William Seraile, Voice of Dissent: Theophilus Gould Steward (1843-1924) and Black America

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William Seraile, Voice of Dissent: Theophilus Gould Steward (1843-1924) and Black America

Much has been written on the significance of the church and its ministers in the history of African Americans, and their struggles for freedom and justice. It becomes more and more obvious, with time, that there is much more to be produced and disseminated. We have had biographies, articles, and evaluations of the contributions of a few of the more dramatic figures in the story of African Americans. To learn of other lesser known figures, there is a need to discover and dig into mislaid personal diaries, correspondence stored in some cluttered attic, newspapers and journals long extinct. William Seraile, Professor of History and Black Studies at Lehman College of the City University of New York, has discovered and offers us the life-story of one such African American in his well-wrought, thoroughly documented biography of Theophilus Gould Steward. Steward was a minister, military chaplain, missionary, educator, polemicist, and a man of pride and courage determined to lift his people out of the morass of the evils that surrounded them.

Steward was born in 1843, sixteen years before the outbreak of the Civil War, in Gouldtown, a free black settlement established in 1684 by Benjamin Gould and his white wife Elizabeth, granddaughter of Lord John Fenwick, in Cumberland County, New Jersey. Gouldtown was a God-fearing community that prized physical and especially moral strength. It was in this religious atmosphere that the young Steward was taught to cut marshland grass, till the soil, and hunt in the woods by his stern father. It was his gentler mother who encouraged him to be inquisitive, to challenge "established truths", and to keep the "love of learning briskly burning all the time." It was the work ethic, the need to reach for the truth, and faith he learned at home, that were to guide and direct Steward throughout his productive and often controversial life.

By the age of 21, young Steward was an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal church and was involved in the reestablishment of the denomination in South Carolina. …