Welcome to the Rye History blog

Welcome to the Rye History blog

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Hidden History: The Story of Slavery in Rye, NY. Part 3: The Records of Christ's Church, Rye

The Rye Historical Society Archives contain an extraordinary book of the Christ's Church vestry minutes from 1710 to 1794.   Christ's Church, known as Grace Church during the pre-Revolutionary era, was part of the Church of England or the Anglican Church.  When the British assumed control of New York province, the charter given by the Duke of York in 1684 required that each town appoint a minister and maintain the minister through taxes levied on the inhabitants.  Initially, all Protestant churches were recognized by the provincial government, but when Col. Benjamin Fletcher arrived in 1692 to serve as governor, he aimed to make the Church of England the established church of the province.  In 1693, at Fletcher's request, the New York Assembly passed an act requiring that six Anglican ministers be hired in New York City and the surrounding counties, including one in Rye, and that the property owners in each community meet annually to choose ten vestrymen and two church wardens.

The residents of Rye met in 1694 or 1695 and elected their vestrymen and church wardens.  In the late 17th and 18th centuries, the function of the vestry was primarily secular rather than religious.  Their chief responsibilities were to provide for the minister's salary and to look after the poor.  In fact, until after the Revolutionary War, most of the Christ's Church vestrymen were probably Presbyterians or adherents of another Protestant faith.

The Christ's Church vestry minutes tell us much about views of 18th century Rye residents toward their slaves.  To fund the Church's activities, property holders were assessed a set amount for each acre of crop land, orchard, meadow, and pasture land that they owned, for their livestock, and for the number of "Negroes from 12 years to 50."  Each slave was assessed at 10 pounds, half the amount of “a good Mill."

Excerpt from Christ's Church Vestry Minutes, dated June 2, 1772
Credit: Rye Historical Society

Slaveholders were held responsible for the acts of their slaves, in the same way that they were held responsible for their livestock.  If a slave owner failed to care for his slaves, the church took action against the owner so that the slaves did not become a financial burden on the parish or a threat to the community.

The Christ’s Church minutes also show that the Church's ministers apparently were not philosophically or religiously opposed to slavery.  The minutes for January 24, 1726 include an agreement of the vestry to raise funds to pay "Mrs. Budd for her Negro's work 7 days at ye parish house."   The 1755 Census of Slaves indicates that Rev. Wetmore owned two male and one female slaves.

Excerpt from Christ's Church Vestry Minutes, dated January 24, 1736
Credit: Rye Historical Society

Slaves were allowed to attend church services, but were seated in a separate section of the sanctuary.  The minutes from 1792 describe in detail the process for raising funds to build a new church following the destruction of the earlier church building during the Revolutionary War.  The vestry sold parishioners subscriptions to pews and allocated the pews according to the amount each parishioner paid.  The minutes for March 28, 1792 reflect that the vestry decided "at their discretion, [to] set off three or four pews in some suitable part of the Church, for the use of Negroes."  The minutes include a floor plan of the Church showing that the pews reserved for the “Negroes" (pew numbers 41, 42, and 43 in the lower left of the floor plan below) were well separated from those pews reserved for contributing parishioners.

Excerpt from Christ's Church Vestry Minutes, dated March 28, 1792
Credit: Rye Historical Society

The Christ's Church Vital Records from 1790 through the 1820s likewise reveal much about the way in which slaves were perceived and identified by their masters.  Baptisms of slaves were recorded with only their first names and their master's name, such as "Mary, a black inft belonging to David Haight," or "Abraham, belonging to Captain Purdy."  Baptisms of White children, by contrast, were recorded with both their first and last names.  Marriages were similarly recorded with only the first names of the couple, such as the marriage of "Jack, belonging to Philemon Halsted, Jun’r, to Nanny, belonging to N. Penfield.”  When African slaves first arrived in the colonies, their owners generally renamed them, rejecting African names in favor of English, biblical, or classical names.  Seeking personal respect, slaves often adopted the last names of their masters.  Their masters, however, refused to recognize any last names, preferring to treat them as perpetual children and dependents.

We can also learn a great deal about slave life from the letters between the rectors of Christ's Church and their London supervisors (the "Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts").  During the period of British rule, the colonial authorities were strongly in favor of converting slaves to Christianity, both because it reassured Whites of their own moral superiority and because they equated Christianity with civil stability.  The Anglican Church in London directed Rev. Wetmore at Christ's Church to provide religious instruction to the local slaves.  In a letter dated February 20, 1727-28, Rev. James Wetmore of Rye reported to the Secretary of the Society that:  "The number of Negroes in the parish is about one hundred.  Since Mr. Cleator has been blind, and unable to teach school, he has taken pains with the negroes, so many as their masters would allow to come.  But of late, they have left coming altogether."  The "dissenters" from the Anglican Church -- largely Presbyterians and Quakers -- were opposed to any form of education provided by the Church of England.  They were also deeply suspicious of any activities affecting their slaves over which they didn't have direct personal control.

These records from Christ's Church provide a window into the everyday lives of Rye's slaves.  As with Ezekiel Halsted's will that we examined in the first blog post in this series and the sale agreements in the second blog post, we see that slaves were treated like any other item of personal property, indistinguishable from livestock, furniture, and tools.  Their masters determined their names, their religious lives, and their meagre education.  Churches at that time, like other political and social institutions, perpetuated a system that deprived men and women of their basic human rights and their dignity. 

Sources (in addition to those listed in Part 1):

Boulton, R. (1855).  History of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the County of Westchester from its foundation A.D. 1693 to A.D. 1853.  New York, NY: Stanford & Swords.

Field, E. (2001).  Blessed by God.  The history of Christ’s Church Rye, New York, 1695-2000.  West Kennebunk, Maine: Phoenix Publishing. 

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