pastor even though he was ordained. The reason given for this arrangement was the tenuous nature of the church finances. Even though Rev. Gloucester had an extraordinary relationship with his congregation, he was a participating presbyter in the church courts. At the 1817 General Assembly he was an alternate commissioner who took the seat of Rev. George Potts when he had to leave the sessions. In 1828 the death of Gloucester is listed along with all the other ministers that had died during the year since the last assembly, but for some reason, Gloucester’s passing had not been recorded until six years after the fact.

The account of the life and labors of John Gloucester presents a remarkable picture of a man that was freed from slavery, persevered as a freeman to buy his family’s liberty, and followed the call of God to be a missionary minister in Pennsylvania. But he did not achieve his goals alone, because when the times were tough his Presbyterian brethren in Tennessee and Philadelphia as well as other interested friends pitched in with time and finances. Presbyterian polity is connectional and the connections came through for Pastor Gloucester, and his persistence exhibits his convictions as a Presbyterian Christian dedicated to the denomination’s polity and doctrine.

The blessings of God’s covenant faithfulness can be seen in his family. His sons, Stephen, James, and Jeremiah became Presbyterian ministers. Jeremiah became the founding pastor of the Second African Church in 1824, Stephen’s ministerial labors led to the founding of the Central Church in 1844, and James’s ministerial work led to the organization of the Siloam Church of Brooklyn, New York, in 1849.

As was mentioned at the beginning of this article, the education of Presbyterian ministers has been and continues to be a controversial issue. In the case of John Gloucester it was especially difficult because there were unique factors working against him because of slavery. When the Cumberland Presbyterian Church was formed in 1800 a part of the reason for its founding was the belief that the PCUSA required too much education which contributed to an insufficient supply of ministers to serve the missions and congregations on the expanding American frontier. Due to the varying quality of theological instruction given to candidates by local ministers, as was common practice, the PCUSA established a seminary at Princeton in 1812 to provide a consistent curriculum taught by qualified faculty. It was a great idea, but early on Princeton faculty complained that students were not completing the three-year program and presbyteries were ordaining them anyhow. Some presbyteries were even telling their candidates to abbreviate their studies. Another problem has been the exceptional clause used by some Presbyterian denominations which allows presbyteries in “extraordinary cases” to ordain candidates which are in one point or more deficient regarding their qualifications. Again, it is a good idea if used rarely and judiciously for truly unique situations, but in some cases candidates have been ordained with great deficiencies as exceptions even within denominations that were considered rightly ordered.

Presbyterians have held to a high educational standard because of the weightiness of the Word they minister. There are few, if any, that would go to a doctor whose education was inadequate, fly in an airliner piloted by a flight-school novice, or attend a college with a faculty that did not complete their own degrees, so should not the minister of the Word of God be as well, if not better, educated than these important but temporal vocations. Ministerial education must continue to thoroughly equip candidates not only with exegetical tools and doctrinal instruction, but also with the knowledge and applied theology to work with people and their difficulties. It may be that the best way to help congregations with limited funds or small size is for churches to encourage select ruling elders to study for licensure so they can fill pulpits, possibly on a rotational basis with elders from other churches. Maybe seminaries need to offer an abbreviated but appropriate program for licensing ruling elders. Such a program could be designed with minimal if any residency and flexibility via the Internet. It should be remembered that ruling elders have two callings, so the curriculum should be designed with that in mind.

The Presbyterians that are most often respected from history are academics, pastors of large churches, or writers of books and articles, but John Gloucester was a faithful and persistent servant of God who is worthy of remembrance. He had obstacles to overcome that no one today, thankfully, has to face, but the church needs to be sensitive to a candidate’s situation while maintaining high standards.


Notes—Shippen Street is now Bainbridge Street. The sources disagree on the Gloucester children with some having four sons including a John instead of Mary. On Presbyterians of the Past is a biography of W. H. Fentress who was a truly extraordinary case because he was blind. To read about the extraordinary clause, see the article by this site’s author in The Confessional Presbyterian 10 (2014), “An Extraordinary Case of the Use of the Extraordinary Clause,” pages 57-72. The Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia has the charter for the First African Presbyterian Church, it has John Gloucester’s signature along with several “X” marks indicative of the signers’ lack of literacy.

SourcesNevin, History of the Presbytery of Philadelphia, 1888, 357ff. J. W. Alexander, The Life of Archibald Alexander, New York, 1854; reprint, Sprinkle, 1991, 274, 282, 299-302. Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America from its Organization A.D. 1789 to A.D. 1820 Inclusive, Philadelphia, 274, 229, 374, 381, 450, 477, 505, 502, 534, 527, 550, 563, 587, 610, 616, 658, 683. E. T. Thompson, Presbyterians in the South, vol. 1, 207-8. George Apperson, “African Americans on the Tennessee Frontier: John Gloucester and His Contemporaries,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 59:1 (Spring 2000): 3-19. Presbyterian Historical Society (PHS), collection of the Evangelical Society of Philadelphia (ESP), 52,734, RG 313, folder 313-1-2 (MS Ev 14). A copy of the one-page flyer regarding the ministry to the Africans in Philadelphia titled, “To the Pious and Benevolent,” is held by the PHS, and is in the files for the ESP, MS Ev 14. William Catto, A Semi-Centenary Discourse, Delivered in the First African Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, 1857, 23-24, 30-40, 50-59. PHS-ESP, 52,734, RG 313, folder 313-1-2 (MS Ev 14), letter of June 25, 1810; letter of Oct. 24; 1810; an undated letter; letter of Dec. 10, 1810; and letter of Feb. 25, 1811. PHS-ESP, 52,734, RG 313, folder 313-1-2 (MS Ev 14). The Life of Ashbel Green, V.D.M., New York, 1849, 445, 449-453, 457-58, 450, 465, 477.

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