Several years ago I wrote an abysmally lacking article on the topic of the earliest African American churches in Greene County. I was hampered by a lack of textual evidence and church records to corroborate the founding and existence of these early racially oriented faith communities, and I relied on assumptions that were hard to substantiate. Understanding the origin of these local churches is of the utmost importance, because their appearance in the antebellum period in Greene County represents not only the broad evolution of the white and Black communities of this place, but illustrates how the Black community here engaged in a reorganization of their shared identity in the years following the abolition of slavery in New York.
I resumed this search after perusing the baptismal records of the First Reformed Church of Coxsackie, which traces its origins as a congregation back to the 1730s along with its sister church in Leeds. Enslaved people, alongside the white families that enslaved them, attended this church together as evidenced by the occasional baptism of enslaved children interspersed among the baptismal records of white children whose parents were congregants.
The twilight period of slavery in the State of New York between 1799 and 1827, during which a process of “gradual emancipation” sought to grant the enslaved their freedom in varying degrees, sees the perpetuation of the long tradition of integrated worship in the Reformed Church. In 1826 Tone Van Bergen, who may have been previously enslaved by the Bronk and Van Bergen families, attended the baptism of his son whom he had named Marquis Lafayette Van Bergen in honor of the French Revolutionary hero. Lafayette visited the Hudson Valley less than two years prior, and while his name was certainly on the tongue of many in the vicinity for years afterward I was still intrigued by this baptismal entry.
Tone Van Bergen made a very active decision to name his child in honor of this celebrated freedom fighter. Lafayette was without a doubt one of the greatest living champions of liberty and equality in the western world at that time, and his name was now the name of the son of an emancipated man in Coxsackie. Was this Tone’s affirmation of the kind of man he wanted his son to be? Was this a statement of Tone’s belief that his own nation offered no better namesake? We may never know for certain, but within thirty years Tone’s descendants and neighbors were offering prayers and worshipping together in a newly organized African Methodist Episcopal Church half a mile down the road from the church their enslaved ancestors had been brought to pray.
Several years prior to Marquis Lafayette Van Bergen’s baptism two separate movements in the Methodist community at New York and Philadelphia resulted in the formal establishment of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the AME Zion Church. Both of these churches, similarly named but with separate origins, were among the first racially oriented protestant denominations to arise in the United States. The AME Zion Church was formed out of frustration at the continued segregation and exclusion of Black congregants from Methodist services in New York City, and the AME Church in Philadelphia was founded by several methodist congregations in the Mid-Atlantic region which sought separation from the white Methodist community on similar grounds.
Bethel AME Church of Coxsackie, which was organized in 1853, was one of roughly 300 AME Churches to be established in the North in the years leading up to the Civil War. Lewis S. Lewis, Bethel’s first reverend, was an ordained minister who worked in the New England and New York AME Conferences prior to and during the Civil War. It is likely that Bethel was one of the Churches he helped organize. His successes in propagating the Church resulted in his transfer to the Indiana Conference in the 1870s, and he continued his work there as a Minister-Activist until his death. It was this type of activism and community involvement that caused the rapid spread of the AME Church following the Civil War. Across the United States AME’s ministers diligently sought out disenfranchised communities in need of not only ecclesiastical but educational resources and a community space. The AME Church organized schools and colleges, preached abolition and civil rights, and empowered a new generation of Black Americans who rose to positions of power and influence during the reconstruction period and afterwards.
More on this topic will follow next week.
Questions and comments can be directed to Jon via firstname.lastname@example.org.