Down from the Balcony: African Americans and Episcopal Congregations in Washington County, Maryland, 1800-1864 1

By Amt, Emilie | Anglican and Episcopal History, March 2017 | Go to article overview

Down from the Balcony: African Americans and Episcopal Congregations in Washington County, Maryland, 1800-1864 1


Amt, Emilie, Anglican and Episcopal History


On Christmas Day, 1849, a few months after the consecration of St. Mark's Episcopal Church in rural western Maryland, the first wedding was held in the new sanctuary. The couple married were Malinda and Jeremiah [ames, both slaves. The Jameses had no further recorded dealings with the church after this. Separated by Malinda's manumission in 1858, the couple reunited after the Civil War and lived together until Jeremiah's death in the 1870s. It appears they did not worship again in tíre Episcopal Church after emancipation; Malinda was remarried in 1881 by a minister of another denomination.2

The experiences of the Jameses highlight several themes that are common in the saga of African Americans and Episcopal congregations in nineteenth-century Maryland: the involvement of slaves with the church from an early point in the church's history; the ambivalent quality of their relationship with the church and with their Episcopalian masters; and finally their departure from the Episcopal Church. This article will explore some of these issues, looking specifically at the Episcopal churches in Washington County, Maryland. It will focus on church attendance and worship practices, sacraments and rites (baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, marriage, and burial), and education and social relations within the church. The same themes that are writ large in the story of race in the greater Episcopal Church3 are found on a smaller scale in parishes and families. Episcopal congregations accepted slaves and free African-Americans as subordinate members, kept African-Americans segregated, and saw their black members as suitable objects for mission work but as having no leadership capacity.

Washington County is today the third westernmost county in Maryland, located at the narrowest part of the state and bordering Pennsylvania to the north and West Virginia (formerly Virginia) to the south. It is a significant area for African-American history. In the early nineteenth century the abolitionistjames W. C. Pennington grew up and escaped from slavery here, before writing the first history of African Americans.4 In 1859 the radical abolitionist John Brown and his followers hid out in Washington County in the months before his historic raid on Harper's Ferry. In 1862 the battle of Antietam, which led to the Emancipation Proclamation, was fought here. Slavery was pervasive in western Maryland, though less so than in other parts of the state, and it had a different character here. Whereas eastern and southern Maryland were economically more like the deeper South, with tobacco farms and larger-scale slave-holding, western Maryland, including Washington County, had a wheat-based and mixed agriculture that was far less suited to slave labor. Thus slave holdings in this region were small; relations between slaves and slaveholders were often closer than elsewhere, yet slave families were under the added stress of being spread across multiple holdings.5 Between 1790 and 1840, the black population of the county grew from 1,340 to just over 4,000, with free black numbers growing steadily; overall, the county's total African-American population remained close to 4,000 for much of the antebellum era, from 1820 until after 1850. Over the four decades before the Civil War, however, the number of persons held in slavery in the county fell by a dramatic fifty-one percent. In the 1850s and early 1860s, about half of the African Americans in the county were free.5

Episcopalians founded seven churches in the county before the Civil War: St.John's, Hagerstown (founded 1787; the largest and most stable congregation); St. Paul's, Sharpsburg (founded between 1815 and 1820); St. Thomas', Hancock (1835); St. Luke's, Brownsville/Pleasant Valley (1837); St. Andrew's, Clear Spring (1840); the College of St. James (1842; this combined college and grammar school in some ways functioned like a parish church); and St. Mark's, Lappans Cross Roads (1849). Numerous Episcopal missions also persisted at various times during the antebellum period. …

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