An enslaved tavern worker, Gowan Pamphlet risked his well-being to preach equality and secretly preach to fellow African American believers. He founded Williamsburg’s First Baptist Church, which continues to this day.
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A FLY ON THE TAVERN WALL
Gowan Pamphlet (ca. 1748–1809) became the property of Jane Vobe, the widowed keeper of King’s Arms Tavern, sometime before 1779. As an enslaved tavern worker he would have performed any necessary duties, from preparing and serving meals to guests to cleaning the rooms or tending the stables. During court days in the capital city, he would also have had the opportunity to observe fascinating conversations about the course of the Revolution and the principles at stake.
CALLED, DESPITE THE RISK
But Pamphlet’s Baptist faith was his passion. When – at the permission of his owner – Pamphlet was ordained in 1772, he became the only ordained black preacher of any denomination in the country. Inspired by the Great Awakening, Pamphlet preached a message of equality before God during the Revolution. He followed his calling to build Williamsburg’s First Baptist Church, which continues to this day. But the risks were heavy: Large gatherings of African Americans were prohibited out of fear of slave uprisings and Baptists preachers faced harassment as dissenters from the officially recognized Church of England, even after Virginia’s Statute for Religious Freedom ended state sponsorship of the church in 1786.
1793 proved to be a decisive year for Pamphlet. In rapid succession he survived accusations of helping to plan a slave insurrection, gained admission for his church into the Dover Baptist Association, and was granted his personal freedom. He continued to lead his congregation until his death in 1809.
Gowan Pamphlet Historical Virginia Historical Highway Marker Dedication
On Sunday, April 25, members of First Baptist Church and the Let Freedom Ring Foundation, in partnership with Colonial Williamsburg, dedicated a Virginia Historical Highway Marker honoring Gowan Pamphlet, the first Black preacher of any denomination in the country.
A small ceremony organized by members of the church was held at the marker site at the corner of Scotland and Nassau Streets in front of Matthew Whaley Elementary School. The Rev. James Ingram portrayed Gowan Pamphlet during the ceremony.
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