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Williams, Peter, Jr.(c. 1780–1840) - Minister, orator, writer, abolitionist, Organizes African American Episcopalians, Chronology

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Peter Williams Jr. eschewed his upbringing in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church founded by his father, Peter Williams Sr., to join the Episcopal Church. He earned his own place in history as the first African American ordained as an Episcopal priest in the diocese of New York and as an influential clergyman, orator, writer, and abolitionist. He was the first rector of St. Philip’s Church, the earliest African American Episcopal parish in New York City.

Born a slave in New Brunswick, New Jersey, about 1780, Williams was the son of a slave, Peter Williams Sr., and Mary Durham, an indentured servant from St. Kitts. After Williams Sr. purchased his freedom in 1785, Peter Jr. lived, from age five, as a free black. A precocious youngster, he attended school at the New York African Free School run by the Manumission Society. Williams also received private tutoring from his pastor, Reverend Thomas Lyell, of the John Street Methodist Church. Lyell, originally an Episcopalian, became associated with the Methodist Church when he moved to New York. When Lyell returned to his Episcopal roots to become a priest, Williams began worshiping with a congregation of blacks who gathered at Trinity Episcopal Church. An Episcopal bishop, John Henry Hobart, confirmed Williams when he was about eighteen years old. In addition to working in his father’s tobacco business and keeping his father’s books, the young man began to take an active part in crusades against slavery. Though New York had passed a gradual emancipation act by 1799, white abolitionists refused to admit Williams to the Convention of Abolitionist Societies in Philadelphia in 1806. In spite of the rebuff, the black community acknowledged Williams as an important activist in the abolition movement.

Organizes African American Episcopalians

For a number of years, Williams assisted Thomas McCombs, an elderly white man, in giving religious instruction to children who attended Trinity Church on Wall Street on Sunday afternoons, the time when blacks were allowed to use the church. Weary of separate worship services, Williams organized the black Episcopalians into a separate group. Moving services from Trinity, the black parishioners established their own congregation, the Free African Church of St. Philip.



Born in New Brunswick, New Jersey


Delivers “An Oration on the Abolition of the Slave Trade”


Licensed as lay reader in the Free African Church of St. Philip


Ordained to the Holy Orders of Deacons


Ordained as first black Episcopal priest in the diocese of New York


Co-founds Freedman’s Journal , the first African American newspaper in the United States


Helps organize the first session of the National Negro Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


Founds the Phoenix Society


Dies in New York, New York on October 17

In 1812, following the death of McCombs, Bishop Hobart licensed Williams when the black congregation elected him lay reader, a position in which he served for several years. In 1818, the members of the parish erected a church at a cost of $8,000. Donations from Trinity Church and wealthy benefactors aided the parishioners in funding the project. Church members performed much of the construction of the new building. St. Philip’s African Church was consecrated on July 3, 1819. In October 1819, the Right Reverend Bishop Hobart approved Williams as a candidate for Holy Orders and in 1820 ordained him to the Holy Orders of Deacons, the first step toward becoming a minister. Following his approval as a candidate, the Commercial Advertiser reported the event and described Williams as a person of color who was intelligent, studious, and zealous. The newspaper anticipated his success in spreading the Gospel to his fellow African brethren. St. Philip’s was incorporated in 1820. Regrettably, a fire cut short the elation that followed the completion of the church; the wooden building burned down in December 1821. The building, however, was fully insured, allowing construction to begin soon after of a sturdy and more attractive brick structure. In December 1822, Bishop Hobart consecrated the new edifice.

The congregation, which consisted primarily of black middle-class tradesmen and female domestics, continued to grow. Williams’ flock included several future abolitionists, such as James McCune Smith, George Thomas Downing, Alexander Crummell, and Charles L. Reason. When ordained on July 10, 1826, Williams became the first black Episcopal priest in the diocese of New York and the second black Episcopal priest in the United States following Absalom Jones. In spite of this achievement, Williams was subjected to discrimination within the Episcopal Church. His mentor, Bishop Hobart, advised Williams that St. Philip’s congregation would not be admitted to the diocesan convention, although that right was granted to other ministers and churches. Similarly, colleagues in the Episcopal Church called Williams by his first name while white clergy were addressed by their appropriate title.

Williams, Peter, Sr.(c. 1755–1823) - Religious leader, Buys Freedom, Founds African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, Chronology [next] [back] Williams, Mary Wilhelmine (1878–1944) - History of Latin America

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