Religious freedom in the promised land

First Baptist Church, Chatham

Photo: First Baptist Church, Chatham


Steven Cook and Wilma Morrison

Black heritage, Buildings and architecture, Community

Published Date: Sep 10, 2009

Eli Johnson toiled on plantations in Virginia, Mississippi and Kentucky before making his bid for freedom in the “promised land” – the term used by Underground Railroad refugees to describe Canada. As punishment for leading weekend prayer meetings, his owner threatened to stake him to the ground and apply 500 lashes of the whip. Eli pleaded, “In the name of God, why is it that I can’t, after working hard all the week, have a meeting on Saturday evening? I am sent for to receive 500 lashes for trying to serve God.”

Prayer meetings were more than an occasion to practise religious beliefs; they also gave enslaved Blacks a sense of community. So, it is no surprise that religion played a pivotal role in the establishment of early Underground Railroad refugee settlements in Ontario. The church was a settlement’s heart and soul, where refugees could come together to share experiences, offer support and give praise.

The minister, usually the most educated person in the community, became the leader and often a role model for youth. Churches provided sanctuary until new arrivals could be integrated into the community. Ministers might also provide assistance in court for arrested and jailed runaways.

Early Underground Railroad refugee settlements centred primarily around three Christian denominations: African First Baptist Church, Chatham Methodist Episcopal, British Methodist Episcopal and Baptist.

The African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church grew out of the Free African Society, established by Richard Allen, Absalom Jones and others in Philadelphia in 1787 to protest slavery and discrimination. In 1794, the first of these churches, Bethel AME, was dedicated in Philadelphia, with Rev. Allen, a former slave from Delaware, as pastor.

The Nazrey AME Church in Amherstburg, Ontario, founded by Bishop Willis Nazrey, was built in 1848 by former slaves and free Blacks. Constructed of hand-laid fieldstone – and now part of the North American Black Historical Museum – it is a proud example of the many small Black churches found in early Ontario.

With the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which facilitated the recapture and extradition of runaway slaves, travel to and from the United States became increasingly difficult for Blacks. The AME annual conference was held in the United States, and Canadian delegates were hesitant to cross the border. They proposed a new entity closer to home, and in 1856 the British Methodist Episcopal (BME) Church was formed.

As early as 1814, congregations had been organized in St. Catharines, Hamilton and Niagara Falls by Darius Durham, the first Methodist circuit preacher in the area. By 1836, the Black community in Niagara Falls had built a small chapel. This simple Upper Canada Georgian structure, one of the oldest Black Methodist churches in Ontario, still serves as the spiritual centre of the Niagara Falls Black community. In 1983, it was renamed the Nathaniel Dett Memorial Chapel BME Church, in honour of R. Nathaniel Dett, renowned musician, composer, poet, choral conductor and former member of the church.

The first known Baptist minister in Canada was Elder William Wilks. Born in Africa, later sold into slavery in the United States, he eventually escaped to Amherstburg. He preached to other refugees, and was ordained in 1821. Around the same time, Washington Christian, a refugee from New York, formed Black Baptist congregations in Toronto, Hamilton, St. Catharines and Niagara Falls. In 1841, all Baptist churches in Canada West joined together to form the Amherstburg Regular Missionary Baptist Association.

By this time, the Chatham area as well had become a mecca for refugees from slavery – one-third of the area’s residents were emancipated Blacks. By 1841, they had established a place of worship; 10 years later, they had built First Baptist Church.

The survival of many of the early churches built by these freedom seekers speaks to the importance the churches played in their communities. It also speaks to the strength and commitment of the congregants, formed from years of bondage under a system that prohibited personal expression.

Eli Johnson’s sentiments echo those of countless freedom seekers who clung to their faith and their undying hope for a brighter day: “I felt so thankful on reaching a land of freedom that I couldn’t express myself. When I look back at what I endured, it seems as if I had entered a Paradise. I can here sing and pray with none to molest me. I am a member of the Baptist church, and endeavour to live a Christian life.”

Nathaniel Dett Memorial Chapel British Methodist Episcopal Church, Niagara Falls

Photo: Nathaniel Dett Memorial Chapel British Methodist Episcopal Church, Niagara Falls

Nazrey African Methodist Episcopal Church, Amherstburg

Photo: Nazrey African Methodist Episcopal Church, Amherstburg