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Hallo again to all.

Last Wednesday night, if a passerby had chanced to be walking on Rector Street in the city of Perth Amboy, in northern New Jersey, they might have been puzzled. In an old churchyard, as the sun was setting, a long line of clergy followed a crucifer with a processional cross, and at the end of the line was undoubtedly a bishop. A large crowd streamed along, heading as well into the churchyard. But they weren't merely 'passing through'. Everyone stopped — and stayed.

Churchyard of St Peter's Church, Perth Amboy, New Jersey
The churchyard at St Peter's, Perth Amboy. Photo by Frank Aponte.

They were all there to remember the nameless, the forgotten, and the unknown: African-American slaves who 'belonged' to the Anglican families in this old parish of St Peter.* They had been buried centuries ago, sometimes in a common grave or an unmarked one.

And then the names of these long-ago men, women, and children, discovered earlier this year from an old parish registers, were read aloud, one by one, after a service in the church.

What is your name? N or M, begins the traditional Anglican catechism.

We don't know their real names. As John Newton says in the 2007 film Amazing Grace, 'I wish I could remember all their names. My 20,000 ghosts, they all had names, beautiful African names. We'd call them with just grunts, noises'.

The catechism continues: Who gave you this Name?

We know that much: usually their owners. The women were often given generic female names and the men were often labelled with the surnames of their owners. Very rarely one finds some half-hearted attempt to transliterate an African name.

List of slaves taught at Trinity Parish NYC from 1704-14
A list of the slaves taught at the school at Trinity Parish, New York, from 1704 to 1714. Elias Neau, the catechist, noted the very few who had been baptised.

In the American provinces and colonies, slaves were lucky indeed if they could be baptised. Edmund Gibson, the bishop of London from 1723 to his death in 1748, was insistent that his clergy (mostly missionaries of the Society for Propagating the Gospel in Foreign Parts) do their very best to catechise and baptise African Americans in their parishes. He sent out circulars and pastoral letters on the matter.‡ But the American clergy, many of whom were willing to do so, found resistance from the owners of the Africans.

The owners worried that education, even as little as the catechism, would stir dissatisfaction and promote rebellion amongst the slaves. And once slaves were baptised, they could be married according to the church — and that would prevent an owner from separating families and selling them individually. How could he split up a Christian family? Better to keep them unbaptised and not trouble his conscience. And most fearsome of all: Would it be right to enslave an African once he was a Christian?

Although slaves were not as numerous in New Jersey, partially owing to the Quaker influence, they were a part of well-to-do households. And not surprisingly, many of those households were English merchants and planters — and Anglicans.

It's a shameful, sorry record that surfaces time and again in the history of the church in England, America, and all the parts of the once enormous British Empire. As most of us know, England formally ended the slave trade in 1803, pushed relentlessly by William Wilberforce and his band of Clapham colleagues. America came along much later, after much more sin and much more blood.

So many more years later, on that warm August night in Perth Amboy, the names of African-Americans were read aloud, one by one. A stone marker now commemorates those stolen lives. In a few carved sentences, the past wrongs are admitted. Those wrongs can never be righted, but acknowledging the sin and repenting of it is the least honour we can do.


See you next week.

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Last updated: 14 August 2011

* The first services were held in 1698. For America, this is a very early parish.

‡ Gibson was also the author of Codex Juris Ecclesiastici Anglicana, a text and commentary on Anglican canon law that remained the standard until well into the 19th century. In it he addressed the question of whether slaves, once baptised, should be set free, responding 'That hath been a Pointed debated in the Court of the King's Bench, but not directly determin'd; but it was said, that if Baptism should be accounted Manumission, it would very much endanger the Trade of the Plantations, which cannot be carried on without the Help and Labour of these Slaves; for the Ministers are bound to baptize them, as soon as they can give a reasonable Account of the Christian Faith and if that would make them free, then few would be Slaves'.

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